I Made Mozzarella and so can You

by Ben N on September 2, 2014

I’ve tried my hand at a lot of different skills, baking, brewing, sewing, and one thing I always thought would be interesting is to try CHEESE-MAKING! This past weekend, I was at the Mid-America Homesteading Conference in Joliet, Illinois. Among the many presentations was a cheese making demonstration by Mike Boehle. In it, Mike makes mozzarella from scratch and also discusses the history of cheese, tips and tricks, and plenty of other beginner cheese making knowledge as he does. He allowed me to video-record the presentation. Here is that presentation in its entirety.

One reason why I haven’t ever tried making cheese before is due to the lack of supplies. Cheese making requires a few ingredients most people don’t keep handy in their kitchen, including rennet. At the conference, there were some basic cheese supplies available at the bookstore, so I picked some up.

Back home the next day, I thought I would give it a shot. I bought one gallon of whole milk from the grocery store. It was nothing fancy, but I made sure to check that it didn’t say “Ultra-Pasturized” anywhere on it. In my kitchen, I broke out my favorite pot, a Lodge enameled cast iron, poured the milk in, and started bringing it up to temperature.

I followed the steps I learned in the presentation, adding the citric acid, raising the temperature some more and then adding the rennet.

It’s pretty interesting once the curds start forming. I must admit that the reason I enjoy baking over cooking is that it is ALCHEMY. Sure cooking involves a little chemistry, but baking is pure magic. In the same way, milk transforming into curds surely involves some sort of incantation that browning some beef never will.

Once the curds separated out, I poured off the whey and set the curd into a glass bowl, where I kneaded it like bread dough to get a little more whey out.

Next came microwaving it. Heating the curd gets it stretchy. I ran the microwave for a minute, then stretched the cheese. Surprisingly, I had to get the cheese rather hot before it was stretchy. Have you even eaten really hot pizza only to have the cheese stretch out, then snap and hit you on the lip burning you? Yeah, like that hot. It might be that since this was my first ever batch of cheese it didn’t turn out perfect, and thus effected the melting point. Other than going “ow ow ow”, I stretched and heated the cheese a few times, then formed it into a ball and dropped it into a bowl of ice-water to cool.

My one gallon of store-bought whole milk made 13 oz of mozzarella cheese. The next day, I sliced off a piece and tried it. It was firmer than I expected it to be. Perhaps I eliminated TOO much whey? The flavor was very simple. I just tasted like milk. Although the recipe didn’t call for it, I might try adding a little salt next time. Mike makes his from farm-fresh goats milk, which certainly has a stronger flavor than pasteurized/homogenized cow milk.

Of course, what good is making any ingredient until you use it! I was eager to try making a dish with this fresh mozzarella. While we are extremely lazy gardeners, we do have a few tomato plants going, and I picked a few fruits. We also have a little herb patch right outside our front door, and had basil handy. That means I was all ready for Caprese Salad!

I sliced tomatoes and mozzarella and laid them out on a plate with basil, salt, pepper, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. This dish always looks nice with its bright colors, but tastes even better with its bold flavors.

I’ll definitely have to keep experimenting with cheese. It’s not hard, and it’s pure food magic!

Til next time, keep making something of yourself!


PS: I did a melt test and found that my very first batch of mozzarella actually melts pretty well. So, that quickly lead to me making a batch of DIY deep-fried cheese sticks! Delish!


10-Watt USB Solar Panel Review

by Ben N on August 6, 2014

I recently got to take a multiple day canoe trip. Since I like photography and video, I really wanted to take along some gear to shoot some stills and time lapse of the trip. However, a device like an iPhone running GPS or a GoPro shooting time lapse can eat up a LOT of battery power.

Since I wasn’t going to be near an electric outlet for five days, I’d have to find another way to keep my devices powered up.

Before leaving for the trip, I got my hands on several gadgets from BROWN DOG SOLAR. This included a 10-watt folding USB solar panel, a 10,000 ma “Power Bank” battery, a USB stick light, and a retractable USB cable.

Here’s some direct links to those products:
10-Watt Folding Solar Panel
Power Bank Battery
USB LED Light Stick
Micro USB Retractable Cable

To start with, the 10-Watt solar panel is a flexible black canvass material with four PV cells on it. On the end is a waterproofed female USB connector. The panel  measures 7.5 inches wide by 27 inches long when open and 7.5″ x 6″ when folded up. That’s a bit large for a pocket, but still a nice compact size for a backpack or gear bag. Two solid metal snaps hold it securely closed. There’s also four grommet holes that are perfect for rope, bungie-cords, carabiners, or any other way you would want to attach the solar panel. This would work well to hook it to a backpack for hiking. In my case, I just hooked a carabiner through a hole to a piece of cord tied to the canoe. This would keep the panel from getting knocked off the boat, or even keep it from getting lost in case (heaven forbid) the canoe capsized.

The 10-watt panel is rated for 2 amps at 5v (USB). That’s powerful enough to charge something large like an iPad. It was MORE than enough for the iPhone, GoPro, and Power Bank.

Frankly, my main concern on the trip was keeping my GoPro charged. I had shot some time-lapse recently. Large capacity SD cards are dirt cheap now-a-days and provide for nearly unlimited data storage. The limiting issue is BATTERY LIFE. Even then, I would want the camera in the waterproof housing during the day for shooting from a canoe. You can’t have the camera in the waterproof housing AND plug in power at the same time.

