Cheese has always held a special place in my heart. Ever since I was barely tall enough to sneak handfuls of cheese from my Mom’s cutting board at the kitchen counter, I have been a true fanatic. It’s salty, it’s savory, it’s just plain delicious. Not only have I always loved the taste of cheese, but the world of cheese has always fascinated me as well. The styles, flavors, and applications seem utterly infinite. Cave aged? Smoked? Fresco? With a layer of ash? How does one begin to choose? It seems to me though, that in the grand scheme of things, cheese mainly falls into one of two categories: there's cheese, and then there is good cheese. Let me explain.
On the one hand, there’s cheese I put in everyday foods - in a sandwich for lunch, mixed into a salad, on top of weeknight pasta – and it does its job just fine. It lends some salty unctuousness to the dish, and that's about as far as it stretches for the palate.
But then…there's the latter. The Good Cheese. Cheese that deserves much more individual attention. This is the cheese I set out for on specific trips to specialty stores. Cheese I buy after tasting and talking about it with the cheesemonger across the counter for at least 10 minutes. Cheese that deserves its own uninterrupted moments of savoring…moments of experiencing each flavor and texture profile as it slowly dissipates in my mouth. It's the kind of cheese that often puts our hum-drum everyday cheese to shame, and it makes me wonder why I sometimes even bother with anything less.
On the wings of one of those afternoons dedicated to Good Cheese finding and eating, I realized that I wanted to learn more about the process of cheese-making. What was it exactly that made these specialty dairy treats so utterly delicious? I had encountered the prospect of making your own cheese at home amongst a few of my food books before, and I finally decided to turn a lingering interest into a reality.
After a few sessions of reading and recipe research, I found a cheese and method that seemed almost too simple to be true, and therefore fit my beginner standards perfectly: Ricotta. It only required two ingredients (whole milk and buttermilk), minimal equipment (a soup pot, thermometer, colander, and cheese cloth), and really only involved two steps (heating and draining). Needless to say I was all for it, and within no time my own first batch of creamy, light, refreshing ricotta was staring back at me from my counter top. It was easy, relatively quick, and the results were delectable. And I could thank myself for it! Now I could experience Good Cheese moments without ever leaving my kitchen. Homemade, economical, and delicious? Now that’s what I call Good Cheese.
Serve salted for savory dishes – lasagnas, stuffed pastas, as a pizza topping… - or dress it up with honey or sugar for sweet pairings with fruit or any other dessert. I like mine more moist than dry, so I only drain the curds for the minimum 15 minutes.
Homemade Ricotta Cheese
1 gallon good-quality whole milk
1 quart good-quality buttermilk (note: Kate's Real Buttermilk is a great option, fresh from Maine)
Combine both milks into a large nonreactive saucepan over medium high heat, preferably a thick-bottomed pan if you have one. You will need to stir occasionally, scraping the pan bottom, to avoid scorching. Once the milk is hot, stop stirring. You will start to see curds rise and come to the surface. Run a spoon or spatula along the bottom of the pan occasionally to free up any stuck curds.
While the milk is heating, select a sieve or colander with a wide surface area. This will help your curds cook more quickly. Line the colander with a large piece of cheesecloth that has been folded numerous times - until you have about 5 or six layers. Place the lined colander over a large bowl or sink.
When the mixture reaches about 175 F˚, you will see the curds and whey separate. The curds are the clumpy white mass. Now, remove the pan from heat, and gently begin to ladle curds into the prepared sieve. Pull up on the sides of the cheesecloth to drain off any extra liquid, but resist pressing on the curds. Gather the edges of the cloth, tie or fasten them into a knot and allow them to drain for another 15 minutes minimum. Move to an airtight container and refrigerate if you aren't going to use it immediately. Try to use or eat it within a few days, it really is best that way.
Makes about 4 cups.
Recipe adapted from 101cookbooks.com