I was my grandma’s sidekick in the kitchen from a very young age, but I never expected that making cheese would become such a huge part of my life. I studied social work and human development at UCSD, and throughout my many non-profit jobs – and my vegetarian, vegan and omnivore years – I enjoyed crafting foods from various countries. My interest in food was further piqued after a move to Portland, with its easy access to farm fresh milk, meat and veggies. Having moved to rainy Portland from sunny San Diego, the kitchen became my cozy haven as I acclimated; I started experimenting with lacto-fermented pickles before quickly moving on to yogurt, butter and cheese. With very little information available on making cheese – online or locally at that time – I found books at the library from the 1970s and adapted 5-25 gallon recipes down to manageable, one-gallon batches.
After making my first cheese – paneer – there was no going back. Despite its rustic look, Jeff and I agreed it was a scrumptious work of art, and I felt like I’d discovered a super power. I gravitated toward classic cheeses still commonly made in homes around the world, so paneer, yogurt cream cheese, ricotta, chevre, queso blanco and mozzarella became part of my repertoire. I began to share my experimental cheeses with co-workers and neighbors; they wanted to know how they could make cheese, too. As I started to give them the details, their eyes would glaze over – admittedly, it was difficult to gather the right supplies, and they were afraid to poison themselves. All of a sudden, the epiphany came: I’d done all of the research and recipe testing. I knew which ingredients worked safely and consistently, as well as where to get them. I could provide everything for several batches of my cheeses in a cute little box and save everyone the trouble of searching and experimenting. I could make and sell DIY cheese kits!
My long-held vision of opening an Etsy shop became a reality in 2009. When I started my shop, cheese kits were totally new to Etsy, and they were welcomed warmly. The news spread as people shared their cheeses; before long, sales came in from all over the world, which was so fun to see. Soon, I was receiving wholesale orders and teaching cheese-making classes regularly. My goal of paying an extra $100 a month toward my student loans actually turned into the surprise of completely paying them off within a year! In 2011, I decided to go full time, and in 2012, I launched kits through Williams-Sonoma. That’s when I hired my right-hand helper Colleen Waldref, as well as our co-packing partners. With this help, I was able to write my book, One Hour Cheese, and dedicate more time to testing recipes and creating kits.
My process now is essentially the same as it was with my very first kit. It’s fastidious in some ways and very loose in others; on my favorite days, I find myself clipping herbs and fruit in our edible garden and creating cheeses and cheese pairings in the kitchen. My inspiration often comes from seasonal flavors and colors, so my ideas are literally right outside. As I try a new variation, I scribble notes and draw the steps, always keeping in mind how to clearly and succinctly communicate a recipe for a newly-empowered cheesemaker. The crafter and entrepreneur in me kicks in when it’s time to make kit prototypes: I rush to box everything up in sketched, repurposed boxes just to get a sneak peek at the final product. Throughout the evolution of my business, Jeff has remained my all-around tech support, photographer and videographer. He even took all of the step-by-step photos in my book, which I think are essential for visual learners.
Aside from helping me pay off my student loans, Etsy gave me the opportunity to test out my cheese kit idea without having to go further into debt. When I saw that the kits were clearly filling a need, I jumped in full force, and now I get to work from home with my little family. I’ve also been delighted to find my people here on Etsy, like designer Julz Nally, whose hand-drawn illustrations are on all of my packaging. Thanks to her redesign last year, Urban Cheesecraft kits are miniature works of art. I’m currently collaborating with another Etsy artist and friend, Amy Ruppel, to come up with a different look for my forthcoming dairy-free kits. I’m super excited to finally answer customer demands and offer nut and seed-based mozzarella, cheddar, chevre, brie and maybe even feta kits – soon. Sometimes I still catch myself having fun creating yummy recipes, and for a moment think ‘I should get to work.’ But then I remember: I AM working!
All photographs by Urban Cheesecraft.