Friday, March 21, 2008

Spring means fresh cheese! How about some ricotta?

Photo: my breakfast this morning. Fresh ricotta with strawberries and honey.

Happy Vernal Equinox. Ok, it was yesterday, but I'm still feeling it in my bones. What effect does that have on me? It means I've got to get my creative cooking juices going.

The San Francisco Chronicle ran an article about cooking with ricotta on Wednesday. It had some nice recipes, but what it failed to mention was how easy it is to make your own ricotta. Inspired, I made my own ricotta.

While I was heating the milk, Paul our real estate agent called to go over some things on the inspection. I had to tell him to hang on for a second while I switched phones, as I had to go back to the kitchen and watch a my milk heat. "I'm making ricotta," in informed him. "You're making cheese?" Paul asked. "Uh, I guess I am. I'm making ricotta. It's a fresh cheese. It's dead easy to make." Paul was surprised to hear that I was making it at home. He's really excited and eager for us making cheese in Yamhill County. "I've been telling everyone about you!" he said. I like having support like this. It reassures me as I take a huge leap of faith and move to a new home, a new state, and a new life.

There are lots of different methods for making ricotta. Traditionally ricotta is made from whey expelled during the making of hard cheeses. The whey is heated (recooked=ricotta,) an acid is added and the milk solids that are still lingering in the whey are extracted. I'm using a whole milk recipe, since I don't have any fresh whey today.

How I did it:

white vinegar, cider vinegar, or lemon juice (an acidifier)

stainless steel or enamal pot (non-reactive)
stainless steel slotted spoon or ladle
stainless steel colander/strainer
cheesecloth, enough to line the colander

I bought a gallon of the freshest milk I could find. I'm only using 1/2 of it, I might make more ricotta tomorrow. I went to Parkside Produce on Taraval at 15th Avenue to get it. They carry Clover Milk from Sonoma County at a good price. Clover is usually very fresh and doesn't have to travel far to get to The City. I avoid buying UHT-ultrapasteurised milk because it has a funky flavor, all of the good stuff has been cooked out of the milk, and it has a super-long shelf life. Who knows how fresh UHT milk really is?

Back in my kitchen, I cleaned an enamel pot, an instant read thermometer/dairy thermometer, stainless steel colander, and a stainless steel slotted spoon. When you make cheese everything must be spotless! I also grabbed a piece of cheesecloth, big enough to line the colander. If I only have the loosely woven cheesecloth from the grocery store, I use twice as much and fold it in half so I have a double layer to line the colander. I'll use it to drain the ricotta.

I pour 1/2 gallon of milk into the pot and began heating over a low heat. I want the temperature of the milk to rise slowly and gently to 180-185 degrees - just before boiling on the thermometer. It should take about 35-45 minutes. Sometimes I heat the milk in a double-boiler, it is my preferred method. Today I'm being lazy, so I heat it directly on the stove. I try not to stir the milk too much, so heating it slowly will keep it from scorching on the bottom.

When the milk is hot, I remove it from the heat. I quickly add 5 tablespoons of white vinegar and give it one quick stir to integrate. The transformation from milk to ricotta happens almost immediately. I don't want to stir too much because it will break up the curds that form.

I leave the pot for about 15 - 20 minutes, allowing time for the curds to really separate and settle.

While the ricotta curds are resting, I place the colander in my CLEAN sink, wet the cheesecloth and line the colander. I'm now ready to drain the ricotta.

After the resting period, I take the pot over to the sink and gently ladle the ricotta curds into the cheesecloth-lined colander. I then let the ricotta drain for 15 minutes - 1 hour. The longer it drains the more dry the curds.

Finally, I add a bit of salt to taste. If I'm using the ricotta for breakfast with some fresh berries (like today,) I don't add much salt, just a few shakes. I then serve it up or store it in some tupperware and refrigerate it.

Now I have about 9-10 ounces of fresh ricotta to enjoy. I try to eat it within a day or two.

If you want to see another version, try the recipe on the blog, Becks & Posh. Sam uses buttermilk as the acidifier. I think I might try that next. Enjoy!

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