Is Cheese Making a Cottage Craft?

I’m often asked, “why make cheese when you can buy it in the store?”. The effort put into making cheese doesn’t seem to weigh up, after all, only a small amount of cheese (around 20% or less) can be obtained from a large amount of milk.  In commercial enterprises, the methods and machinery has been synchronised and perfected to the high degree, to ensure that the maximum yield comes from the ingredients and the balance of flavour to please their market. So why bother doing this at home?

Firstly, cheese making from scratch is pretty easy, especially when made on a micro scale. I would not suggest making EVERYTHING from scratch, but for a fairly small effort, you can make something to be proud of, and without really cooking anything – at best, you could say we heat milk and stir in  a few key ingredients.

And to me it’s not about speed or efficiency.  The purpose is to enliven the home, with stirring and waiting and watching while the magic happens. Yes it does take some care and a few bits of “know how” but none of it is too challenging. It is about continuing a grand tradition, and you could claim to be a cottage workshop creating a warm feeling of homeliness.

I recently introduced this craft to a small group of ladies in their home.  They took up the challenge of cheese making and came away with some lovely cheese and enthusiasm for doing more in the future.


A Guide to Entering a Baking Competition

A number of people have expressed interest regarding entry to the local Country Woman’s Association (CWA) cookery competition, so this post is focused on hints and tips for competing in a baking competition.

Firstly, bring along your entry, even if you think it is not quite good enough.  One of the key reasons to enter is to learn about cooking, and each entry will improve your chances at getting there. The judges will often give feedback (without naming anyone) on the cakes and everyone always comes away with something new learned.

Secondly, read the schedule (or criteria for entry) very carefully.  Some entries require you to use a particular recipe, or ingredient, others allow you to use your own recipe.  Very often a particular size cake pan must be used.

Thirdly, if using a recipe, follow it, but also use your own judgement.  If the cake batter looks too dry, add a bit more liquid.  Flours do vary, and also the temperature and humidity can affect the final result.  Each oven is also individual, so in regards to the cooking time, test the cake to see if it is done.  It may need more time or less time than suggested in the recipe.

Fourthly, it is all about taste.  Where two cakes are very similar, the one that will have an advantage is the one with the best flavour.  Use the best and freshest ingredients to get the best result.

Lastly, practice makes perfect.  Like all things, skills are developed over time.  Experience is built up, cake by cake. So give it a go, and be proud of your achievements!


Size is important – check the competition requirements

What Not To Do:

Rack marks – A cooked cake is turned out onto a rack to cool, this prevents the cake getting soggy on the base.  However, to prevent rack marks, firstly cover the rack with a few layers of newspaper and then a clean tea-towel.  The newspaper and tea towel will absorb moisture and protect the cake from getting marks.  Make sure that you have the right side of the cake facing up (usually the upper side, except for sandwiched cakes).


Issue: Rack marks and dripping icing

Cutting cakes – Unless specified (for example for cake pieces, such as lamingtons) the cake is only cut by the judge.
Testing cakes – Do use a very fine skewer to test for doneness.  You do not want to holes to show in the cake from a thick skewer.

A Guide on Cake Judging:

Firstly, the judge will pick up the cake with both hands and inspect the sides and underneath of the cake to see if it is cooked properly.  At this point, the cake will be checked for rack marks.  The top will also be inspected for any signs of stickiness or spotting.

Then the judge will cut the cake in half and inspect the inside of the cake, checking for aroma, texture and for any inconsistencies.

A small notch is cut from the centre of the cake and tasted.  The centre of a cake will generally be the last area to be cooked, so if there is an issue with undercooking, this will be picked up by the judge.  The judge will also assess the balance of flavours.

The cake will then be replaced and the judge will go onto the next entry.  I have seen judges tasting more than fifty entries at a sitting at the Sydney Royal Agricultural Show.  They truly are amazing!

Troubleshooting for cakes:

This is not an exhaustive list, but shows some of the key issues that can occur with cooking cakes.

Cake is cracked at the top – the oven temperature is too high and the cake rises too quickly, or the cake batter may be too dry.
Cake sinks in the middle – the oven temperature may be too low or oven opened too soon after putting in the oven.  The heat of the oven causes the cake to rise and set, if it is too low, then the cake may not rise properly.
Cake is unevenly browned – many ovens have different temperatures throughout.  The cake can be turned halfway though the cooking process to prevent this.
Cake top is sticky – this may be caused by undercooking the cake or cooking at to low a temperature.
White spots on the cake – indicates that the sugar was not dissolved properly in the creaming process.
Course or open texture of the cake crumb – may indicated insufficient creaming of fat and sugar.  Flour may not be folded into the mixture properly.
Holes in the cake – this may be caused by air bubbles trapped in the cake batter.  Tap the cake gently on the bench before baking to encourage air bubbles to come to the surface.

Links for the current CWA of NSW cookery competition, including the schedule and recipes:

Further reading:
“Jam Drops and Marble Cake”, CWA  of NSW, 2012
“Merle’s Country Show Baking”, Merle Parrish, 2013
“Cookery the Australian Way”, Barrowman and Cameron et al, 1975.  More hints are given here about faults with cakes.

