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Cheese whiz

Whether it’s using milk from cows or her own goats, Karen Kushner teaches others the art of making this culinary delight
By Chris Villines, Photos by Allison Parker and Chris Villines 7/31/2017

 

At Red Gable Farm in Sparta, Karen Kushner is all smiles as she tends to her herd of Nubian/Alpine cross dairy goats. Karen established her goat dairy in 2010 and uses the milk to craft artisan cheeses. She added cheese making workshops last year.
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When Karen Kushner explored the possibility that making artisan goat and cow cheese — and eventually teaching the art to others — would be her next career move, she and husband Rob traveled from their White County homestead to where the world’s finest cheeses are produced.

France.

The couple’s 16-day excursion was an exercise in sampling the country’s wide array of flavorful, fragrant cheeses.

“We ate more cheese in two weeks than I normally would in six months,” laughs Karen about the trip, which took place in the fall of 2009. “The thing about France is that every town has a little market with a cheese stall. I wanted to go where the hub of great cheese is, to go back to its roots, and taste as much as I could.”

The former Atlanta-area catering director, who in 2004 relocated with Rob from Georgia to Red Gable Farm, their picturesque 33-acre property on the Cumberland Plateau, was emboldened by the overseas visit. She was also encouraged by what she learned before the trip through cheese making classes at Gallatin’s Standing Stone Farms and the University of Kentucky.

“I had always been curious about food and knew my way around a kitchen through my prior work, so I was eager to go to the classes,” says Karen, whose 20-year catering career included stints with the prestigious Ritz-Carlton and Hyatt hotel chains. “Instantly, I just fell in love. It was a combination of preparing the cheese, training, and teaching — all which I enjoy doing.”

These eye-opening experiences prompted Karen to immerse herself in the art of cheese making and, ultimately, to launch Red Gable Cheese Workshops last year after endless hours of experimentation with this complex food. In her kitchen, she skillfully combines science and imagination to put her own touch on such classics as chèvre, gouda, and feta as well as lesser-known offerings such as Camembert, Crottin, and Cabecou.

She has more than a dozen original recipes, too, with such memorable names as Harvest Moon, Curry Cabecou, and Loaded Goat. Karen created the latter in response to a request from Rob for a spicier goat cheese, and the name is a nod to one of Karen’s favorite episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show” in which a goat eats dynamite and takes over Ernest T’s jail cell.

“I put in several years on my own to make sure I knew how to make the cheese come out right before I even thought about conducting a class,” she says. “That’s not true of a lot of recipes — I learned that the hard way. I made some wheels of cheese that looked like tires.”

Besides cow cheese, Karen wanted to delve into the more complex process of making goat cheese, too. Rather than seek out a supplier of goat milk, she decided to take matters into her own hands and launched an on-the-farm dairy goat operation in 2010 for the sole purpose of producing milk for her goat cheese recipes. Karen purchased four Nubian does, both pregnant with twins, from a Smith County producer to begin her milking herd.

It was another bold step for Karen, who had never milked before and who knew she would be running the dairy solo. Rob would be busy with his own job as a commercial drone pilot.

“Goat’s milk is harder to work with than milk from a sheep or cow,” she says. “You’ve got to be delicate when you’re making cheese with it. If you slosh it around too much, the protein strands break down. If you’re too rough after it curds, the curds won’t hold as much moisture. And curds form the foundation for all cheese.”

With the two-stall milking parlor and adjoining cheese kitchen, the Kushners’ conundrum of what to do with their main barn had been solved, and their smaller barn would become home to the goats. Utilizing either a Nubian or Alpine buck on a two-year rotation, Karen has grown her herd over time. She now milks eight head each morning at 5:30, pasteurizing the milk afterward.

“The first year, I was milking by hand, but it got to where I couldn’t make a fist, so I told Rob we were going to have to get a milking machine,” Karen says. “Bless anyone who milks by hand day in and day out. I couldn’t do it.”

The goats’ intake of pasture, hay, and Co-op Pelleted Milk Goat Enhancer Feed (#93446) along with Co-op Supreme Goat Mineral (#96216) helps them produce nutrient-rich milk that translates into cheese flavor reflecting the quality of this diet, explains Karen. She buys the feed from nearby White County Farmers Cooperative.

“It’s a nutrient-dense formulation that my goats really like and do well on,” Karen says. “Milking and kidding are stressful. You’re asking a lot from these animals, and the Co-op feed gives them that extra boost. We feed the mineral free-choice year-round because minerals are very important to the goats.”

In fact, one of White County Farmers’ employees, Kaydee Johnston, was a participant along with three of her friends at a one-day Red Gable workshop Karen conducted earlier this year. Kaydee says Karen lived up to the motto used to promote the classes: “Learning to make cheese is fun!”

“I enjoyed everything about it,” says Kaydee, a native of cheese-centric Wisconsin. “Karen is so encouraging. The recipes are very detailed, but she writes it all out for you to take home and try on your own. I’d sign up for it again in a heartbeat.”

Though she’s loathe to use the word “science” in describing cheese making, Karen stresses that she wants students like Kaydee to understand the steps that take the delicacy from inception to end product.

“There are basically four ingredients to cheese: milk, starters, coagulants, which most people know as rennet, and salt,” Karen explains. “The science of cheese making lies in how you treat every step of the process, whether you press the cheese hard or lightly or put a starter culture in and let it do its job for a longer or shorter period of time. It depends on how you’re trying to make it; a wheel of cheese can take as long as a month to make from the time it starts. It’s not like a pie where you can bake it and immediately taste it.

“I want people to know these things, but above all I want them to have fun and a hands-on experience with cheese making. Folks don’t want to just sit and listen to me talk. They would rather ‘do.’”

Karen’s flexible schedule of classes, which can be viewed online at www.redgablecheese.com, includes options for half-, one-, two-, and three-day workshops or custom/private classes. There’s even an option for people who want to view the early-morning milking.

“Some of the classes are combined, meaning we’ll be preparing cheeses with both cow and goat milk, while others are only cow or only goat,” says Karen, who has had people from as far away as Illinois sign up for a class. “Not everyone has access to fresh goat’s milk, so we try to be mindful of that. The private classes are becoming more popular because people want to take them with a group of friends. A woman who is getting married soon is coming to take a class with her bridesmaids.”

Karen adds that she likes her classes to have “four to eight” participants so people can work as partners.

“When they pair up, I’ll assign a cheese to them and one person is the ‘do-er’ while the other is the narrator,” she explains. “Then they’ll swap roles along the way. The reason I started using pairs is because I had a class that was working on three or four different cheeses at different stages and a person skipped adding the rennet. No rennet, no curd. I want people to understand what they’re doing and looking for along the way.”

One thing cheese connoisseurs shouldn’t bother looking for is Karen’s cheese on store shelves. She’s committed to solely educating others on the cheese making process and sharing her finished creations with friends and family.

“Selling cheese is not what I want to do,” she says. “That’s a whole other ordeal where you start getting into production and other things. I enjoy doing this. I’ve always liked getting people together around food, and when I tell others that I teach people how to make cheese, they generally smile. I like smiles!”

For more information about Red Gable Cheese Workshops and Farm, visit www.redgablecheese.com. To learn more about Co-op Feeds, visit with the professionals at your local Co-op.

 
 
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