Normally, a Sonoma cheese making class would not even cause a blip on my radar because I would simply assume that it would be way beyond my limited culinary abilities.
But when the notice about Epicurean Connection’s cheese making class popped up on the Living Sonoma County Facebook wall, it initially caught my attention because the class was only a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon.
The description continued to intrigue me because it promised to use ingredients that are found in any store and cooking supplies and utensils that you likely already have in your kitchen.
Frankly, it sounded a bit too good to be true, but the fact that the class included gourmet cheeses to nibble on and local Sonoma Valley wines to taste tipped the scales, and I signed on.
The class was held at the General’s Daughter event center – a lovely and historic location in Sonoma. The name “General’s Daughter” is not just a charming name thought up by a clever marketing professional. The property is the original home that founding father of Sonoma, General Marian Guadalupe Vallejo, built in 1864 as a wedding gift for his daughter, Natalia when she married Attila Haraszthy. Haraszthy was the son of Agoston Haraszthy, who founded Buena Vista Winery in 1857, and the union joined two of the area’s most prominent and visionary families.
As students arrived, we were greeted by Epicurean Connection’s cheese maker Sheana Davis as we mingled and got to know each other. We were treated to local wines and a delicious cheese platter that featured P-1 – a double cream brie imported by the Epicurean Connection, Lucy – a goat milk brie named for Sheana’s daughter and Delice de la Vallee – a triple cream cow milk blended with fresh goat milk. “Guest cheeses” from other producers included Rumiano Pepper Jack and Valley Ford Highway 1 – 100% Jersey Cow Milk cheese. Epicurean Connection’s own brand of barrel aged balsamic vinegar and cold pressed organic olive oil was also served.
I chose a chardonnay I had never tasted before from Three Sticks Wines, which was poured by Sheana’s husband, Ben Sessions, a local wine expert.
Then it was time to make cheese! Two stations were set up and Sheana provided detailed verbal instructions as she demonstrated how to slowly heat the milk, how to gauge the temperature and then how to stir the mixture as salt and vinegar are added. Sheana shares some insider tips along the way to help you increase your yield of cheese and ensure the proper consistency. You don’t have to remember every tip or take any notes as each attendee is given a detailed recipe card along with a cheesecloth and a cheese ladle to be sure you are ready to make cheese on your own.
We tasted the ricotta cheese as soon as it was ready and the warm curds melt in your mouth and reminded me of the most delicate macaroni and cheese I had ever tasted. The ricotta was then strained and squeezed gently to achieve the desired consistency. Removing a bit more moisture seemed to make it easier to place the ricotta into molds – and to remove it after it was refrigerated. We experimented by adding pesto, sun dried tomatoes and Sheana’s unbelievably delicious bacon brown sugar jam. Other suggestions included honey, fig slices and lemon zest.
About a week later I made my own batch of ricotta cheese and was pleasantly surprised that it tasted just as good as the one we made in class. The yield was enough that I had some to freeze, some to share with neighbors, and the rest went into a large homemade lasagna. The photo at the very top of this post is the cheese I made myself at home and topped with tomato pesto, cilantro pesto and fig jam.
This Sonoma cheese making class is so much more than a unique wine country experience as it leaves students convinced that it is both easy and enjoyable to cook foods from scratch that are made from fresh, local and organic ingredients. Once you taste your own homemade ricotta cheese, nothing else will come close – and I guarantee that it will open the door to other culinary adventures!2