Sunday, February 24, 2008

Simple Things: Ricotta Cheese

If you have the following in your house:

6 cups of whole milk (the higher the quality the better, although plain old milk will be fine)
2 tablespoons of white vinegar
A little salt
A pot big enough for the 6 cups of milk
A large spoon (slotted is better, but if you don’t have one, it’ll still be fine)
A candy thermometer (or an instant-read thermometer and two wooden spoons)
Some cheesecloth
A colander
A bowl large enough to hold the colander

You have the makings of the most amazing, most wonderful, most incredible thing you’ve ever eaten. It's absolutely simple, yet people will marvel that you made it. Fresh homemade ricotta cheese.

I’ve read about people making their own ricotta and always threatened to try it. In the last couple of weeks I’ve read in two different places about making cheese in general, and ricotta specifically as one of those. The first was in the spring issue of Donna Hay magazine, which I was rereading since spring is standing on the threshold. The second was in Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. He has a section on Cheese & Eggs, and part of that section includes instructions for making one’s own cheese of various kinds, including ricotta.

I stuck more closely to Donna Hay’s method, because she was more specific with things like temperatures and overall instructions. Mark Bittman’s method was to heat the milk on medium for 10 or 15 minutes until it took on a certain appearance and then add the acidifying ingredient to make cheese. Having never done this before I was more comfortable with Donna Hay’s very specific instruction to heat the milk to 176 degrees F and then add the acidic component.

Donna Hay did call for a candy thermometer, which I didn’t have. Instead I had an instant read thermometer that I rigged up a suspension device for using two wooden spoons.

I heated the milk over a fairly gentle flame, and it did take quite a bit of time to reach the right temperature—probably 10 or 15 minutes. I never let it actually boil, or even simmer, but just heat. From Mark Bittman I did learn that a pinch or two of salt wouldn’t hurt the finished product, so I added that during the heating process. When the thermometer read 176 degrees F, I removed the pan from the heat, poured in the vinegar, and held my breath. The milk immediately took on the appearance of curdled…well, milk, of course.

I let it sit for several minutes, then began scooping the curds gently out into the cheesecloth-lined strainer (funny, to actually use cheesecloth for cheese) to drain. The gentle touch is needed, Donna Hay explains, to keep the curds intact. After a few minutes in the strainer, I moved the cheese to an old jar (I keep old jars of likely sizes—jam, pickles and the like—for just this sort of project).

With trepidation I tasted the result. Would it be any good, or would I have just trashed 48 ounces of milk for nothing?

Well. I cannot tell you how wonderful it was. Silky and smooth with the faintest milky flavor, but with the proper cheese flavor too. It was pillowy, I tell you. It looked like soft fluffy clouds as I spooned it into the jar.

I immediately added “whole milk – 2 gal.” to the grocery list I was making. Having bought it, I made another batch of ricotta.

This time I was making my children’s lunch at the same time—home made pizza. My attention was divided, I was less devoted to the ricotta-making process than before. Now I used a medium flame, but checked the thermometer (which was by now a candy thermometer that I bought at the grocery store with the milk) only when I happened to think of it. By the time I was able to focus my thoughts on cheese and cheese alone, the temperature was probably closer to 200 degrees F. I don’t even really know. I swirled the skin that had formed over the heating milk into the mixture with the probe of the thermometer, noticed that the gauge immediately shot up, and crossed my fingers as I dumped the vinegar into the milk. It curded up just the same as before.

Then I got involved with some disaster involving flour and a two-year-old and it sat in the pot for really quite some time. At least twice as long as the five minutes originally called for. Once again I carefully scooped the curds out into the prepared colander. In fact, it turned out better this time. The first time I’d felt like I was throwing away quite a bit of milk. This time the liquid left was just yellowish whey.

It also strained longer the second time, again having to do with my children’s lunch preparation schedule, and again, I felt the result was more successful than before. The ricotta was dryer this time and more closely resembled that which I could buy in the store, but with that fresher, more immediate flavor than store bought gives. This also taught me that if all I had was a regular spoon that I could let as much of the whey as possible run off as I scooped it up, and then let it drain longer, possibly turning it carefully a time or two as it drained in the colander.

I now have two jars of this wonderful stuff in my refrigerator, and bought the ingredients for lasagna at the same time I was buying the additional milk. In fact, the only disappointment in this whole experience was that it didn’t occur to me to make lasagna with the finished product. It had to be pointed out to me that it would probably make fabulous lasagna. After I made the first batch, and raved about it, Alex said, “Wow, if it’s that good, think how good a lasagna made with it would be…”

I could only smack myself in the forehead and add to the grocery list.

Ricotta Cheese
adapted from Donna Hay magazine #35, and Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian”

makes about 1 and 1/2 cups of cheese

6 cups whole milk
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 teaspoon salt (or more to taste)

Line a colander with cheesecloth and place over a large bowl.

Heat milk over medium heat until a candy or instant read thermometer reaches 176 degrees F.

Remove pan from heat, and add vinegar to milk. Allow to sit at least 5 minutes as curds form.

Using a slotted spoon, gently scoop curds into prepared colander. Allow to drain until fairly dry, five to ten minutes at least.

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