If I had a nickname in the kitchen, it would be the Approximate Chef. It’s an approach I inherited from my mother, who, as far as I know, never followed a recipe exactly and never made any dish the same way twice. So when Elaine (the editor of culture) challenged my kids and me to a rainy-day project of making cheese, I felt a pang of anxiety reading the recipe for fresh ricotta cheese in The Paley’s Place Cookbook. A parenthetical note on the page reads, “Remember, cheese making is a science and temperature is crucial.” Fortunately, one of the many advantages of cooking with kids (and with hanging around with them in general) is that such details do not deter them.
I must admit that my two children, ages 11 and 9, were not initially inspired by the prospect of making fresh ricotta cheese. Abigail, the eldest, said, “Isn’t that the cheese that’s grainy and dry?” Quentin, dramatically and stereotypically fulfilling his role as the nine-year-old boy, made retching noises and fell to the floor.
So at first, the only lure of the project for them was in the one special piece of equipment required – a tall, sleek thermometer that clips to the side of the pan – and in the scientific quality of the proceedings. As our three heads hovered over the pan, we debated the essential question: Is it exactly 205°F? At some point above 204°F but below 210°F, I made the call: it’s close enough for our kitchen. A mere 15 minutes of worry (for me) later, Abigail and Quentin were taking turns ladling the pillowy white clouds of curd into a strainer. There was no doubt – we had made ricotta!
When you try this simple recipe, you will discover that homemade ricotta is not at all grainy and dry; it is tender, with fine, delicate curds. The sweet, mellow flavor is delicious warm (we couldn’t wait) and after draining overnight, it’s wonderful spread on toast with jam. We made another batch without hesitation.
Fresh Ricotta Cheese
Found in The Paley’s Place Cookbook: Recipes and Stories from the Pacific Northwest (Ten Speed Press, 2008), by chef Vitaly Paley and his wife, Kimberly, the note preceding the recipe reads: “If you ever thought about making your own cheese, this is the easiest one to start with.”
Makes 1 ¼ cups (about 10 ounces)
- ½ cup heavy cream
- 4 cups whole milk
- 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- Pinch of kosher salt
In a nonreactive saucepan combine the cream, milk, and lemon juice and cook over medium-low heat until the mixture reaches 205°F. (Remember, cheese making is a science and temperature is crucial.) Remove from the heat and let rest for about 15 minutes, during which time the curds and whey will separate.
Line a strainer with cheesecloth and set over a bowl. Ladle the curds (the ricotta cheese) into the strainer to drain the whey. Cover tightly with plastic wrap, refrigerate, and let drain overnight.
Discard the whey and wipe the bowl dry. Transfer the ricotta to the bowl. Stir in the salt, cover tightly, and refrigerate until needed. Ricotta will keep well refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days.