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Singing homemade ricotta's praises

Homemade ricotta drains in a cheesecloth-lined colander until

Homemade ricotta drains in a cheesecloth-lined colander until it reaches a creamy, spreadable consistency. (Sept. 15, 2011) Credit: Lauren Chattman

Until very recently, I'd lived my life without regrets. Then I made ricotta cheese at home for the first time. As soon as I tasted the warm, creamy, sweet curds right from the colander where they were draining, I instantly regretted not having made my own ricotta 20 years ago. Now, I plan on running to the supermarket to buy a half gallon of milk so I can begin to make up for lost time.

There are no other cooking projects I can think of which require so little effort and produce such a satisfying payoff. Making ricotta takes five minutes of hands-on cooking time and four ingredients, including salt. The result can be compared to store-bought ricotta cheese in the same way I would compare a warm-from-the-oven homemade chocolate chip cookie to one from a vending machine. That is to say, there is no comparison. After tasting it, my 12-year-old marveled that it "tastes like ice cream, without the sugar." Imagine how such an item could enhance some of your favorite dishes.

Ricotta cheese isn't actually cheese. Mass-produced ricotta is made by adding acid to whey, the liquid that remains after milk has been curdled and strained during the process of making real cheese. Adequate draining is the key to a thick, creamy ricotta with concentrated flavor. Ricotta cheese produced in a factory is drained quickly (time is money) and then thickened with gums and stabilizers, explaining its rubbery texture and artificial flavor. Homemade ricotta (like some artisanal ricottas increasingly available at fine cheese shops and specialty foods stores) relies solely on proper draining to achieve a thickened consistency. Don't worry about locating whey before starting. Home cooks can use whole milk supplemented with heavy cream in its place.

The technique is simple: Combine milk, cream and salt in a large pot and bring to a boil over medium heat. As soon as the mixture boils, remove it from the heat and stir in some lemon juice. Within five minutes, the mixture will have curdled. Pour it into a cheesecloth-lined strainer and drain. This last step, during which 9 cups of liquid becomes just 2 cups of ricotta, is the one that takes some time. For moist, spreadable ricotta, an hour is enough. For a drier result -- ricotta thick enough to stuff pasta shells -- let it stand for 11/2 to 2 hours.

To enjoy its dairy-fresh flavor, eat your ricotta within a day of making it. Here are just a few suggestions for how to do so:

* Bruschetta Spread on top of toasted or grilled bread that's been brushed with olive oil and rubbed with a clove of garlic.

* Breakfast bruschetta Spread on top of toasted bread that's been coated with a thin layer of marmalade or jam.

* Ricotta and eggs Fold into softly scrambled eggs and sprinkle with chopped chives.

* Ricotta and pasta Scoop a spoonful on top of a bowl of pasta tossed with cubes of roasted butternut squash, zucchini or eggplant, olive oil and herbs. Or scoop a spoonful on top of a bowl of spaghetti dressed with pesto.

* Peppers stuffed with ricotta Spoon some into freshly roasted and seeded red peppers, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with sea salt.

* Beet and ricotta salad Drizzle sliced roasted beets with olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt and toasted almonds, and garnish with a dollop of fresh ricotta

* Fruit, honey and ricotta Drizzle with honey and serve with sliced figs or berries

* Cannoli cream Mix ricotta with a little superfine sugar, some chopped candied orange peel, and mini-chocolate chips. If you don't have cannoli shells, serve with Belgian butter waffle cookies (look for them in the cookie aisle at the supermarket) on the side.

HOMEMADE RICOTTA CHEESE

The only tricky thing about this recipe is bringing the milk mixture to a boil without allowing it to boil over, which can happen quickly and create a real mess. Make sure to use at least a 4-quart saucepan (a 6-quart pan is even better), and watch the pot carefully. Have an oven mitt handy and as soon as the milk starts to bubble up, quickly slide the pan to a cool burner before stirring in the lemon juice.

1/2 gallon whole milk

1 cup heavy cream

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

1. Line a large colander with cheesecloth and set over a large bowl.

2. Combine milk, cream and salt in a large, heavy saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat (don't cook on high, or the bottom will scorch). Remove pot from heat, stir in lemon juice, and let stand without stirring for 5 minutes.

3. Pour mixture into prepared colander and let drain until it has reached the desired consistency, 1 to 2 hours. Serve ricotta warm or refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 1 day before serving. Makes about 2 cups ricotta cheese.

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