Saturday, June 18, 2011

rich homemade ricotta

ricotta crostini, three simple ways

A few years ago, I made ricotta for the first time. I suspect a good lot of you just read that — the part where I made cheese/played cheesemaker/fiddled with curds and whey in my shoebox kitchen, not because I maybe forgot about a carton of milk for a few weeks in the back of the fridge and conducted an unintentional science project, but just for a good time — inched your cursor to the little X of your browser tab and navigated away. Clearly, this wasn’t the act of a sane person, though that does seem to be the theme this week. The thing is, a good amount of cheese that we eat — mozzarella, goat cheese, paneer, cottage cheese — come down to milk plus acid. What you do from there is your art. Except my first ricotta wasn’t particularly artful. It was a little dry and coarse. We spread it on pizza with jammy caramelized red onions and ate it happily, but it wasn’t the kind of ricotta you dream of. I moved on.

lemon juice for acidity
a thermometer helps

But then I fell in love with ricotta again. I discovered Salvatore Ricotta, made in small batches in Brooklyn, and frustratingly hard to find anywhere else as I want everyone in the world to have a taste just a couple months ago and I’m sure, years after everyone who pays attention, and sadly, for anyone around me who is not my equally ricotta-besotted husband, have spoken about little else since. [You've got to watch the video, okay?] I’ve never had ricotta like it; it’s nothing like the store bought stuff. This is very strained ricotta, almost whey-free, and it spreads almost like cream cheese but with a richness suggestive of whipped cream or crème fraîche. It’s not easily forgotten.

hard to see the curds at all

Nor is it very traditional. It’s a bit blasphemous, even. Ricotta is Italian for “twice cooked” or “to cook again” and is traditionally made with the whey byproduct of making another cheese, such as mozzarella or a hard cheese. The whey is heated, with or without additional vinegar, and the new ricotta is strained and seasoned. Whole milk is never used, and that’s exactly what I learned Salvatore uses when I found that they’d shared their recipe on Tasting Table a while back. Obviously, I had to make it, authentic or not. But still, it took a few tries to get it right. (Anyone want ricotta? I have a mountain of it!) The first time, I used their approach, to the letter: milk, lemon juice and salt, but was bummed when I strained out to find the same dry, coarse curds that had displeased me years ago. The second time I figured, “Why blaspheme a little when you can blaspheme a lot?” and swapped out some of the milk with heavy cream. The curdles were barely visible. I had to use several layers of cheesecloth to filter the mixture but when I did, oh, when I did…

puddle becomes a mass
long straining time
homemade, bastardized ricotta
thick, creamy ricotta

Well first, I went to do some crunches. Then, I peeled back the cheesecloth and found my Brooklyn ricotta nirvana, right in my Manhattan kitchen. And here’s the thing I want to get across about the why of this — why you should make this, make this now — this is perfect summer food. You spread it on a slice of toasted baguette, and eat it along with a giant vegetable salad on your deck (or your imaginary one, if you’re us) with a crisp glass of wine and marvel at how indulgent something so simple can feel. You can dress it up a little — my favorite ways are with honey, olive oil, or an aged balsamic; you can dress it up a lot — I marinated some miniature zucchini ribbons with lemon juice and olive oil for a heartier crostini in one of my experimental rounds; you can tuck it in pasta or scrambled eggs or crepes with berries and honey; you can bust it out at your next wine and cheese party and win watch how quickly it disappears but for now, right now, I’m mostly holding out for the deck. Happy weekend!

with marinated zucchini ribbons

One year ago: Chocolate Doughnut Holes
Two years ago: Neapolitan Cake and Cheese Straws
Three years ago: 10 Paths to Painless Pizza-Making and Pistachio Petit-Four Cake
Four years ago: Strawberry Tart

Rich Homemade Ricotta
Inspired by Salvatore Ricotta, via Tasting Table

I made this ricotta three different ways: with all milk, as the Salvatore recipe suggested (we found it a bit dry), with 3 cups milk and 1 cup heavy cream and with 3 1/2 cups milk and 1/2 cup heavy cream. Guess what? The last two ricottas were virtually indistinguishable.The extra cream did indeed add an even richer edge, but the one with less cream was also very indulgent. I imagine I’d use the richer version for toasts, for putting out at a party and the almost-as-rich one for pastas and things where I might need a larger, sturdier quantity. I’ll leave it up to you which way you go.

Makes about 1 generous cup of ricotta

3 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream (see Note above about using less)
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

Pour the milk, cream and salt into a 3-quart nonreactive saucepan. Attach a candy or deep-fry thermometer. Heat the milk to 190°F, stirring it occasionally to keep it from scorching on the bottom. Turn off the heat [Updated] Remove from heat and add the lemon juice, then stir it once or twice, gently and slowly. Let the pot sit undisturbed for 5 minutes.

Line a colander with a few layers of cheesecloth and place it over a large bowl (to catch the whey). Pour the curds and whey into the colander and let the curds strain for at least an hour. At an hour, you’ll have a tender, spreadable ricotta. At two hours, it will be spreadable but a bit firmer, almost like cream cheese. (It will firm as it cools, so do not judge its final texture by what you have in your cheesecloth.) Discard the whey, or, if you’re one of those crafty people who use it for other things, of course, save it. Eat the ricotta right away or transfer it to an airtight container and refrigerate until ready to use.

Serve: On 1/2-inch slices of baguette that have been run under the broiler until lightly bronzed. Serve it simply [as shown in the top photo, left to right] with honey and a pinch of flaky sea salt, a couple grinds of black pepper, pinch of salt and drizzle of olive oil, and/or a few droplets of an aged balsamic. Or with zucchini ribbons [as shown in the last photo], I started with about half a pound of miniature zucchini my mother-in-law had found at Trader Joes. Larger ones will work just fine, but you might want to first cut a big one in half lengthwise. Peel them into ribbons and toss them with 1/4 teaspoon of salt and let them drain in a colander for a while (this wilts them), about 20 minutes. Rinse and pat them dry. Toss with lemon juice, olive oil, salt and black pepper to taste. Arrange in piles on ricotta crostini.

Do ahead: I keep mine only 3 to 4 days; the really fresh milk I used doesn’t last long. However, Salvatore also uses really fresh milk, and theirs appears to keep closer to two weeks. In conclusion? Shelf lives will vary. Use your nose to judge freshness. Or your partner’s nose, because who doesn’t like hearing “Hey honey, sniff this for me?”


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