Thursday, Apr 19, 2018
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Homemade ricotta: It's easier, and better, than you think

When it comes to most things around the house, I'm about the most unhandy guy you've ever seen. I can't hang a picture straight. But when it comes to cooking, I go a little do-it-yourself crazy. The last couple of weeks I've been making my own ricotta. Before you dismiss this as just another wacky fad, trust me — you've got to give it a try.

It doesn't require any special equipment, and you can find all of the ingredients at your neighborhood grocery. And the results are so much better than almost any commercial ricotta you can buy that you won't believe it's the same stuff. This is ricotta you can — and maybe should — eat by itself.

Here's all you have to do to make it: Warm a mixture of whole milk and buttermilk over medium heat until it reaches about 185 degrees (you'll see a ring of bubbles appear around the inside of the pan). Remove the pan from the heat and stir in vinegar (regular old distilled white…the stuff you probably now use for washing windows). Let it stand about 5 minutes until curds form, then gently lift them off with a slotted spoon and drain in a strainer.

That's it, fresh cheese that takes less than 45 minutes to make. What could be more simple? And it's kind of wonderful the way it comes together, that everyday sort of kitchen magic that makes cooking something new so much fun.

But how does it taste? Honestly, I was a little skeptical at first. I mean, outside of some really great stuff I've had in Italy, I'd always thought ricotta was meant to be kind of bland, so how much better can bland be?

Short answer: Lots. Honestly, this ricotta is so good it can be used as a starring ingredient, not just as the paste that holds together lasagna. The flavor is delicate with a wonderfully milky combination of sweet and tang.

And it’s so easy to make, I don’t think I’ll be buying the packaged stuff again, outside of an emergency.

What do you do with homemade ricotta? How about spooning a mound in the center of a platter, drizzling it with good olive oil and seasoning it with sea salt and coarsely ground black pepper. Surround it with toasted bread slices and maybe some grilled eggplant, zucchini or peppers.

For dessert, do the same thing, but drizzle with honey instead of oil and serve it with fresh berries or cut-up late-summer fruit (fresh figs are amazing right now), with sliced toasted almonds scattered over top.

If you need a main course, mix ricotta with some chopped fresh herbs, spoon it onto a square of cooked fresh pasta, lay another square on top and drizzle everything with sage butter. Instant lasagna. If you don’t have enough time, simply use the herbed ricotta to dress al dente dried pasta shapes such as penne or orecchiette.

After playing with it for a while (I’ve had lots of ricotta in my refrigerator the last month), I’d say that the more restrained the combination, the better with this stuff. One of my favorite dishes was a lightly herbed mixture used to stuff roasted and peeled red and yellow bell peppers.

Or, based on how amazingly good fresh ricotta is with honey, try making gelato with ricotta, honey and a little orange liqueur. You’ll need to add a little milk and cream to keep the mixture from being chalky, but not so much as to obscure the ricotta flavor (it’ll still have a little of that texture …think of cannoli filling).

And those are just a few ideas of many.

Recipe variations:

Now there are those who will tell you that this cheese isn’t truly ricotta. And pedantic though they may be, I’m afraid they’re right. True ricotta is poverty food intended to wring the last bits of protein from milk by reheating the whey that’s left from making another cheese (hence the name ricotta — or “recooked”). And if you have a lot of whey laying around, you certainly should try it that way.

Otherwise, you’re better off with this shortcut method, which may be less than totally authentic but is certainly totally delicious.

Essentially what happens is that heating the milk changes the nature of the proteins and they begin to stick together, or coagulate. Adding acid further coagulates the proteins — it’s not unlike what happened when you were a kid and poured orange juice into your cereal milk at breakfast.

You gently spoon this moist mass of curds out of the pot (I use a Chinese “spider” skimmer) and set them in a cheesecloth-lined strainer to drain for five minutes, and you’ve got ricotta. What’s left behind in the pot is the greenish-gray whey, which, if you’re in a particularly traditional frame of mind, you can feed to your prosciutto pigs.

As you might guess, with a process so simple, there is ample room for variation. I spent a couple of weeks trying as many as I could find and after many, many gallons of milk, I think I’ve come up with a version that combines the best of all of them.

The first variable is the milk. You can make ricotta with whole milk or skim milk, and with the addition of whipping cream or buttermilk. I even tried it with goat’s milk (the best ricotta I’ve ever tasted was made from sheep’s milk — commercial American goat’s milk is not worth the effort).

