Blessed are the cheesemakers

Yep, that’s homemade ricotta, swirled with a touch of honey, sprinkled with a smidge of sea salt, and smeared on ciabatta … The deliciousness is only one of several things that blow my mind about this ricotta a little bit. Other things include the facts that the cheese was made in my kitchen, by my three year old and me. And that we did it with a thermometer ‘situation’ to boot.

Let me back up. For over two years now, I have been eyeing Alana Chernila’s small-curd ricotta posting, and wondering … But somehow, making cheese in my own kitchen, no matter how easy the recipe appeared, seemed terribly unlikely. Dan and Kate know the woman who is the head cheesemaker for Cow Girl Creamery (yes! I know! total rock star connection!) and every time any one mentions this fact, cheesemaker is said in a special voice, with a sort of reverence … But I imagined that in my own kitchen, if there were ever any whispers of cheesemaker, instead of reverence we would hear only echoes of Monty Python.

Then, in the mail this week, I received something I have been waiting for with baited breath. Alana’s first book, The Homemade Pantry, makes me want to sing. It is beautifully produced – the paper, type faces, images and stories come together in lush harmony, and actually make you hungry. But of course, what really makes it a wonderful cookbook are the recipes. Followers of Alana’s blog are familiar with many of them, and with her terrific ability to take seemingly out-of-reach pantry staples and make them totally kitchen-able, not to mention packaging-free and relatively healthy. The treats are the most impressive, somehow. Pop-tarts? Check. Twinkies? Check. OREOS? Really? Amazing.

Having the book in my hands, the tangible weight of it, the printed words on the page, made this long-admired recipe seem more accessible somehow (milk, lemon juice, cheesecloth, that’s it … yes, really, that’s it!). So, we went for it. Kyle loves ricotta so much that I was fairly confident he would eat whatever mess we came up with. We are also staring down a week of lousy weather again, and needed some new activities. If the cheese making failed (and I admit, I was pretty much thinking it might) I could pass it off as kitchen science – milk measuring, thermometer reading, curd separating! At least we were filling a few minutes of our long afternoon with something worth while.

After what Alana would call a tense moment with the curd-making, we regrouped, re-acided, and were triumphant. Some milk, some lemon juice, a MacGeyvered thermometer, and a little kitchen magic – and we had done it. Just like that, Jacob and I became cheesemakers. *

* “Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.” :)

Homemade Ricotta Cheese
We adapted from the recipe and technique used in The Homemade Pantry, with just a couple changes; we used a combo of lemon juice and a little bit of white vinegar. We also didn’t want to make one and a half cups of cheese (remember, I didn’t actually think it was going to work) – so we started with only a partially full half gallon of milk instead of a whole half gallon, and adjusted our acid accordingly. Finally, we had a thermometer ‘issue’ – with no cheese thermometer on hand, we used a strange thermometer that we found in the drawer that had a meat spike. While it had the temperature range that we needed, there was no obvious way to attach it to the pot. Garden twine eventually did the trick quite nicely (see photo above). 

1 quart plus one cup whole milk (NOT ULTRA PASTEURIZED) (original recipe calls for one half gallon whole milk plus a half cup cream if you’d like)
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (original recipe calls for 1/3 cup)
(1 teaspoon white vinegar if needed)
Optional: salt, to taste

Ice a large heavy bottomed pot by letting an ice cube melt in it, swirling the ice all around and then leaving the thin layer of ice water that forms. Pour in your milk and add the lemon juice and vinegar. (I actually added the vinegar later, when my milk didn’t curd, but when we do this again I will add it when I add the lemon juice – make the whole thing less stressful). Stir gently a couple times. Attach a thermometer (that has a range including 175 F and 205 F) so that it is submerged in the milk but not touching the pan bottom. Heat over low heat until the milk reaches a temperature of 175 F, stirring gently once or twice (Alana says this should take 40 to 50 minutes, but it took us not quite 30 on our very lowest setting, probably because of the reduced milk volume). Raise heat to medium high, and watch carefully while the milk comes to 205 F – almost, but not quite boiling. This will only take a minute or two. Take it off the heat.

[At this point, I didn’t have as many curds as I wanted so I added a teaspoon of vinegar – instant curds. Vinegar supposedly makes a tougher curd than lemon juice, but our cheese was soft and creamy and delicious – per Alana’s original blog post, using this slow-heating method protects you somewhat from tough curds]. [UPDATE: having now made this recipe multiple times, the original recipe’s proportions work perfectly. My initial mistake, I think, was in using lemons from my yard for the juice – that is, Meyer lemons, which are prized for their lower acidity ;). But if you do have a curding issue as I did originally – a dash of white vinegar seems to be the go-to trick people recommend.]

Let the pot sit for ten minutes, then strain through a double layer of dampened cheesecloth set into a colander over a pan to catch the whey if you want to save it (purportedly good for baking – I’ll let you know later this week!) or over your sink if you don’t.

We made impromptu egg noodles tossed with fresh ricotta and caramelized onions for dinner, alongside roasted asparagus and poached fish in an herb cream sauce. A meal to remember (see below). But the best by far was the ricotta, mixed with a drizzle of honey and a dash of salt – Kyle and Lucas and I ate it smeared on bread as in the opening photo, but Jacob just went for it, spoon to mouth. Blessed be that little cheesemaker. And thank you, Alana, for creating such a beautiful book.

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