After our Building A Better Pantry series on dairy products, I thought it fitting to expound upon the cheese plate. Even if you don't care to make cheese of your own, I'm sure most of you still...
Building a better pantry: ricotta
If you thought butter was easy, whoa, Nelly! Ricotta is like...breathing. It's like...walking. It's like...ricotta.
Ricotta is a vastly underappreciated cheese. I mean, how often have you stood in front of the cheese counter, before all those luscious, smelly, oozing beauties and said, "I think I want ricotta tonight"?
Was "never" your answer? Well, it certainly was mine.
Ricotta is better known as "that cheese that goes in lasagna." Or maybe you stuff pasta shells with it. But basically, ricotta isn't something you just want to stick a spoon in and start munching. It pretty much has no flavor, right?
Well, I hate to be the one to burst that bubble, but you've been fooled. The stuff they sell in 16 ounce containers at the grocery store? Tasteless, nearly textureless gunk. And considering how EASY ricotta is, there's no reason you should settle for that.
Of course, as with all cheesemaking, you start out with a gallon of milk and wind up with a cup or two of cheese. If you use cream or part cream, you'll have a higher yield, but the fact is, you need a lot of milk to make a little cheese.
Having said that, you will be utterly wowed at what real ricotta tastes like. It's a little sweet, very slightly floral, and, if you use lemon juice as your coagulant, it will be pleasantly lemony and tart. It's ricotta that you can just eat by itself. I often eat it as dessert with a little fruit and chocolate. You can use it in recipes--lasagna, shells, ricotta pancakes--but you may not want to. It's that good.
When I was working as a cheese maker's apprentice, we made ricotta every once in a while. We made it with whey leftover from big cheese makes, and the reason we didn't make it more than "once in a while" was because it just took the day over the top. From a reasonable (or at least bearable) amount of work to a very unreasonable and excessive amount of work. After a good nine hours or longer of making whatever it was we were making, having to fill buckets with whey, transfer it to the pasteurizer, heat it to 180 degrees, and collect maybe five to ten pounds of ricotta from the scalding hot liquid...it was, more often than not, just too much.
But at home, ricotta isn't nearly as dramatic, and if you'll allow me to say it again, it's easy.
For this recipe, you can use a variety of dairy products. If you're very ambitious, you might want to use the whey left over from another cheesemaking project. You can also just use whole milk or whole milk enriched with cream. The higher the fat content, the higher the yield and the richer the final product.
I'm writing this recipe as if you're using a gallon of whole milk, but the principal is the same no matter what dairy you use. The yield, however, may be larger or smaller.
Makes 1 1/2 to 2 pounds
Combine in a large pot:
1 gallon whole milk
1 teaspoon salt (use kosher, canning and pickling salt, or sea salt)
Heat the milk to 190°F, stirring often to prevent scorching. Add, stirring once and only once:
1/4 cup lemon juice or 1 teaspoon citric acid dissolved in 1/4 cup cold water
Remove from the heat and let sit, undisturbed, for 15 to 30 minutes. Don't touch it. You can observe the curds and whey separating--it's pretty cool to watch.
Using a fine mesh sieve or butter muslin (or several layers of cheesecloth), strain the curds. Use a ladle to transfer the curds to the sieve. Allow the cheese to drain for about 30 minutes, or until the desired consistency is reached.
The cheese is ready to be eaten immediately if you like. Store, refrigerated for up to one week.