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Gateway Cheese

It all started with ricotta.

A recipe would call for it, a sumptuous lasagna, perhaps, or possibly stuffed shells.  Living on a tight budget in an expensive town meant no ricotta unless it was steeply discounted.  (The day I found 99c ricotta on clearance was a very good day indeed.)

One day a couple of years ago, I wandered around the ‘Net, looking for something to do with a gallon of milk in my fridge that was woefully close to its expiration date. ¬†While I like my cereal, using up a gallon in 18 hours seemed a daunting proposition. ¬†I found my answer on a foodie site called eGullet: make ricotta.

It’s not true ricotta which is made from whey left over from making some other cheese, but it’s certainly close enough for me. ¬†Most cheesemaking, using as it does various molds, wild yeasts and other unsavory characters bebopping around in our atmosphere seemed rather scary to me at the time. ¬†Ricotta, with its simple instructions to bring milk to 180F then strain anything solid out, seemed foolproof.

Plus, a gallon of milk costs much less than a pound of ricotta and it would go bad anyway, I reasoned.  What was the harm in experimenting?

It came out beautifully.  Fluffy white curds of ricotta floated in a yellow sea of whey at the end of the time allotted.  I scooped them out carefully, stopping to taste a bite here or there.  It almost seemed a waste to cook this into a lasagna, to relegate it to merely a supporting character.  

The lasagna never did get a chance to envelope my ricotta that day. ¬†Instead, I topped portions with honey and nuts to nibble on decadently with a favorite book. ¬†I made a ricotta souffle that I’d always wanted to try but never wanted to risk the money on an inferior brand that would taste more like plastic than cheese.

After that, I began to play more with cheese. ¬†When I wandered off to Latvia, I learned how to enjoy clotted cream, creme fraiche, biezpiens (known in the US as “quark”) and most importantly, kefir. ¬†

Most of my cheesemaking right now consists of manipulating kefir in various ways to turn out soft cheesy spreads and quark for making Latvian-style pankukas. ¬†Later this month, I’ll be working with another fast, easy cheese called “JńĀŇÜu siers”, or “St. John’s cheese”, a Latvian caraway seed cheese made traditionally for Midsummer celebrations, or JńĀŇÜi. ¬†But that’s a tale for later.

Ricotta Cheese

1 L whole milk 
250 mL buttermilk
120 mL heavy whipping cream (optional, see note)
1/4 tsp fine salt

Line a large colander or sieve with a clean cotton kitchen towel or cheesecloth, if you have it.  Allow the edges to drape over the outside of the colander and place into a large bowl.

Combine the milks in a large, heavy stockpot.  Attach a thermometer to the edge of the pan so that it extends at least 2 inches into the milk.  Cook over medium-high heat until the thermometer registers 180F/77C (about 20 minutes), gently stirring occasionally.  As soon as the mixture reaches 180F/77C, stop stirring as the whey and curds will begin to separate.  

Continue to cook, without stirring, until the milk reaches 190F/88C.  If you stir, the delicate curds that have formed will begin to break apart and your ricotta will become grainy. Immediately remove from heat and allow it to sit, undisturbed, for about 30 minutes.

Using a slotted spoon, gently remove curds to the colander.  Allow them to drain for a couple of hours, though you can tie the cheesecloth together and hang it from your sink faucet, which can shorten draining times.

Scrape the ricotta into a bowl and sprinkle with salt, tossing gently with a fork to combine.  Refrigerate.  

Yield: Approximately 200 g.

Notes:

1. Use the best milk you can afford (or prefer) for the best tasting cheese.  Skim or low-fat cheese will not make a great cheese.  (Remember, fat is flavor!)

2. The leftover liquid, called whey, can be chilled and drank straight like my husband loves to do.  It can also be used in place of buttermilk in recipes. 

3. Instead of buttermilk, it is possible to use citric acid (1/2 tsp per litre) or distilled vinegar (1 Tbsp per litre) after the milk reaches 180F.

4. The longer the cheese drains, the drier it will be. ¬†Check on it periodically and remove it to the fridge when it’s at the consistency you prefer.

5. For creamy dessert-style ricotta, add a quarter-pint of heavy whipping cream to the litre of whole milk when you start for a richer and more decadent cheese.