So, what really worked best was to charge the Power Bank with the solar panel during the day while shooting time lapse, and then charge the GoPro in the evening from the Power Bank. We also had both sunny days AND rainy ones. Charging the Power Bank made sure I always had a buffer, and plenty of juice for my devices, even covering days that it was raining.

I was also using my iPhone to shoot stills, occasionally check a GPS map, make contact for our ride back to the vehicles at the end of the trip, and simply have on hand in case of emergency. The GPS ate up half the battery by the end of the first day. At night, I simply plugged the USB cable between the Power Bank and the phone, and it quickly charged up.

The Power Bank is pretty straight-forward. It’s a battery that you charge from USB. So, you can charge it with the folding solar panel, or a USB wall power supply, or a USB cord plugged into a computer. It features an ON/OFF button, a 4-LED state of charge indicator, a built-in white LED flashlight with two levels of brightness, a mini USB connection for power in, and a standard USB connection for power out. The whole thing is wrapped in a rugged rubberized waterproof case.

The folding solar panel has a standard USB connection on it, which is great, because you can charge pretty much anything, but the Power Bank has a MINI-USB connection for the power in. I suppose this not only saves a little space, but keeps you from confusing the two ports as well. I used the retractable USB-to-miniUSB cable to connect the two. The cable worked well, and unlike every window shade I have ever used, actually retracted the way it was supposed to!

The last item that I had with was an LED USB light stick. Everyone on the trip had a small personal flashlight and I wasn’t really even intending to use the LED light stick. However, on our last night our schedule was a little different, which lead to a late lunch and then an even later dinner. By the time we were doing dishes, it was pitch black. I plugged the light stick into the USB out port on the Power Bank, and used the power button on the Power Bank to turn the light on and off. The Power Bank itself makes a nice weighted base, and there’s just enough flex to the light to make the whole thing into a useful battery-powered gooseneck lamp. It gave off plenty of wide area light for our whole camp kitchen. Worked great for washing dishes in the otherwise darkness.

Another thing I like about the Brown Dog Solar products is that they all packed right in my GoPro case. I have a small Storm Case with padded dividers for my GoPro, Cardellini mount, and other accessories. Everything fit right in there with the folding solar panel fitting perfectly on top. Both the Power Bank and 10-Watt Folding Solar Panel are water-resistant/water-proof and I didn’t have any problems with the rain, dew, dripping canoe paddles, or bilge water. (No problems with all that sand everywhere either!)

Overall, I was very impressed with the Brown Dog gadgets. I had looked at some other folding solar panels at the camping store, and was shocked at the prices. The Brown Dog items are all solid and reliable, which is exactly what I’m looking for when I’m off grid in the middle of nowhere.

If you are interested, here’s some of the stills and time-lapse that I shot, powered by Brown Dog Solar devices.

Til next time, stay charged up!



Canoeing the Black River

July 29, 2014

I just got back from canoeing the Black River.
For the past several years, my father, my brothers, and I have been taking multi-day canoe trips as sort of a male-bonding vacation. It tends to be easy-going. The main expense is gasoline and a cooler full of groceries. We’ve canoed several different parts of the state [...]

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Screen Printing

July 6, 2014

This weekend, I finally got to learn how to screen print.
About a week ago, I was over at my sister’s house and saw that she had her screen printing supplies out. Amy has a fair amount of screen print experience and has sold custom t-shirts with original designs for some time at local art studios. [...]

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Mother Earth News Fair Roundup

June 11, 2014

Recently, I got to travel to the Mother Earth News Fair in Puyallup, WA to give presentations on electric vehicles and DIY projects. While I was there, I also got to check out a few presentations as well as booths and vendors. What I really seemed to notice as a theme this year was very [...]

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Magnetic Knife Block

April 8, 2014

For some time now, I’ve owned a santoku , a Japanese-style kitchen knife. It’s great, I love it. It’s become my favorite knife, but the problem is that I’ve had no good place to put it….. until now.
When I got back home the other day, doing something with this knife ended up being on my [...]

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DIY Yogurt

March 23, 2014

The last couple of days, I’ve been playing around with “Sous-Vide”, a cooking technique that depends on carefully controlled water temperature.
What other things really like just the right temperature? How about yogurt-making!
I made yogurt once before, just following some basic recipe on the web, which goes, essentially:
Heat 1/2 gallon milk to 200 degrees F.
Chill it [...]

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DIY Sous Vide

March 23, 2014

Recently, I started playing around with “Sous-Vide”.
For those of you who don’t know, this is a cooking technique where food is sealed in a vacuum bag and then cooked in hot water AT THE TEMPERATURE YOU WANT TO FINISH IT AT. That means it’s pretty much impossible to overcook your food, and it’s great for [...]

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Lock Your Truck with a Wrench

March 20, 2014

Today, I decided I was going to clean up my garage a bit. It’s finally starting to feel the slightest bit like spring, and I felt my time might be best used by being outside, moving around, and DOING something.
I quickly got distracted by my pickup truck. I had some ugly decals on the cap [...]

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Etched Glass Pi Pie Pans

March 11, 2014

Recently, I’ve been doing some work sandblasting. Since Pi Day is coming up (March 14 – 3.14), and I just happen to have a stack of Pyrex pie pans handy, I thought I’d go ahead and try making my own custom Pi Pans.

I started by designing a logo in Illustrator. Well, that’s not quite right. [...]

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