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Making Fresh Ricotta Cheese

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March is a desert for whole foods lovers. The gardens are brown, the supermarkets are full of produce from Chile and Mexico, and even the Winter Farmers Markets around here have ended. Some of us compensate for the lack of freshness with stored vegetables from last season, like potatoes, carrots or parsnips.

On the other hand, with so few fresh ingredients to inspire our cooking, and all the distractions of spring yet to intrude, March may be the perfect month to experiment. As Cole Porter wrote,
"Experiment, make it your motto day and night. Experiment, and it will lead you to the light."

Maybe you've been thinking about tweaking that spaghetti sauce recipe, or trying to find the time to try that cake recipe with Grand Marnier instead of vanilla, or that chicken-under-a-brick technique you saw in a glossy magazine. "Experiment and you'll see."

So I tried a recipe I've been meaning to try for years -- fresh ricotta cheese. I don't know why I waited so long because it's delicious and very easy to make. "Ricotta" means reheated since traditionally the cheese is made from reheating the whey which is the by-product of making mozzarella.

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Fresh cheese is the term used to distinguish it from an aged cheese, although aging even a fresh cheese will bring out a deeper flavor. A fresh ricotta is created by simply boiling a combination of milk and an acid like lemon juice or buttermilk; separate the curds from the whey and you've got ricotta. You can use whole milk, or part skim depending on the fat content you like. The longer you strain the curds the denser and drier the cheese will be.

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Fresh ricotta is delicious on bread, in cannoli, lasagna, on veggies, or as part of an antipasto platter -- wherever a creamy, cheesy addition would be good. You can flavor it with chocolate pieces, lemon/orange rind, sugar, even herbs. I'm going to try it again using raw milk (if I can source it) which has more depth of flavor than pasteurized. Try making it with sheep's milk as they do in Sicily.

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Or with buffalo milk as they do in Campania.

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What you'll need is:
alarge, heavy-bottomed pot
candy thermometer that clips onto the side of the pot
colander
skimmer
cheese cloth

INGREDIENTS:
8 cups whole milk (not ultra-pasteurized, pasteurized is okay, but preferably organic) or
7 cups whole milk plus 1 cup heavy cream (as Nancy Silverton does at Mozza)
2 cups low-fat (2 percent) commercial buttermilk (preferably organic)
salt

PROCEDURE:
  • Stack four large squares of cheese cloth in a colander leaving it hanging over the sides.
  • Combine milk and buttermilk in pot and attach thermometer.
  • Over high heat, stir almost constantly as small curds begin to form.
  • When mixture reaches 175-180 degrees and curds have separated from the liquid (whey) and are floating on top of liquid, turn off heat.
  • With slotted spoon or skimmer transfer the curds to the prepared colander.
  • Gather up the cheesecloth and release some liquid from under the cheesecloth, squeezing a little -- don't press or the ricotta will be dry.
  • Deposit ball of cheese into colander and let rest 20 minutes.
  • Then transfer it to a medium size bowl, sprinkle lightly with salt, mix gently, cover and chill until cold, about 2 hours.

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Enjoy!