When it comes to most things around the house, I'm about the most unhandy guy you've ever seen. I can't hang a picture straight. But when it comes to cooking, I go a little do-it-yourself crazy. The last couple of weeks I've been making my own ricotta. Before you dismiss this as just another wacky fad, trust me -- you've got to give it a try.
It doesn't require any special equipment, and you can find all of the ingredients at your neighborhood grocery. And the results are so much better than almost any commercial ricotta you can buy that you won't believe it's the same stuff. This is ricotta you can -- and maybe should -- eat by itself.
Here's all you have to do to make it: Warm a mixture of whole milk and buttermilk over medium heat until it reaches about 185 degrees (you'll see a ring of bubbles appear around the inside of the pan). Remove the pan from the heat and stir in vinegar (regular old distilled white the stuff you probably now use for washing windows). Let it stand about 5 minutes until curds form, then gently lift them off with a slotted spoon and drain in a strainer.
That's it, fresh cheese that takes less than 45 minutes to make. What could be more simple? And it's kind of wonderful the way it comes together, that everyday sort of kitchen magic that makes cooking something new so much fun.
But how does it taste? Honestly, I was a little skeptical at first. I mean, outside of some really great stuff I've had in Italy, I'd always thought ricotta was meant to be kind of bland, so how much better can bland be?
Short answer: Lots. Honestly, this ricotta is so good it can be used as a starring ingredient, not just as the paste that holds together lasagna. The flavor is delicate with a wonderfully milky combination of sweet and tang.
And it's so easy to make, I don't think I'll be buying the packaged stuff again, outside of an emergency.
What do you do with homemade ricotta? How about spooning a mound in the center of a platter, drizzling it with good olive oil and seasoning it with sea salt and coarsely ground black pepper. Surround it with toasted bread slices and maybe some grilled eggplant, zucchini or peppers.
For dessert, do the same thing, but drizzle with honey instead of oil and serve it with fresh berries or cut-up fruit, with sliced toasted almonds scattered over top.
If you need a main course, mix ricotta with some chopped fresh herbs, spoon it onto a square of cooked fresh pasta, lay another square on top and drizzle everything with sage butter. Instant lasagna. If you don't have enough time, simply use the herbed ricotta to dress al dente dried pasta shapes such as penne or orecchiette.
After playing with it for a while (I've had lots of ricotta in my refrigerator the last month), I'd say that the more restrained the combination, the better with this stuff. One of my favorite dishes was a lightly herbed mixture used to stuff roasted and peeled red and yellow bell peppers.
Or, based on how amazingly good fresh ricotta is with honey, try making gelato with ricotta, honey and a little orange liqueur. You'll need to add a little milk and cream to keep the mixture from being chalky, but not so much as to obscure the ricotta flavor (it'll still have a little of that texture think of cannoli filling).
And those are just a few ideas of many.
Note: This recipe requires the use of a thermometer.
> Homemade Ricotta
9 cups whole milk
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 tablespoons distilled vinegar
Heat the milk and buttermilk in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat to a temperature of about 185 degrees. Stir in the salt and vinegar and remove from the heat. Let stand until curds have formed, 5 to 10 minutes. Pull the curds gently to the side
Line a strainer with cheesecloth and set it over a bowl. Using a perforated skimmer, gently lift the mass of curds out of the pot and into the cheesecloth-lined strainer. Repeat until no more curds remain. Discard the remaining whey.
Drain the curds for 5 minutes, then transfer to a covered container to store in the refrigerator until ready to use. The ricotta is best used the same day, but will still be good for 2 to 3 days. Servings: About 1 pound, or 2 cups.
Each 1/4 -cup serving: 110 calories; 8g protein; 2g carbohydrates; no fiber; 8g fat; 5g saturated fat; 24mg cholesterol; 2g sugar; 163mg sodium.
> Ricotta-Honey Gelato with Orange
2 cups homemade ricotta
1 cup whipping cream
1 cup whole milk
1/3 3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon orange liqueur, such as Grand Marnier
2/3 cup honey
Puree the ricotta, whipping cream, milk, sugar, liqueur and honey in a food processor until quite smooth. Taste and add more honey or liqueur if necessary; the flavor should be quite pronounced as it will become muted after freezing.
Pass the mixture through a fine mesh strainer to remove any clumps, and then freeze in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer's instructions. The texture will be slightly grainy. For the best flavor, the gelato should be eaten the same day. Servings: 8 (Makes 1 quart gelato).
Note: This is terrific served with lightly sweetened fresh berries or other fruit.
Each of 8 servings: 356 calories; 9g protein; 37g carbohydrates; no fiber; 20g fat; 12g saturated fat; 68mg cholesterol; 34g sugar; 189mg sodium.
> Roasted Peppers Stuffed with Homemade Ricotta
4 red or yellow bell peppers, preferably a combination
1 cup homemade ricotta
2 tablespoons capers, chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for finishing
Pinch crushed red pepper
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon minced chives
Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a jellyroll pan with aluminum foil and place the whole peppers on top. Roast, turning occasionally, until the peppers are shrunken and shriveled, about 20 minutes. Set aside to cool.
While the peppers are roasting, roughly stir together in a small bowl the ricotta, capers, olive oil, red pepper, salt and freshly ground black pepper and chives. Taste and add more salt if necessary.
After the peppers have cooled, peel away the tough skins and discard. Remove the stems and use your fingers to rub off any seeds that stick.
Divide the peppers into lengthwise strips about 2 inches wide; usually this will mean in quarters. Place a scant tablespoon of ricotta filling at one end of the pepper and roll it up end-to-end, pressing gently to keep everything together. Place each completed roll on a platter (it's nice to alternate red and yellow pieces).
When all of the pepper pieces have been used, lightly drizzle the completed rolls with a little very good olive oil and sprinkle lightly with coarse salt before serving. Servings: 4 to 6.
Each of 6 servings: 117 calories; 6g protein; 6g carbohydrates; 1g fiber; 8g fat; 3g saturated fat; 16mg cholesterol; 3g sugar; 196mg sodium.