Related Articles: Marble Cake, I’m Still Here…



Photos and text copyright Sophia Poulos.

How to Pickle Cucumbers

About 16 days ago I attended a class on pickling organised by Westfield Hurstville and run by the Sutherland Shire Cooking School.  We pickled some baby cucumbers (cukes). These were put into a pickle brine for about two weeks.

I took them out today and they had changed colour and were vinegary and crispy. They were also a bit too salty for my taste. Inspired by the recipe we used that day, I include a recipe for Pickled Cucumbers in this post.

Place pickling ingredients in a sterilised jar

Add baby cucumbers (cukes)

Add salt, water, vinegar and cover

After 2 weeks, they are ready!

Pickled Cucumber Recipe:

Place a few sprigs of dill and a crushed dried bay leaf into a sterilised 550ml jar (with lid).  Add 6 whole baby cukes (cut off the ends first). Add a few slices of mild pepper and 2 smashed garlic cloves. Some celery tops and chopped shallots are nice too.

Then add about 500ml water – up to about 5cm from the top of the jar. Add 1 level teaspoon rock salt (or 3/4 tsp cooking salt without iodine). Cover and shake the jar well.

Open the jar and add enough white wine vinegar or distilled vinegar to cover the cukes. Seal the jar with lid and keep in a cool place for about 2 weeks. Taste to see if they are ready, store in fridge after opening.

Photos & Text Sophia Poulos.

Teaching and Learning

I have been a trainer, mostly of adults, on and off for some time.  The personal satisfaction I get from teaching is hard to calculate, for me it is about inspiring others to try something new.  It is about the possibility of opening a door,  often that the student didn’t even know existed.  Of course, it is not always that awe inspiring, sometimes it is just something a student has to learn to do their job.

My Cheesemaking classes are about sharing my passion for cooking, which for me is an adventure every day.  Even if I am making the same thing, time after time, the universe seems to conspire to make it different each time.  It is this variation that makes it surprising.

The students from my latest cheesmaking class are a great example of those who come to learn. I am hoping they will continue their adventures (like I am!) with further cheesemaking experiments.


Photos & Text Copyright Sophia Poulos.


Wild Plants

When is a weed not a weed?

What separates herbs for culinary and medicinal use – such as parsley or dill, from what we call (edible) weeds, like dandelion, sowthistle or others? Not much.

The difference between the two types appears to be accepted use, often due to flavour and digestibility. In country Greece, the locals will often forage for wild herbs and what we would call weeds (such as wild fennel) and add them to meals. These wild plants contain health giving properties just like their “more domesticated” cousins.

To harvest these edible weeds in the wild (and this could be your own backyard) it is important to correctly identify the plants. You can read up on these weeds, consult a guidebook or you could talk to someone who knows, like Diego Bonetto.

I attended one of Diego’s classes last spring, with a number of other curious people like myself. We walked around the back of the State Library and surrounding parks while Diego picked up seemingly small plants and explained their taste and medicinal properties. Once invisible to my eye, I started to see the wonderful flora around me.  These weeds did not make their presence known like a bright flower, but seemed to stand quietly holding their ground; their dogged determination to survive is quite amazing.

According to Diego, three generations ago, foraging was common knowledge in the community.  However, two generations ago, there was a change in thinking from obtaining food from home gardens, to a focus on business and shops to provide sustenance.   One generation ago this foraging knowledge was, in many ways, lost.  In a turnaround, many are now trying to understand and preserve these skills.

Why Bother?

Like many herbs and plants, wild plants may be used to introduce minerals to our diet. The bitterness of some of the plants aids in digestion.  The wilderness tends to have more diversity.  These plants may be used to counter the trend of some commercial growers to breed out bitterness in plants.

Can I grow wild weeds?

Normally they self-sow and grow without interference. Ideally a patch of the garden would be left undisturbed to allow nature to work it’s magic.  Of course, you can “help” the process, for example, by picking up dandelion heads when they are in full bloom and spreading the seeds around to encourage growth.

Next steps

  1. Explore your backyard. Diego recommends that the best place to forage is in your own garden, where you know it is “clean”; that is, not contaminated by chemical waste, animals, cars etc.
  2. Positively identify what the item is. Attend a class with a knowledgeable guide or get some expert advice.
  3. Eat a small amount. This is not about eating to survive, but to supplement the diet.
  4. “Be nice to the colony”, implores Diego. In other words, do not harvest to the point of removing all plants, to allow the plant to continue to propagate.

Some examples of wild weeds:

Wild Weed Description
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)


It is possible to eat the whole plant. When the plant is young, the leaves are best to eat. When the plant is flowering eat the flowers (the leaves are too bitter).  When the flowers are finished, eat the fruit or seeds.  When the whole thing dies (in the winter) eat the roots.  In other words, follow the plant’s growing cycle.


