Jonathan Gaugler's Cannonball Curds are a Pittsburgh-made cheese with a Wisconsin heritage
Jonathan Gaugler stirs the curds in the cheese room of his Lawrenceville basement.
Arsenal Cheese's Cannonball Curds.
Mr. Gaugler begins the cheddaring process, stacking the slabs of curds.
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The Doctor of Cheeseology is in.
No, he doesn't call himself that, but you can't help thinking it when Jonathan Gaugler dons his white lab coat and opens the door to his Lawrenceville basement.
He has, after all, learned a lot about cheese in a short time. It wasn't that long ago -- a little over a year -- that Mr. Gaugler was living in Brooklyn and working in marketing for Cambridge University Press.
"We were pretty comfortable there," he said. "But we found ourselves being kind of homebodies and the point of being in New York is to live in a tiny, miserable apartment and go out all the time."
Instead, Mr. Gaugler and his wife, Becky, had dinner parties and he dreamt of learning to smoke meat and make cheese.
"Owning a historic house in Pittsburgh becomes more attractive after a few years," said Mr. Gaugler, who grew up in Upper St. Clair. So Jonathan and Becky, a museum educator and Edgewood native, packed up and came home.
Most people buy a historic house for its character -- the marbleized slate mantels, the generously scaled rooms, the carved newel post in the entrance hall. The Gauglers' house has all that, but they bought their Fisk Street house for its basement.
"The ceilings are nine and a half feet high," Mr. Gaugler says as he leads the way down the narrow wooden stairs. "I could build a room in and enclose and waterproof it and it wasn't too difficult."
The L-shaped cheese-making room is white and startlingly bright, with a long stainless-steel sink, two stainless-steel tables and in one corner, a decagonal pasteurizer that, for the most part, is where the cheesemaking happens.
But we're getting a little ahead of ourselves.
Once Mr. Gaugler decided to make cheese, the next question was: What kind?
As a graduate philosophy of religion student in Cambridge, England, Mr. Gaugler lived around the corner from a cheesemonger and was exposed to a brave new world of European cheeses, including "the true cloth-bound cheddar, the lard-rubbed, traditionally English, ancient cheese."
It was an experience you don't get growing up in suburban Pittsburgh, he said. "Cheeses laying out on the counter all day -- the whole place stinks of it -- stuff that's illegal here."
His passion for it grew along with his love of beer and other fermented things. He's a home brewer, now, too.
"They're natural companions, beer and cheeses."
In Brooklyn, dreaming of making cheese, he took a short course in cultured dairy products at Penn State, and another on milk chemistry and safe handling at the Altoona campus after moving back to Pittsburgh.
"I thought about what I could produce and keep on inventory," he said. "A lot of my favorite cheeses require very specific conditions, high humidity, 50 degrees, and I'd be building all sorts of little boxes in my basement" to accommodate them.
"One of the guys [in the first class] said you should make something like fresh curds. I had tasted them in Wisconsin, where my wife's dad's family is from. Nobody makes them here. They have to be fresh and they're best when eaten within a week."
Thus was born Arsenal Cheese's Cannonball Curds -- fresh cheddar curds named for the armaments once stored at the historic Allegheny Arsenal, whose remnants stand a block away.
On the eve of the Steelers-Packers Super Bowl, this Steelers fan isn't a bit conflicted about producing a Wisconsin-style cheese in enemy territory.
"It's one fewer thing they can claim to have that we don't."
Mr. Gaugler's cheese begins with an early morning trip to Broadrun Farms near Beaver Falls, where he picks up 35 gallons of raw whole milk.
"Broadrun was mentioned by my milk inspector," Mr. Gaugler said. "I like to use Jersey milk. It has higher milk-fat, higher solids -- you get a higher yield and it's just more tasty."
The Caldwell family, which owns Broadrun, has been in the dairy farm business in Beaver County for five generations. In 2002, with energy and feed costs rising and milk prices falling, they converted their dairy from a confined Holstein operation to Jersey and Jersey-Holstein mixes raised on pasture and fed a mix of corn, soybeans and minerals with no added chemicals. They use no growth hormones and administer antibiotics only when an animal is sick.
"We still have to make hay for the winter but the animals are feeding themselves seven months out of the year," said Vicky Caldwell.
