Sunday 29 January 2012

What Ricotta Taught

It might sound strange that learning how to make cheese taught me something about being a woman. In fact, I think the culinary arts are an excellent touchpoint for any of us - women and men - seeking to honour the feminine within. This is the part of us that knows -  that responds to time like the liquid thing it is - with intuition and with reverence. The pursuit of a quick result often happens at the expense of honouring the process, and we miss out on the magic that occurs in the meantime. In my kitchen boudoir, I find myself learning about this sacred approach to time and recently I have made a sincere and conscious decision to let what happens in this space, this organic unfolding, seep into the rest of my world view and infuse my approach to living.

There is definitely a place for the quick & dirty approach, culinary and otherwise, yet I am quick to scoff at a recipe (or a lover. or fame.) that lasts 15 minutes or less. Why not this same 'scoffability' in other areas of life where necessary attention is lacking? Working successfully with food is about doing the little nurturing things that matter - a glug of olive oil, a crackle of salt, a crunch of pepper, a whiff of cinnamon or chili heat to spice up a recipe. It is also about doing the big things that require patience and time - like waiting for the second rise, the hours of slow simmering that makes meat fall off bones and stews taste delicious, the long cooling of cakes begging for icing. The perusal of this blog post, which is starting to read like a novel. With preparing food, this invested and care-full approach is second nature. Why then in life do we often struggle with, and have a tendency to neglect, these necessary steps - nurturing and waiting - and are disappointed to find we are left with something less-than-extraordinary, something bland that passes for living? I'd like to learn to shrug off the transient satisfactions and temporary solutions in exchange for get-my-hands-dirty/feet wet/soul singing intimacy with the things that scare me most - the unknown things.

Perhaps one of the reasons we avoid nurturing our food and ourselves in this way is out of the fear or intimidation that we experience when faced with ambiguity or are given the direction to 'take time.' I am used to regulating time, not embracing it. Taking time means taking care, and taking care means I am worth an afternoon dedicated to the pursuit of cheese. As silly as that might sound, the truth in it strikes something at the core. Is there a point in making cheese? Perhaps not, other than it encourages growth both bacterial and spiritual. Cheese, to me, is an unknown. We buy it prepackaged at the grocery store and have only a vague idea of its origins. We know milk is involved - but beyond that? Fear. Fear of the cheese.

Thanks to Deb at Smitten Kitchen, I have conquered my fear of the cheese and found a fitting metaphor for embracing the unknown that I fear in my own life (you just never know what might Deb ranted and raved about homemade ricotta and its deliciousness and simplicity. What does it require? Sure - milk, cream, lemon juice, some salt, some cheesecloth and...time. It requires time.

Milk and cream are set to slowly warm up in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. I love how recipes often work out so that the wait time for one step gives one the perfect amount of time to complete the other necessary steps, but in an unhurried, relaxing way. Enough time to also take a sip of something, water a plant, respond to a friend, take photos of a lemon from every angle possible. 

Once the milk/cream mixture reaches its ideal warmth (190 F), you take the pot off the heat and add the lemon juice. And then you wait a bit. More sips. More snaps. 

The mixture gets delightfully curdle-y. A few stirs with a wooden spoon where you get to feel like an alchemist for a moment. This stringy liquid will, through a combination of love, attention, chemistry and time, become cheese. At this point, the mixture is carefully poured into a strainer lined with a few layers of cheesecloth and...that's right...more waiting. You have paid the necessary attention to the preparatory details. You have stirred, beamed at, and whispered lovingly to your concoction. Now you leave it to do its thing. 

Brave, no? This taking a moment away. This letting things be. This letting nature do what it does best. This necessary step in the creative process - something our feminine sides have keyed into throughout history: germination, gestation. Perfect time to read a book, watch an episode, nap, do  things that start with m and end with 'ate.' Meditate comes to mind. An hour later (a whole hour where making cheese means doing whatever else comes naturally!) you have fresh, irresistibly creamy ricotta. And a fresh, irresistible outlook on life. 

At this point, you simply gather the cheesecloth into a ball and squeeze out the whey, for which there are many other uses - I store mine in the fridge in a Mason jar for up to two weeks (you can freeze it too!) to use in baked goods, as a hair conditioner (it works wonders!!!), the base for a marinade, etc. 

 The cheese tastes delicious on its own. A fresh baguette is the perfect vehicle for it. On the day I made this, I happened to have just that very evening been gifted a bottle of very nice olive oil and a drizzle of that and a light sprinkling of coarse sea salt and freshly ground pepper played very nicely with the cheese. Of course, the variations of potential delicious toppings are endless, but in this case I would advise you not to mess with a good (very, very, good) thing.

Creamy Ricotta - adopted lovingly from Deb at Smitten Kitchen

Yields ~ a cup and a bit of seductively creamy, spreadable cheese

3 CUPS whole milk
1 CUP heavy cream (I have used half & half with great success & all milk works too)
1/2 TSP coarse sea salt
3 TBSP fresh lemon juice

In a three quart heavy-bottomed non-reactive saucepan, combine milk/cream and salt.
Using a candy/deep fry thermometer, allow the mixture to come to 190 F, stirring occasionally to keep from scorching. Remove from heat. 

Add lemon juice, stir once or twice with love and then let rest for about 5 minutes. 

Allow the curds and whey to strain through a colander lined with a few layers of cheesecloth into a bowl or pot below. Remember to keep your whey. You have no idea how many whey puns I am holding back right now.  My apologies for all the ones you think of after reading this. 

Leave to strain for at least an hour. Gather ends of cheesecloth together and form a ball with the curds, and gently squeeze out the remainder of the whey.  Scrape off the cheese into a container of choice, but this is not the kind of thing that lasts long enough to keep it. If you are somehow finding yourself with leftovers, cover the top of the cheese itself with plastic wrap and then top the container with a lid or more wrap. It should keep a week or so in the fridge (but again, this fact begs the question - why keep it if you could be eating it?).

This ricotta quite honestly tastes like an orgasm feels and please be aware of the fact that it rather unapologetically elicits sounds that are normally associated with that experience, giving you a very particular insight into your dinner guests.


  1. I'm making this today! Although the recipe I have calls for buttermilk rather than lemon.

    If mine falls through, I'm switching to lemon!

    Your pictures are absolutely beautiful!

    1. Thanks Jen! I haven't tried the buttermilk version yet, although I've seen it used in many recipes online. I also saw a goats milk one that I'd like to try, for a twist in flavour.

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