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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Why Bother? 2012 - Ricotta Cheese

I don't really know why ricotta cheese wound up on my Why bother challenge list. In all of my first twenty-one years of life, I never even ate ricotta cheese! Once I ventured out on my own, living in a one bedroom apartment as a newly minted graduate student, I occasionally came across a recipe requiring ricotta. Generally I passed it over for another recipe with "less exotic" sounding ingredients. Yes, ricotta was exotic at one point in time.

A few years later, the South Beach diet was the hot way to eat and I gave it a try, along with some friends. We mostly wanted to re-vamp our eating styles, rather than lose weight. If you know anything about the program, dessert during the first phase is always sweetened ricotta cheese. I ate it, it wasn't terrible.

As my culinary skills improved, I found myself trying out more and more items from the grocery store. Eventually things like curry paste, bakers yeast and fresh ginger made their way into the fridge, ricotta finally snuck into my grocery cart as well.

You still won't find me sitting down and eating ricotta cheese straight from the container, but I really enjoy adding it to pastas, making rich lasagnas and even lightening up a cheesecake. I don't use it that often and ricotta isn't really a staple in my fridge, which is why I was surprised to see it made it onto the list this year. Must have been someone out there that requested it!

If you came here this week for mozzarella, I'm sorry to disappoint. I neglected to look ahead on my list and failed to buy rennet in time. To keep up the cheese theme, I swapped the dates for mozzarella and ricotta!

Luckily, the ingredients to make ricotta cheese are incredibly simple. Get this - milk and lemons. That's it! How much time will you devote to making your ricotta? A little over an hour of your day. And that's time you can spend making cheese and doing other things, like laundry or making breakfast. It was so much simpler than I could have hoped and the results were amazing.

Shortly after beginning to heat the milk and lemon juice, the ricotta started to come out of the milk. Little curds were floating on the surface within ten minutes of heating! Once I strained and collected my curds, I was so happy with the fluffy, white outcome.

I decided not to add any salt to the ricotta, since I had planned to make pasta and cheesecake with it, and stored it away in the fridge. Today I'll share with you the simple method for making ricotta cheese and the deliciously simple pasta I made with it later in the week. Next week you'll be treated to the cheesecake recipe!

Was making ricotta at home worth it? I enjoyed making the cheese because it was like a fun science experiment. If you want to get kids involved in cooking, this would be a great recipe to have them help you with. Would I make ricotta all the time? Probably not. You won't save any money making your own ricotta, you'll just have a lot of fun and be able to tell your friends "Yeah, I make my own cheese."

One year ago: Coconut Joys

Ricotta cheese
Adapted from Homemade Pantry

Simple, straightforward and so easy to make.  This is the gateway into making more complicated cheeses.  Starting with whole milk, the lemon juice helps to separate the curds from the whey.  Don't throw out the whey once you're done making the cheese.  Save it and put it in smoothies, use it in place of milk in bread recipes or just drink it (I wasn't so brave!).

1 gallon whole milk (don't use Ultra-pasteurized)
2/3 cup lemon juice (from about 3-4 lemons)
Salt to taste (optional)

Line a colander/strainer with a double-layer of cheesecloth.  Place over a large bowl to collect any whey that will drain through.

In a large pot, combine milk and lemon juice.  Stir for 5 seconds, but don't touch the bottom of the pot (stir the milk like this any time you stir the pot). 

Clip on thermometer and heat over low heat to 170 F, stirring occasionally.  This should take a while, between 40-55 minutes.  Once you hit 170 F, raise the heat to medium-high and don't stir anymore.  Once you hit 205 F, maintain this temperature for 3-5 minutes.

Remove from the heat and let sit for 10 minutes. 

Using a slotted spoon, scoop out curds and transfer to the cheesecloth-lined colander.  Let the cheese drain for 10 minutes.  You've got ricotta!
Herbed-ricotta pasta
Adapted from Everyday Food

With your homemade ricotta, this meal comes together in just 15 minutes!  Chop your zucchini while the pasta is boiling and you've got a great weeknight meal.

1/2 lb short pasta, spirals or shells
2 cups frozen corn
1 cup fresh ricotta
1/4 cup grated Parmesan, plus additional to sprinkle on top
1 1/2 cups chopped zucchini
1/4 cup basil, cut into ribbons
1 tbsp dill, chopped
salt and pepper to taste

Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil.  Cook pasta according to package directions, add corn in the last minute of boiling.

Reserve 1 cup of pasta water, drain pasta.

In a large bowl, combine 1/2 cup pasta water, ricotta, zucchini, basil and dill.  Add pasta and corn and stir to coat.  Taste and flavor with salt and pepper.
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