Easy Cheese

As a pastry chef, most people assume that everything I make uses ten different tools, ingredients, and mixing methods.  While that might be true in a restaurant, that style of cooking just isn’t going to fly at home.  I neither have the energy nor the desire to stress myself out after a long day or week at work.  It shouldn’t be too much to ask for food to be simple, quick, tasty, and pretty.  Of course it’s obvious that it should be delicious, and we’ve all heard that you eat with your eyes, but food definitely tastes better when you feel confident in your abilities and the process is stress-free.  That’s why I’m always on the lookout for super simple recipes that beg to be made and are a joy to share with others.

Homemade ricotta with a baguette from your favorite bakery makes a nice gift.

 

Why make the effort at all?  I think it’s important to make your own food when you can, because it satisfies more than just your hunger and nutritional needs.   If it’s a new recipe, the challenge can stretch your horizons and open you up to new techniques and ingredients.  If it’s an old favorite, there’s a sense of pride and ownership that comes from the easy second-nature movements and instincts. Whether it’s fun and exciting, or easy and relaxed, it’s a great way to connect and share with others, and do a little self-improvement with a tasty bonus.

 

 The ricotta recipe I’m sharing with you today meets my parameters outlined above. And I’m almost angry that no one taught me this earlier — it’s so simple!  With only three basic ingredients, you can dress it up any way you feel inclined (below).

Potential ricotta additions or accompaniments: 
spiced nuts, parsley, black pepper, lemon zest, honey, roasted garlic, cherry tomatoes.
 

Recipe: Ricotta Cheese

Yield: Approximately 1/2 cup (~8 tablespoons)

Nutrition: 8 servings (75 calories/serving)

Notes: Most homemade ricotta recipes call for the addition of cream. However, I find this recipe just as satisfying without it.  The recipe doubles easily once you get the hang of it, just note that the heating times will be longer.

Substitutions: You can substitute for all or part of the lemon juice with white vinegar, with no discernible difference in texture or flavor.  If you do not have cheesecloth, or a tea towel, you can also use strong, cloth-like paper towels that do not tear easily when wet.

Ingredients:

See measurement conversions

1 quart (4 cups) of whole, non-ultra pasteurized milk (non-UHT)

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (or white vinegar)

1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon salt

Tools: Pot, spatula or wooden spoon, measuring cups, measuring spoons, cheesecloth or tea towel, medium bowl
 
Directions:1. Pour milk into pot and turn heat on to medium low.

2. Heat the milk until hot and consistently steamy (approximately 5-8 minutes depending on your heat source and pot size).

3. Once the milk is steaming consistently, but is not yet simmering, maintain your heat, and set your timer for 2 minutes.  Stir occasionally with a wooden spoon or spatula to keep the milk from scorching.  It’s natural for a film to appear on the bottom of the pot (below), so don’t worry about it.  Once your timer goes off, remove the pot from the heat.   If it starts to simmer before the timer goes off just remove from heat immediately, and continue to step 4.

4. Pour the lemon juice or vinegar directly into the hot milk. Stir once with the spoon. You will immediately see the curds begin to form.  This is the cheese magic.  The proteins in the milk coagulate due to the combination of heat and acid.  The result is the white cheese curd and a clear-yellowish liquid by-product called whey.
 
5. If after 1 minute, there is still some “milky whey” (milk not yet fully coagulated), add in another splash of lemon juice or vinegar, or continue heating on low (usually 1 min) until the rest of the milk coagulates.  Once there is no longer any milky whey, and there is a clear distinction between curds and whey, remove the pot from the heat and allow it to sit for at least 5 minutes.

 6.  While you wait, fold the yard of cheesecloth in half, and then half again so you have 4 layers (or use an unfolded tea towel). Then moisten your cloth by soaking it in water and wringing it out. Place the cloth over a medium bowl to drain the cheese from the whey.  Alternatively you can also line a colander with the cloth and place it in the sink.

 7. Once the curds and whey have sat for 5 minutes, pour them into the cheesecloth to drain.

 8. You can leave the cheese to drain in the bowl/colander or use string to tie the four corners of the cheesecloth up into a bag and hang it (below).  Drain cheese until you reach the desired consistency.  A fairly loose cheese will take approximately 5-10 minutes. A slightly drier cheese takes 10-30 minutes. Try not to squeeze the bag of cheese, just let it drain, otherwise you’ll force fat (flavor) and little bits of cheese out into the whey.  I usually throw out the whey, but if you are interested in using, you can search for whey bread and beverages online.

 9. Remove cheese from cheesecloth bag, stir in salt, and add any seasons or flavorings if desired. Eat immediately or store in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

Start with 1/4 teaspoon salt, you can always add more

You can serve it loose with the toppings gently mixed in (above) or you can mold it using the cheesecloth into a ball or crottin shape (below).

Alternatively, place finished cheese into a cup lined with cheesecloth, press firmly, and then gently invert onto a plate.  FYI, you can wash your cheesecloth by hand and reuse 4-5 times if you treat it right.

Herbed ricotta with roasted garlic and olive oil

 

I hope you’ll now agree that this recipe doesn’t take much, and the results are pretty impressive.   This ricotta is a great addition to any snack spread, but you definitely don’t need a special occasion to make it.  Making this cheese is special enough.  Give it a try, experiment with different toppings, and enjoy making this recipe your own.

 

______

Lisal Moran is a food lover who sneaked into a few professional kitchens to make the sweet stuff.  She’s worked at the spectacular Orange County Blackmarket Bakery, and Michelin-starred restaurants Spruce in San Francisco, and Baume in Palo Alto.  She now teaches other food lovers in baking, pastry, cheese, and pasta classes and shares food adventures on her blog, Lisal’s Notebook.

 

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