Sunday, August 21, 2011
Rich, Creamy Homemade Ricotta
After leafing through the pages of Nanna's various cookbooks, it becomes obvious that ricotta cheese plays an important role in many of her recipes. Growing up, my absolute favorite dish among these was cannoli cream. Sweet, creamy, decadent -- it was just as delicious in a cannoli shell as it was straight from a spoon. As I've found from experience, the trick to making really good cannoli cream though, is to use really good ricotta cheese. The ricotta should be as rich and creamy as possible. In fact, Nanna was very particular about the brands she would use as some are creamier than others. I've had varying luck with finding creamy store-bought ricotta. I guess that old saying is true in this situation -- if you want something done right, you gotta do it yourself. With that said, I can find no better way to honor all of Nanna's recipes that feature ricotta cheese (especially cannoli cream) than to make it myself.
So after seeing a wonderful post for how to make a rich homemade ricotta cheese on one of my favorite food blogs, I was inspired. I'd made homemade ricotta cheese before, but the texture wasn't the best. It was course and even a little dry. Sure, it tasted great and it was fine tucked into lasagna, but it was not at all right for cannoli cream. But this homemade ricotta looked different. It was thick and creamy, while the curd of the cheese looked small and tender. I knew it'd be perfect for cannoli cream.
So what was the difference? The inclusion of heavy whipping cream. Oh yeah, you read that correctly. Heavy whipping cream. How do you get thick, creamy irresistible ricotta cheese? You put heavy cream in it. Yes, I realize this is not at all traditional. In fact, I probably shouldn't even be calling this glorious, decadent cheese "ricotta." Why? Well, technically speaking, ricotta cheese should be made with the whey that remains after making another cheese, like mozzarella. The word ricotta actually means "recooked." But in the words of the bard, "What's in a name?" I mean, I love tradition as much as the next girl, but I'll easily break from it in order to get this luxurious, indulgent "ricotta." It's completely worth it. Especially if the final destination of your ricotta is going to be cannoli cream or another application where a creamy ricotta will be the star. Maybe spread on a crostini with a little olive oil and fresh cracked pepper? Or perhaps with a drizzle of honey and sea salt? Yes please.
Now in my zest to praise the creamy, dreamy quality of this ricotta, I might have forgotten to mention how easy it is to make. I know cheese-making may sound intimidating at first, but this is stupid simple. You heat the milk (and cream) slowly. You add an acid (in this case, lemon juice) and then after waiting a few minutes for the curdling to take place, you strain the curds from the whey. Making ricotta doesn't require fancy kitchen gadgets either. Among the tools needed, a thermometer and cheesecloth are the most specialized ones required, and even then, it is possible to get away with making a very respectable ricotta without them. Trust me, making a fabulous homemade ricotta is very easy, and you'll be a hero for producing it.
Rich, Creamy Homemade Ricotta
(adapted from Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen)
Note: If you plan on making ricotta for a pasta or any other dish that might benefit from something slightly less rich, swap out a cup of the heavy cream for an additional cup of milk.
Makes about a pound of ricotta
6 cups whole milk
2 cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup, plus 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Pour the milk, cream, and salt into a 6-quart nonreactive saucepan; attach a candy or deep-fry thermometer. Over medium to medium-low heat, slowly heat the milk to 180-185°F, stirring occasionally to keep it from scorching on the bottom. [If you don't have a thermometer, you can gauge the temperature by eye: the milk will be foaming slightly and look thick and frothy; it won't be simmering yet and you don't want it to simmer as that's too hot.]
Remove the pot from the heat and add the lemon juice. Stir once or twice, gently and slowly. Let the pot sit undisturbed for 5 minutes.
Line a colander with a few layers of cheesecloth [you can use a piece of clean muslin or a couple of paper towels or even coffee filters in a pinch] and place it over a large bowl in order to catch the whey. Gently ladle the curds and whey into the colander and let the curds strain for at least an hour. At an hour, you’ll have a tender, spreadable ricotta. [I strained mine for an hour.] At two hours, it will be firmer, but still spreadable, almost like cream cheese. As it cools, the ricotta will firm, so do not judge its final texture by what you have in your cheesecloth.
The whey can be saved for later use in baked goods, such as biscuits. (A future post perhaps?)
Eat the ricotta right away or transfer it to an airtight container and refrigerate until ready to use. According to the internet, fresh ricotta will last 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator. For some reason, it just never stays in my fridge that long.