Fresh Ricotta

I was talking to someone the other day about how hard it is to try new things as you get older. Every day I sit back and watch Orion voraciously exploring the world around him. Sometimes it seems like every day he finds something new to examine, learn about, or attempt to master. He’s recently decided that he’s big enough and coordinated enough to start walking down stairs by himself – he’s not. How different the world looks through his eyes.

It can feel insurmountable some days to take care of the littlest of tasks, let alone finding the confidence to take on new unfamiliar adventures. I remember moving to the west coast and trying for the first time to snowboard or surf or even spend a night out in the woods backpacking – each seemed as foreign and terrifying to me as visiting a new country by myself. Then came learning how to drive stick shift. Then learning how to drive stick shift up large hills. And finally mastering parallel parking on big hills. All in all, I’d say the west coast has been good for me. I was raised to eye new and unfamiliar things suspiciously and proceed with caution. So trying these new things, while scary, was also invigorating. Although ultimately other than learning to drive our new car, most of my attempts at new hobbies were fairly unsuccessful.

spoon_thermometer

Now here I am ten years later fashioning myself into your run of the mill pacific northwesterner with a new slate of hobbies to try or attempt to try. And yet trying new things still feels just as scary. It seems easy on the face of it. Why not just get off your butt and give it your best shot. What’s the worst thing that can happen if you take the right precautions and prepare adequately. Somehow that very real fear of failure though can stop me in my tracks.

cheesecloth

Some days I feel giddy with excitement at trying to get this blog off the ground. I love the back and forth with Mollie, the sharing of recipes and gathering of ideas. I like trying to find new ways to express myself and new foods to try. Yet most of the days in between feel uncertain and intimidating. How can we get our voice to come through. How can we find something interesting to say to our readers about what we’re making. Do we even have any readers. And how can we make delicious, simple food while convincing our toddlers to wait just a minute longer and stop spreading peanut butter on the floor.

 I’ve learned over time that faced with that fear the only thing to do is to take a deep breath and keep going. The big waves in the ocean might pummel you but they won’t wash you out to sea. The dark only seems scary out in the woods and if you snuggle up a bit closer and turn off your flashlight you might even see the milky way. I have to trust that the same type of logic holds true for this enterprise. Here’s a recipe to push you out of your comfort zone that at the same time is so reliable and exciting that you’re bound to succeed. Ricotta is one of those things I hate to buy in the grocery store. It’s stiff and lifeless, mildly gelatinous and always lacking in flavor. After searching for fresh ricotta in various cheese stores, I gave up and decided to try my hand at making my own.

draining

Ricotta is made by adding an acidic agent to milk (in this case buttermilk) and heating the mixture until it separates into curds and whey. This separated mixture is then strained and once the whey drains off, you’re left with rich, creamy ricotta cheese. Some recipes use lemon juice or vinegar but I prefer to use organic milk and buttermilk. The basic process is amazing to watch as the milk seemingly magically separates out. This is also a great kitchen task to share with your little one as the stirring is easy and if you have the mixture in a deep pot, they’re bound to not splash the mixture over the sides. Let them help you figure out when the curds and whey have separated.

The first time I set my eyes on making ricotta it was several years ago when I came across this recipe by David Tanis in the New York Times for Pappardelle with Fresh Ricotta. I was so intrigued by the description and accompanying images, that I overcame my fears of making cheese and was pleasantly surprised both with how easy making ricotta turns out to be and how delicious and easy the recipe was as well. Every year at the tail end of summer I still come back to this lovely dish that perfectly balances the creamy texture of the cheese with the brightness and acidity of the zucchini, basil oil, and lemon juice. I look forward to it all year.

We ate ripe, roasted tomatoes brimming over with juice on top of little toasts with a thick layer of ricotta cheese. We also made a fig tart with ricotta and puff pastry and honey with brandy and lemon ricotta pancakes that were nothing to share or to make again. We’ll have to keep working out the kinks in that recipe before we share it. Anyone have any good recipes for ricotta pancakes or other favorite recipes that use ricotta? I’m all ears.