For the acidification, you can use lemon juice, vinegar or buttermilk. (I also tried a recipe using vegetable rennet as the coagulant, but I’m afraid that level of cheese-making must be just a bit beyond me.)

Or you can use a combination. That’s what I wound up with. There is enough acidity in buttermilk that you can use just that and whole milk to make ricotta, but you have to use a lot of buttermilk (2 cups for a half-gallon of milk). Though that buttery flavor is nice, it becomes a little too strong in that concentration.

Regular old distilled white vinegar also works well, but the result is a little bland. Lemon juice works fine, but the acidity will vary depending on the season and so it’s a little unreliable. So I compromised, using 1 cup of buttermilk and 21/2 tablespoons of vinegar to make a ricotta that has a delicate but not overpowering lactic tang.

Temperature is another variable. After cooking ricottas to 165 , 175 , 180 , 185 and 190 , I found that the higher the temperature, the greater the amount of cheese you’re able to pull from the whey. On the other hand, after the temperature gets to about 190 , the milk solids that stick to the bottom of the pan begin to caramelize and scorch, making them so sticky it takes a lot of scrubbing to clean the pot.

In my laziness, I decided to settle for a smidgen less cheese in exchange for much easier clean-up. At 185 degrees, 10 cups of milk makes about 2 cups — or 1 pound — of cheese. That’s plenty.

Finally, how long you let the cheese stand in the strainer will affect the final texture. The longer it goes, the drier and firmer the curds will be. For me, the sweet spot came after about 5 minutes, when there is still enough moisture in the cheese that it oozes slightly, but the curds have begun to firm up.

At this point, you may well be tempted to eat the ricotta straight out of the strainer, and indeed, there is something incredibly luxurious about eating spoonfuls of the warm curds, sprinkled with just a little salt and pepper.

Homemade ricotta

9 cups whole milk

1 cup buttermilk

1 teaspoon salt

21/2 tablespoons distilled vinegar

Note: This recipe requires the use of a thermometer.

Heat the milk and buttermilk in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat to a temperature of about 185 . Stir in the salt and vinegar and remove from the heat. Let stand until curds have formed, 5 to 10 minutes. Pull the curds gently to the side

Line a strainer with cheesecloth and set it over a bowl. Using a perforated skimmer, gently lift the mass of curds out of the pot and into the cheesecloth-lined strainer. Repeat until no more curds remain. Discard the remaining whey.

Drain the curds for 5 minutes, then transfer to a covered container to store in the refrigerator until ready to use. The ricotta is best used the same day, but will still be good for 2 to 3 days.

Yield: About 1 pound, or 2 cups

Riccotta-honey gelato with orange

2 cups homemade ricotta

1 cup whipping cream

1 cup whole milk

1/3 cup sugar

1 tablespoon orange liqueur, such as Grand Marnier

2/3 cup honey

Puree the ricotta, whipping cream, milk, sugar, liqueur, and honey in a food processor until quite smooth. Taste and add more honey or liqueur if necessary; the flavor should be quite pronounced as it will become muted after freezing.

Pass the mixture through a fine mesh strainer to remove any clumps, and then freeze in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions. The texture will be slightly grainy. For the best flavor, the gelato should be eaten the same day. It is terrific served with lightly sweetened fresh berries or other fruit.

Yield: 8 servings

Roasted peppers stuffed with homemade ricotta

4 red or yellow bell peppers, preferably a combination

1 cup homemade ricotta

2 tablespoons capers, chopped

1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for finishing

Pinch crushed red pepper

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 tablespoon minced chives

Heat the oven to 400 . Line a jellyroll pan with aluminum foil and place the whole peppers on top. Roast, turning occasionally, until the peppers are shrunken and shriveled, about 20 minutes. Set aside to cool.

While the peppers are roasting, roughly stir together in a small bowl the ricotta, capers, olive oil, red pepper, salt and freshly ground black pepper and chives. Taste and add more salt if necessary.

After the peppers have cooled, peel away the tough skins and discard. Remove the stems and use your fingers to rub off any seeds that stick.

Divide the peppers into lengthwise strips about 2 inches wide — usually this will mean in quarters. Place a scant tablespoon of ricotta filling at one end of the pepper and roll it up end-to-end, pressing gently to keep everything together. Place each completed roll on a platter (it’s nice to alternate red and yellow pieces).

When all of the pepper pieces have been used, lightly drizzle the completed rolls with a little very good olive oil and sprinkle lightly with coarse salt before serving.

Yield: 4-6 servings

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