Homemade ricotta (and a honeyed grape compote)

August 15, 2011 § 15 Comments

If you are of the ilk of people who spend a considerable (some may say disproportionate – I say proper) amount of time thinking, preparing, and reading about food (My people!  Hello!), or if you are an Italian nonna, then making your own ricotta cheese may be old news to you.  Old news, but then hey, you have no excuse for not having some sitting freshly made in your refrigerator right now, now do you?

If it is not old news to you, well then my friend, do I have some news for you!!!  Run, don’t walk, gather the ingredients, and make some.  Now!  Well, read this first.  I give you permission. 🙂

I will make no secret of my love for ricotta.  It is a profound adoration, really.  It’s nearly as passionate as my love for whipped cream (and it may be slightly healthier). I know it’s a fairly commonplace activity to imagine what clouds taste like – come on!  don’t even try to tell me I’m the only one who thinks about that – and while most dream up clouds of marshmallows or cotton candy, I think they taste like ricotta.  Smooth and airy, billowing in your mouth and then melting into a pool of cream on your tongue…

I would just eat it with a spoon.  I do just eat it with a spoon.  Though, generally only when no one is looking.

And making your own is so very, very simple.  Homemade ricotta falls squarely into the category of foods I think should be called powdermilk biscuit foods – “heaven’s they’re tasty! And expeditious.”

You do have to do it right, though.  Back when I worked in a children’s museum, I sometimes did kitchen science programs with the science educator.  One dreary February afternoon we uncovered a lesson plan for making cheese.  All it called for was milk, acid, and coffee filters.  Cool!  We stole the coffee milk from the fridge, grabbed some vinegar and set to experimenting.

We were following the basic steps for making ricotta.  In so doing, we discovered that warm milk curdled much faster than cold, and that skim milk made larger curds than whole.  We also found that, though we were making something that was technically cheese (or, technically curd, rather), its flavor and texture was almost a perfect facsimile for a pencil eraser.  It was rubbery and pretty disgusting.

We didn’t ever do the program with kids, and I didn’t try making my own cheese again for a while either.  Why would I?  I could buy it.

Except, store bought ricotta isn’t always the little spoonful of heaven it could be either.  It can be too soggy, grainy, or fairly flavorless.  Which, is just an affront, if you ask me.

I’ve been reminded of how gloriously transcendent ricotta can be by a restaurant that is one of the favorites that Joel and I frequent for date night (we like to have those 🙂 ).  At this restaurant, as you sit waiting for your supper, a server will casually drop by and give you a few slices of bread and a tiny plateful of house-made ricotta, drizzled with olive oil and spooned over with seasonal fruit compote.  It’s done with such an air of nonchalance, that you might be led to think that this is just some run of the mill bread basket with accoutrements.

But, you’d be wrong.  That ricotta – my goodness!  That ricotta is all that ricotta should be.  It’s almost indescribably good.  I would go to the restaurant and just eat their ricotta all night long if they would let me.  (Maybe they would.  I haven’t actually asked.)  And, it spurred me to re-broach the subject of cheese-making in my own kitchen, to see if I could produce something close to theirs, close to the ricotta cloud.

I remembered seeing that Deb, of smittenkitchen, had made ricotta a while back, and she had gushed over it the way I would gush over it.  This, I considered a good sign.  So, I basically followed her instructions, with just a little poke and prod here and there to make it even a little simpler, and just how I wanted it.

It doesn’t require a thermometer, though you can use one.  It doesn’t even require cheesecloth if you have none – I used paper towels with excellent results.  All it takes is milk, cream, a pinch of salt, and lemon juice.  Then you warm, stir, and have to have merely a single of grain of patience to help you wait until it has drained enough.

And then, then, you will indeed find yourself with ricotta so divine, it may deserve to be beatified.  Take a spoon, take the ricotta, take a bite, and let it wash over your tongue, unctuous yet light, gently sweet, with a perfect, almost floral, hint of lemon.

And then, make a bit of fruit compote, grab the olive oil, sea salt, and a good loaf of bread, and set it out for family and friends.  Smear, spoon, drizzle and be aware, you may not stop until you are wiping up the last remnants of ricotta from the plate with a scrap of the bread.  But no matter, it will be easy to make more.

Homemade ricotta (adapted from smittenkitchen) (makes about 1 cup)

  • 3 1/2 cups good whole milk
  • 1/2 cup good heavy cream
  • 1/2 tsp. sea salt
  • 3 Tbs. fresh lemon juice
  1. Heat the milk, cream, and salt together in a heavy bottomed pot, stirring frequently to avoid the bottom scalding, until it comes to a simmer (if you’re using a thermometer, you want it to come to 190F, apparently).  Then, remove the pot from the heat, gently stir in the lemon juice, and then let it sit undisturbed for 10 minutes, to let the curd form.
  2. Line a colander with a couple of layers of cheesecloth or paper towel, and place the colander over a bowl large enough to catch a couple of cups of whey.  After the curd has formed in the pot for 10 minutes, gently ladle the curds and whey into the lined colander.  Then, let it sit and drain for 1-2 hours (I like the consistency at just longer than one hour, it’s a little softer, but at 2 hours it’s very rich and thick).  Gently lift the cheesecloth/paper towels full of cheese into a bundle, and give it the gentlest of squeezes (or just let any clinging drops drip off, which will put you at less risk for bursting your paper towels- if that is what you’re using (trust me, it’s been done)), then open it up and scrape your ricotta into a storage container.  Cover and refrigerate for up to several days.  Or serve it warm, then and there.
  3. Either discard the whey or use it to cook something – it can be good in bread and biscuits and such; I tried to make Norwegian brunost, which was, er, interesting.
  4. Serve the ricotta for spreading on slices of good bread, by itself, or with a drizzle of olive oil and salt, or with a fruit compote – see below.  Or use it in cooking dishes such as pastas, baking, and such.
Ricotta with honeyed grapes (serves 4-6)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons minced shallot
  • 1 1/2 cup green grapes, halved
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • 1 tablespoon honey (if your grapes are on the sour side, rather than sweet side, you might want to use 2)
  • 1 cup homemade ricotta
  • 1 loaf fresh crusty Italian bread, sliced
  • really good floral olive oil
  • fleur de sel or Maldon sea salt
  1. In a smallish saucepan, heat the 1 Tbs. of olive oil over medium. Add the shallot and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Stir in the grapes, honey, and white wine. Turn the heat down and simmer for 10 minutes, covered for 5 of them, stirring occasionally, until the grapes have collapsed. If it looks like it’s drying out, add a splash of water. Allow to cool to room temperature.
  2. On a plate, mound the ricotta in the center. (Or divide it between 2 plates, one for each end of the table. Or you could even give everyone a little individual plate.) Drizzle generously with olive oil (a couple of tablespoons, at least). Then scoop the grape compote all over the top. Serve with the bread for spreading it on, and a finger bowl of the salt for sprinkling on top.

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