I’ve taken quite a fancy to making cheese lately. Some dairy, a little acid, a touch of heat and you have something spectacular. I’m baffled by how easy it is and why I didn’t realize this sooner. Of course I’m not talking aged specimens, carefully tended in specially humidified caves. My recent fascination is more with the quick, fresh cheeses easily made at home without any particularly special equipment or ingredients. It’s so simple and the results far outpace anything you’ll find on a grocery shelf. I’m not kidding. So why don’t we do it more? Because we’re dumb.
I’ve never been much of a ricotta fan – too grainy, too mealy, to bland. No thank you. Then I made my own and it was so good, I couldn’t make a second batch fast enough. I ate it plain. I ate it with honey. I had some with berries. I baked another batch into a cheesecake (more on that later). I made a lasagna – something I’ve also never particularly cared for. It was amazing. Much to my surprise, I have been transformed into a ricotta lover. I’ll never buy that grocery store crap again.
Now technically, ricotta means “recooked” and is a nifty little byproduct of the cheese making business. Whey drained from other cheeses is brought back to a boil and heated, causing any residual proteins to coagulate. Cheese from cheese, how about that? Being a purist and a frugal one at that, I’ve made it this way. I can’t stand dumping all that whey until I’ve gotten every last little bit of use out of it. But because I rarely have gallons of whey hanging about, I’ve also started the whole process with fresh milk. Honestly, I much prefer starting with milk and although some might consider that “cheating”, I don’t. The results are creamier, moister, and tastier so unless you have buckets and buckets of whey lying around, it’s the way to go.
As for the method, I’ve tried several. The easiest is to heat the milk, add the acid and let the mixture sit to develop the curds. Recently I tried the double boiler method I picked up from the lovely Canal House ladies in their latest little book, Canal House Cooking Vol. 7: La Dolce Vida, and was very pleased with the results. The ricotta made with this gentle heating method produces a very soft and creamy cheese with none of that dry grittiness I abhor. I also discovered that if you season the milk well, there’s no risk of blandness either. I am fortunate enough to have two stockpots that fit nicely inside each other, with about 1” all around for good water circulation. If you don’t have large stockpots, rig up the largest set-up you can – a stockpot in a large soup pot, or work in smaller batches with smaller pots.
To strain, line a colander with cheesecloth or even a fine muslin (it’s cheaper at the fabric store). After most of the whey has drained, tie off the top, stick a chopstick through the knot and let it hang in a tall stockpot to continue to drain. Then you’re done. Now really, how easy is that?
Side note: if you’re not familiar with the Canal House books, look into them. Fantastic little tomes full of wonderful recipes from two very talented women. Each one delights me more than the last. I want to be friends with these two. The latest – La Dolce Vida – chronicles a summer spent cooking in Italy. No really, be my friend.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: TRULY LA DOLCE VIDA. I’m convinced the good life is full of al fresco lunches, endless wine and plenty of fresh cheese. Sign me up. This recipe is great when all you really need is to focus something fairly simple for an hour or two. It’s a project. It’s a complete surprise. It’s impressive. It’s delicious. Watching the milk slowly coagulate and turn into curds is mesmerizing. This is one of those recipes, a technique really, that makes you feel good and there’s a lot to that.
FRESH RICOTTA – from Canal House Cooking Vol. 7 – La Dolce Vita
Makes about 3 cups
1 gallon whole milk
1 Tablespoon kosher salt
1 cup plain yogurt (try to avoid those with gelatin and pectin)
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice (from 2-3 lemons)
- Make a double boiler out of 2 large pots, pouring enough water in the bottom pot to come at least halfway up the sides of the inner pot.
- Pour the milk into the inner pot and heat over medium-high heat until the temperature reaches 190°F on a digital or candy thermometer, about 15-20 minutes.
- Add the remaining ingredients – salt, yogurt, and lemon juice – to the milk and carefully stir with a wooden spoon for about 30 seconds to mix everything together. (I found it easier to remove the pot of milk, add the ingredients, then put it back into the double boiler set-up.)
- Reduce the heat to low and maintain the milk’s temperature at 190°F for the next 25 minutes, lifting the pot out of the water if the milk gets too hot and returning it as the temperature drops. Do not stir the milk while the ricotta curds are forming.
- After 25 minutes, remove the inner pot from the water bath and carefully ladle all the ricotta curds into a cheesecloth lined strainer set over a bowl. (note – it helps if the cheesecloth is damp.)
- Allow the ricotta to drain for about ½ hour, then gather up the cheesecloth around the cheese and tie off the top, knotting the cheesecloth if you have enough or using a piece of kitchen string.
- Stick a chopstick through the knot or string and let the bundle hang in a tall stockpot to continue to drain for another ½ hour. The long the cheese drains, the drier and more crumbly it will be.
- If you like, reserve the whey and add to bread doughs, soup stocks or make another batch of ricotta by heating the milk back to 190°F and straining again. (the yield will be much much smaller the second time around.)
- Transfer the cheese to a covered container and refrigerate for up to 4 days.