Tips and Tricks:

  • The easiest way I’ve found to drain the curds is by taking a full cheesecloth (you can usually buy these in the grocery store) and fold it in half three times to make a dense layer of cheesecloth that lays inside a metal colander with several inches hanging over the sides. This creates a fine mesh which is preferable for draining to hold on to as many curds as possible while also ensuring there’s overhanging material you can gather up  to help the mixture to drain more easily. Once you’re done, you can scrape out the cheesecloth, wash and re-use.
  • The longer you drain the cheese curds, the thicker a mixture you’ll end up with. The consistency of ricotta you make can depend to some extent on what you’re planning on using the ricotta for – for example, if you want a creamy, spreadable consistency to serve on top of crostata or alongside roasted fruit, you can drain for as little as 10 minutes. For a denser curd that you can use in lasagna or to fill ravioli, then drain for up to half an hour. For a firmer, dryer consistency that you could add to baked good recipes like cheesecake or lemon ricotta pancakes without adding extra liquid or for recipes where you want the ricotta to be able to hold a shape such as stuffing zucchini blossoms or making gnocchi, gnudi, or other small pasta types, you may want to drain for as long as two hours or up to overnight. If you drain overnight, you’ll want to keep the cheese draining in the fridge. I find it helpful for improved draining to tie up the ends of the cheesecloth and then use a rubber band to tie the cheesecloth to a spoon suspended over a deep pot or hang it from the faucet so gravity can help speed up the draining process.
  • This recipe makes about 2 cups. If you’re planning on making a recipe that needs more ricotta, such as fresh lasagna, feel free to double the recipe. You can also plan to make several recipes – have fresh pasta for dinner, ricotta pancakes for breakfast, and then a simple bruschetta with roasted tomatoes for lunch. Just make sure to use the fresh cheese within about 3 days for the freshest flavor.
  • Making ricotta can get a bit messy. Here’s some tips I’ve found that help minimize the mess. First use a deep pot with a heavy bottom. Next make sure to keep an eye on the milk as it heats and stir it fairly often. This will help to prevent some of the inevitable burnt milk that will collect on the bottom of the pan and is a pain to scrub off while also making sure the milk doesn’t boil over onto your stovetop. Once the milk has separated out into curds and whey, I place the pot on a heat pad next to the sink and use a ladle to transfer the liquid a little bit at a time to the cheesecloth. This is a much preferable alternative to pouring the hot mixture in directly from the pan. It also allows you to pace the draining so that you can let some liquid drain and then add more curds and whey instead of adding all the liquid and overflowing your strainer.
  • To reduce the cooking time, you may want to let the milk and buttermilk come to room temperature before cooking.
  • If you don’t have a thermometer, you’ll be able to tell visually when the curds and whey truly separate. They’ll be no mistaking it so don’t let fear of not being fully prepared hold you back. Just risk it!

first poured

Homemade Ricotta

A dead simple recipe for making your own fresh ricotta. The quality of the cheese will depend to a large extent on getting really fresh milk. We recommend using organic milk and buttermilk. The real question is what to make with your homemade cheese. We love simply mixing it in to a morning omelet with herbs for a simple treat or spreading on a piece of multi-grain toast and topping with roasted vegetables and a sprinkling of thick salt or chopped herbs. It’s also delicious spread as the base for a fruit tart or served alongside roasted or grilled fruit drizzled with fresh honey and a touch of aged balsamic vinegar. Or if you prefer, elevate your pasta with fresh ricotta. Add it in to your lasagna, toss it with pancetta and peas or some fresh spinach and enjoy.

Quantity: Roughly 2 cups or enough for one or two recipes that call for ricotta

Time to Prepare: 30 – 40 minutes

1/2 gallon organic whole milk
1/2 quart organic buttermilk

In a large, heavy bottomed saucepan, combine the milk and butter milk and heat over medium-high heat. Stir occasionally, scrapping the bottom of the pan to minimize the amount of milk that scorches. It will take a while for the milk to heat up, not to worry. Once the mixture begins to heat up and you start to see curds rising to the surface, stop stirring. The curds are the larger clumps while the whey is the liquid.

While the mixture is heating, set up your colander in the sink. Use either a large sieve or colander that is free-standing. Line the container with the cheesecloth folded several times.

Once the mixture reaches 175 degrees and the curds are visibly separated from the whey, remove the pan from heat. Using a ladle, spoon the mixture into the cheesecloth. Every once in a while, pause and pull up the sides of the cloth to drain extra liquid, then continue to add more curds. Gather the edges of the cloth and fasten into a knot and hang the cloth, suspended above a container, to drain for 15 minutes to overnight (see above in tips and tricks). Once drained, scrape the ricotta out of the cheesecloth and transfer to a airtight container. Use within the next few days to ensure the freshest flavor.

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