I haven’t thought much about ricotta cheese since my memories of it are bland and not that interesting. It wasn’t until I read an article in the New York Times last week that I saw the whole picture. Ricotta provides the yin to whatever spicy or sweet yang flavor you want to pair with it. It complements sharper flavors in a way that brings a richness to both. That isn’t to say that it can’t stand on it’s own. When you make your own, it has a tangy-sweet dimension that just doesn’t come through with store-bought ricotta.
Italians would probably laugh at my discovery since they have been using ricotta forever in traditional dishes like pasta filling and desserts. I may have been slow to catch on to its versatility but in the past week, I’ve already made it twice. It is destined to become a homemade staple like creme fraiche in our house.
There is something magical about this process and for those of us who are impatient in the kitchen, it is surprisingly fast. All you need for 1 cup of ricotta is 1 quart of whole milk, 1 cup buttermilk, cheesecloth and a cooking thermometer. You can easily double this recipe. The second time I made it, I used milk from Sea Breeze Farm advertised as sweeter due to the cows eating fresh clover. I’m not certain, but I think they may be right.
Line a colander or sieve with 2-4 layers of cheesecloth and place in the sink or on top of a bowl.
Pour 1 qt milk and 1 cup buttermilk in a heavy saucepan on high heat. Stir often, scraping the bottom of the pan. Once the milk starts steaming, curds will begin to form on the surface. At this point, stir very gently. When the milk reaches 175-180 degrees, take off the heat, stop stirring and let the curds sit and form for 10 minutes. The whey is the thin liquid underneath the curds.
Very gently lift the curds into the colander with a slotted spoon. Let the ricotta sit in the colander for 5-10 minutes while the liquid drains off. When the dripping has slowed down, bring the edges of the cheesecloth together, gently twist the top so it is closed. Do not squeeze the liquid out. Let it continue to drain for 15 minutes more. Untie the cloth and lift the finished ricotta into an airtight container. Use within a week.
One of the easiest ways to use ricotta is as a savory spread on crostini or grilled bread. Brush both sides of slices of bread with olive oil. Set on the grill or under a hot broiler and toast on both sides. Rub each slice with a cut garlic clove.
Mix ricotta with 1/4 – 1/2 cup whole milk or cream until it becomes very creamy and spreadable. Add 1 teaspoon chopped herbs such as thyme. This tastes even better topped with a spicy jam like the Rhubarb-Thyme Jam created by Becky Selengut. A sweet version of the ricotta spread for your breakfast toast can be made by adding honey and cinnamon instead of herbs.