Most of their milk is sold wholesale to United Dairy Farmers, but some is sold for home use through the farm's buying club.
"Broadrun is used to dealing with on-farm customers who bring and fill their jugs" from a large bulk tank, Mr. Gaugler said. It was a good fit.
Mr. Gaugler's father, Scott Gaugler, marketing director for a Pittsburgh metals company, is a financial partner in the cheese-making operation and sometimes helps with the milk runs. After the milk is fed into five-gallon plastic cans lined with clean plastic bags, the Gauglers bring the cans back to Fisk Street.
The milk is poured into the pasteurizer -- it's sort of local, too, made at MicroDairy Designs in Smithsburg, Md. -- where it's agitated and cooked for 30 minutes at a minimum of 145 degrees. Then it's cooled to about 90 degrees and innoculated with a French mesophilic culture that looks like yeast flakes and, over the next 75 minutes, will help the cheese develop predictable acids and flavors.
Next, Mr. Gaugler adds a small amount of rennet, an enzyme that coagulates the milk into custard. After 30 minutes, it's time to cut the curds. Mr. Gaugler slices the large mass into a grid with a long, stainless steel blade he had made at a local metal shop. After the cutting, the curd cooks for another hour.
Then Mr. Gaugler begins to separate the curd from the watery whey, which is drained. He'd love to find someone who has a use for the protein-rich whey; now he salvages only a little of it to use in cooking.
When most of the whey has drained, the cheddaring begins. Mr. Gaugler cuts the spongy, brain-like mass of curd into slabs and slaps one on top of another in the bottom of the pasteurizer. Stacking them and rotating the stack in 20-minute intervals over the next 90 minutes, he forces out more whey as the slabs weigh each other down.
"It's starting to smell like cheddar," he says after the second slabbing.
When the cheddaring is complete, he removes the slabs to a table and, one slab at a time, cuts them into bite-size curds. He tosses the curds into a big bowl and salts them before draining them in a colander.
The just-finished curds are mild-tasting and squeaky when you bite them. As Mr. Gaugler puts it, "they taste like fresh mozzarella only tangier, saltier, chewier ... better."
A day later they're still mild, but tangier and firmer, a good melting cheese for cooking or eating out of hand.
Mr. Gaugler, who does most of the cooking at home, hasn't developed any special recipes for the curds yet but likes them melted on bread under the broiler or tossed in salads, like feta.
"This morning I had grits for breakfast and tossed a few in the rice cooker with them," he said. "Just the other day I was frying them in duck fat. The more square ones you can turn over until the sides are brown and crispy, and serve with pepper jam."
Harris Grill in Shadyside hosted a launch party for the curds in late December, and Kelly's Bar & Lounge in East Liberty and Park Bruges Cafe in Highland Park use them in poutine, a French-Canadian dish of French fries topped with melted cheese and gravy. Brillobox just added them to its winter menu; the curds are beer-battered, deep-fried and served with a red pepper rouille sauce on the side. Mount Washingtonians can try Cannonball Curds in the Popeye's Revenge Spinach Salad at Shiloh Grill, which also is experimenting with a fried cheese appetizer that soon may debut.
"We like it quite a bit," said operating partner Gene Mangrum. "I just walk back there and grab a piece now and then and gnaw on it."
Making cheddar curds is a physical, all-day job, but one with rest periods that allow Mr. Gaugler to court customers. The 35 gallons of milk makes about 43 pounds of the curds, which are available at the East End Food Co-op and Right by Nature.
Down the road, he hopes to make wheels of hard cheddar, if he can find the right place to age them -- a wine cellar, perhaps -- at the right temperature, 50 to 55 degrees. They must be turned every other day for six months to prevent moisture from collecting between the cheese and the shelf on which it rests, which could cause rotting.
For now, he's practice-aging a large wheel in a local restaurant's wine room.
"It could go either way," he said. "It could be great and it could spoil."
He also wants to experiment with a soft camembert-style cheese.
"I love stinky, horrible barnyard cheeses," he said. "I would love to do a washed-rind cheese washed in beer that's made by me. I've also had some fantastic cheeses wrapped in chestnut leaves."
If he does produce wheels of hard cheddar, he's got the name ready to roll -- 1814 Cheese, honoring the date construction began on the Allegheny Arsenal.
First Published February 3, 2011 12:00 am