Sowthistle (Sonchus spp)


Sowthistle is popular with Mediterranean peoples and Pacific Islanders. The plant is eaten raw, especially the younger leaves.  It is bitter and this indicates a high level of nutrients present.
Chickweed (Stellaria media)

Chickweed is a winter plant which dies in summer. It has a fresh taste.  It is very important medicinally, especially for rashes and eczema (where the plant is applied as a poultice).


Wood Sorrel – (Oxalis Spp)


Oxalis flowers have 5 leaves in the shape of a cup. It can fetch as much as $40 per punnet for restaurants!  There are 800 varieties of this plant.  The leaves are edible also.


Amaranth (Amaranthus viridis)


This plant is present in summer, the leaves are using for cooking, either boiling or frying. The seed heads form in late summer and autumn and may be used as a grain or ground into flour.


and many more…

Some useful books on the subject:

While there are many books on herbs and their uses, and even local native flora, there aren’t many books on local edible weeds.

Diego Bonnetto- Wild Stories a foraging guide

Darina Allen – The Forgotten Skills of Cooking

Diane Kochilas – Ikaria, covers the wild herbs and plants of Greece




The information in this article about the edible, medicinal and craft uses of species is for educational purposes only.

Copyright text and photos: Sophia Poulos

The Preserved Olive

Our tree only seems to produce olives every second year, which is not unusual. So we make the most of this years 3.3kg (7.3 lbs) harvest.  The olives picked vary in colour from green to mottled green and purple through to deep luscious blue-black.  The flesh is a little tender, showing that it is just the right time to preserve.  The olives should not be left on the tree too long as they may become overripe, which is not ideal for preserving.

The recipe for preserving is really simple (see link here to my previous post).  It is important to separate the olives into a least two groups as the lighter coloured green or mostly green will need more time for soaking – up to 5 days, the darker fruit needs only 2-3 days.  To get an idea if they are ready to go the brining stage, taste a bit from the raw olive.  If it seems really bitter, then change the water and soak for another day or so.

The brine solution is made up of about 6 tablespoons (about 6 heaped UK & US tablespoon measures) of fine sea salt to 1 litre of water (about 2 pints).  Use the “egg test” to see if the brine is sufficiently strong.  To do this float a raw egg in the brine.  The egg should be raised out of the liquid showing a circle about 3cm in diameter (about 1 inch).

Put the drained olives in large jars, add also some dried herbs if you like, such as bay leaves.  Add brine mixture to cover olives.  Then top the mixture with a grape leaf (previously blanched or already preserved) and top with a bit more brine to cover this also.  The olive leaf ensures that the olives are submerged in the liquid while they are curing.

Cover the jar with a tight fitting lid and place in a dark cupboard for a number of weeks, probably at least 8 weeks.  Taste them and if they seem to be ready, top the jar with a layer of olive oil. They can successfully be kept in a dark, dry place for months.  To serve, remove the olives you need from the jar (seal jar and replace back to storage), rinse the olives briefly and then dress with olive oil, vinegar and herbs (if liked) and store in the fridge.


It’s Simply Cheese

The way I look at it, teaching cheesemaking classes is contributing in some small way to preserving the old crafts. Skills which in the past would have been generally known, but are now approached with great wonder.  So another group arrives to class with some trepidation, and enthusiasm to see what will happen.

The class is busy, there is a lot to cover in just 5 hours, but with great satisfaction the group have achieved what we hoped for, a beautiful set of cheeses and accompaniments, new skills learned and hopefully enough enthusiasm generated to “have another go” with the recipes at home!



Sydney Seafood Cooking School

The Sydney Seafood Cooking School at Sydney Fish Markets has a reputation as a premier seafood cooking school and it is well deserved!  A friend and I recently attended a seafood cooking class and we were treated to some stunning dishes.

The class started with students in a lecture style theatre.  The chef demonstrated each dish, noting any key points.

Armed with our recipe booklets and aprons, we moved into cooking stations, with shiny new utensils and raw ingredients waiting on a nearby trolley. Our newly formed team got to work transforming these raw ingredients into yummy dishes.  There was a frenzy of activity over the next couple of hours, with blenders, woks, BBQ grills and ovens working hard.

Nearby the dining room awaited us.  We set the tables and proudly presented our beautiful dishes to share amongst the team.


The school provides all the equipment and ingredients needed, wines to sample with the food, and coffee and chocolates to end the meal.  There were even takeaway containers provided for leftovers.  And on the way out, we checked out the fabulous fresh seafood at the Sydney Fish Markets.  A very nice day!

Tough Cheese

I recently watched the movie “The Founder”, the story about Ray Kroc who eventually went on to expand the McDonalds food franchise network.  He talks about Persistence. Nothing will take the place of Persistence.  And so it is with cheesemaking.  At first, we begin, small attempts at cheesemaking, then onto bigger things.  Maybe the Mozzarella won’t stretch, the Ricotta tastes bitter, the Blue Vein refuses to mould properly.  But do not give up, there is magic in the saucepan, brewing wonderful things.

The students at my latest class at St George & Sutherland Community College came and presented themselves for duty. They produced beautiful things, some perhaps not perfect, but nevertheless they came away with great personal satisfaction.


Photos: Sophia Poulos