Eating fresh ricotta that has just been cooked, soft and warm on a slice of black bread with tomato, sea salt and olive oil, is one the simplest and most satisfying pleasures there can be. Even though store-bought ricotta is certainly a high-quality product, the return you get on homemade ricotta makes it worth the trouble. There is added value to the homemade one, since the attention and sensitivity invested contribute to creating a cheese that has a delicate taste and a soft and caressing texture.
“Ricotta” means “re-cooked” in Italian. Ricotta fresca came into being out of the need to make use of all that cheese water left over from the process of manufacturing hard cheeses − from Parmesan in northern Italy to pecorino in the south. Cheese makers on Italian farms would re-cook the leftover water. With the addition of fresh milk, calf rennet or vinegar, they would get a white cheese − soft and remarkably tasty. Ricotta is low in fat and high in protein and calcium.
Italians like to eat ricotta on the same day it is cooked, and then salt the leftovers to yield a hard, salty cheese called ricotta salata. In southern Italy ricotta cheese has a particularly soft and creamy consistency because of the way it is stored. It is kept in special cone-shaped straw baskets with a wide opening and is wrapped in young ferns, which are arranged in a weave design and preserve the moisture in the cheese.
Smoked ricotta (ricotta affumicata) was produced by suspending a cloth diaper with leftovers from yesterday’s ricotta from the wooden ceiling beams over the blazing fireplace. The smoked cheese is grated over pasta or an omelet made from fresh farm eggs.
Even in homes in Italian cities, making ricotta fresca is a routine occurrence. The cheese is made from fresh milk and heavy cream, vinegar, or from buttermilk. The process is simple: You heat a big pot of fresh milk and heavy cream, and add vinegar, lemon juice or rennet for coagulation. Curds will begin to form within minutes, reminiscent of cottage cheese. With the help of a slotted spoon you transfer the cheese curds into a cloth diaper that you have previously placed over a strainer or wicker basket. After two hours the cheese is ready and you can take it out in one piece and slice it.
It is better to use the fresh whole milk sold in bags, which is more suitable to cheese making (labeled “pasteurized” as opposed to ultra-pasteurized, enriched milk and the milk in cartons and plastic bottles).
What makes ricotta cheese special is that its delicacy and soft texture will blend into almost any dish, having a subtle presence and lending it a pleasant consistency. Ricotta is good at absorbing the flavors around it and goes well in fresh summer salads, pasta dishes and fillings for cannelloni, bourekas and casseroles. Fresh ricotta will boost most recipes for cheesecake, tarts, summery desserts and pancakes.
This is a pleasantly soft cheese that is excellent in sandwiches, cheesecakes, desserts and fillings for casseroles and cannelloni.
(yields 500 grams of cheese)
2 ltr. whole milk in bags (not cartons or plastic bottles)
1 container heavy cream
1 small container yogurt
1 tsp. salt
5 tbsp. vinegar
Bring the milk and cream to a boil in a big pot, stirring periodically to keep the milk from sticking to the bottom. Turn off the fire immediately. Wait 10 minutes. Skim off the skin.
In a small bowl, combine the yogurt, salt, and half a cup of the hot milk mixture. Pour it all back into the pot, stir and turn the fire back on. Add the vinegar and cook for 10 minutes without stirring. Turn off the fire and wait 30 minutes.
With a slotted spoon, transfer the small cheese curds into a cloth diaper arranged over a strainer or straw basket. After draining for two hours, the ricotta is ready and can be taken out in piece and sliced. It is best eaten warm the same day.
To keep ricotta cheese nice and moist for several days, prepare and store it in a special plastic basket with drain holes, angled in such a way as to allow some of the liquid to stay in the cheese. You can buy straw or plastic baskets, rennet and enzymes for coagulation, dishes and utensils for cheese making, probiotic fibers for making yogurts and soft cheeses, and starter cultures from cheese maker Hila Shefer of Moshav Nehalim. Call 057-4758083, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the website www.home-cheese.com.
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