A weekend project, sweet + simple: Decadent and creamy homemade ricotta cheese

I realize that by prodding you to spend your precious weekend hours tinkering around in your kitchen to make something that you could very easily purchase at the market, I risk you clicking on that little red “X” up on the corner of your screen and never looking back.

Why the heck would you want to make cheese?  The one thing that maybe you thought had been permanently relegated to being acceptably store bought – one of the few items you might serve at a party that had been safely out of the dreaded reaches of the question, “Oh these are sooooo good — did you make them yourself?

(Because who hasn’t sheepishly nodded towards the bakery brownie container after being met with this terrible question before?)

The thing is that you just can’t buy something as delicious as ricotta that you make in your kitchen with your own two hands — it just doesn’t exist (or at least not where I’ve been shopping).

I was first bit by the ricotta bug when dining at Locanda Verde a few years ago, back when I’d click and clack across the city cobblestones in heels much to high to savor dates with very cute boy on a charming street corner on the Westernmost reaches of Tribeca.

There, one of their signature dishes is a little crock of sheep’s milk ricotta, that you see being whisked over to nearly every table within minutes of the guests arrival.  Knowing that a crucial rule of dining out is that you must neveroverlook something that absolutely everyone is ordering (I can’t say I ever like to feel left out), on one such date we ordered up the innocuous sounding dish, prepared for something tasty but unprepared for something earth-shattering.

And earth-shattering it was.  What arrived was a little pot of the creamiest, silkiest, most decadently smooth ricotta cheese that when spread onto the charred pieces of toast and topped with a drizzle of olive oil and good salt, seared an image of what ricotta was really supposed to be all about directly on whatever faction of my brain controls my cheese impulses (ahem….it’s a very large part).

After being dissapointed by round after round of supposed artisanal ricotta cheese that were all very good – but none great – I decided I wanted my Locanda ricotta and I wanted it exactly how I remembered it – hauntingly good and astonishingly rich. I was nearly despondent when I peeled back the cover of (the head chef of Locanda) and saw that his recipe dictated for ‘good’ purchased Sardinian sheep’s milk ricotta — instructions to use the sad purchased cheese (and from Sardinia at that!) that caused me to seek out the recipe in the first place?

After a bit of research I settled on slightly modifying a completely homemade recipe from an issue of Gourmet, from way back in the dark ages of 2006. I wanted that same ricotta that has haunted my dreams for years, and was not content settling on a recipe whereby the results could be so skewed by the wavering quality of a purchased product — and I was not disappointed in the least.

In fact – au contraire! What I found myself slathering on thick slabs of freshly cut heirloom tomato, drizzling with a nutty olive oil, and sprinkling with flaky salt even far surpassed that memory I’ve swooned over and mentally drooled about for years.  This simple recipe produces a thick and creamy ricotta cheese with tiny, cloudlike curds, a creamy spreadability (somewhere in-between butter and whipped cream cheese), and a taste that is grassy, fresh, and clean.

And – it could not have been easier. If you have some whole milk, a bit of cream, and a few lemons lying around, the you are in the ricotta business. The rest is downhill from there – a little heating, a stir or two, and then a couple tortuous hours of waiting for your ricotta to drain its whey and set up and thicken.

This is really almost impossible to mess up – even if you are a total bonehead like me, and in a crazed moment of not being able to find the cheesecloth, use a (really nice, really expensive) linen easter napkin to drain off your final product. (I’ll have you know it worked just fine.)

There are so, so, SO many uses for this cheese once you’ve got it: on fresh fruit, or grilled fruit, spread on toasted breads and dolloped on savory tarts, on top of pizzas and flatbread, with salty prosciutto and sweet figs….the possibilities are quite literally endless.

Trust me on this. You’ll think you’ve died and gone to fromage heaven.

Decadent Creamy Homemade Ricotta
Inspired in theory by Locanda Verde, adapted from Gourmet

This ricotta is unlike anything you will find in the store; as regular ricotta is traditionally made from the whey left over from making cheese, it tends to be dry, clumpy, and gritty. This ricotta is the cheese made from the first go around (you discard the whey that is created), and it is insanely creamy, full flavored, and delicious.

I would not recommend using ultra-pasteurized milk for this recipe; though I have not tried to use it, I have read and heard from multiple sources that ultra-pasteurized milk (also labeled with a small ‘UP’ will not yield as good of results than if you used normally pasteurized milk. (By the way, “ultra-pasteurized” just means that it was heated to a higher temperature for longer, and I am guessing that this process further affects the molecular structure of the milk…for more detailed info, reference this site.)  I would recommend using good quality organic milk, cream, and lemons – there are so few ingredients, you’ll want to use the best you can get your hands on.

You’ll see that my recipe makes much less than the Gourmet recipe I’ve linked to, yet uses the same amount of lemon juice; through trial and error (the trial being a try before this batch that I was not satisfied with, and the error being not enough curds), I’ve found that this ratio of lemon juice to milk and cream creates the perfect amount of ricotta without tasting overly lemony.

Makes 1 heaping cup of ricotta

3 1/4 cups whole milk
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons of freshly squeezed lemon juice (about 2 lemons worth)

tools: cheesecloth and a fine sieve or colander

Pour the milk, cream and salt into a medium sized nonreactive saucepan. (Just to be clear, aluminum and copper ARE reactive, while stainless steel, enamel [like Le Cruset], and glass are NOT.) Slowly bring the mixture to a rolling boil in a 6-quart heavy pot over moderate heat, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching. Take the mixture off of the heat, and gently stir in the lemon juice, stirring a few times to combine the lemon juice into the milk mixture. You will see the milk begin to curdle and it will start to look like a scary broken mess – that is exactly what we want. Let the pot sit, undisturbed and off the heat, for 5-7 minutes.

While the ricotta sits, like a sieve or colander with a few layers of cheesecloth. (Or a pink linen Easter napkin if you are a bonehead like me and can’t find your cheesecloth.) After the ricotta has sat for 5-7 minutes, gently pour it into the cheesecloth lined colander, and let it sit for 2 hours to drain.

After an hour you should note that the mixture has thickened substantially; after two hours, almost all of the whey should have drained off and it will be very thick and creamy. Scoop your ricotta into a small bowl, and chill it until cool. You can also use it immediately, while still warm. Mixture keeps 2-3 days covered in the fridge.

Serving ideas:

-as shown, on fat slices of heirloom tomato, with a pinch of flakey sea salt and drizzle of olive oil
-on a piece of toast with slices of fresh fig and a drizzle of honey
-double or triple the recipe (use a very large pot) to make enough for an amazing homemade lasagna, or decadent eggplant parmesan
-on slices of baguette, topped with avocado, roasted red peppers, and sliced olives
-dabbed onto fresh apricots and wrapped with prosciutto
-dolloped atop grilled peaches
-as they serve it at Locanda Verde, on slices of grilled bread with olive oil and salt
-on a fresh homemade pizza, topped with prosciutto and arugula or a great homemade tomato sauce
-tossed with fresh pasta and peas to make a light creamy sauce
-stuffed into spicy peppadew peppers as an appetizer

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