In a 1942 science fiction story, author Leigh Brackett observed, “Witchcraft to the ignorant… Simple science to the learned.” This pretty well sums up my relationship with making ricotta cheese over the past week. The first time I turned a simmering saucepan of Thomas milk and cream into rich, creamy cheese, I was flabbergasted – it had to be magic! However, by the third (okay, maybe fourth) rendition, I realized that making ricotta is actually a very simple, reliable process. Adding a mild acid – such as lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, or white wine vinegar – to heated milk causes it to separate into Little Miss Muffet’s curds and whey. From there, you simply strain off the excess liquid to obtain your bowl of warm, creamy goodness.
However, the fact that ricotta is almost ludicrously easy to make should in no way detract from its wonder. In addition to coming together in just about half an hour, fresh ricotta is also delicious and versatile. The recipe below is made with whole milk and heavy cream, producing a ricotta that is infinitely richer and smoother than anything you’ll find at the grocery store. It is also very easy to adapt to whatever purpose you have in mind. For example, while letting the ricotta drain for 15 to 20 minutes produces a cheese suitable for use in things like lasagna, tortellini, and cannoli, you can also let it drain longer to produce a drier ricotta that’s perfect for pastry uses such as ricotta gnocchi. It’s also perfectly acceptable to let the ricotta drain for just a few minutes and eat it warm and fresh as a spread on crusty bread (or straight off the spoon!). I found it particularly (read: extraordinarily, addictively) delicious drizzled with a bit of honey and served with fresh blueberries.
As a caveat for all of the cheese purists out there, it should be noted that this recipe is not a true ricotta. Italian for re-cooked, ricotta is traditionally made from the whey leftover from other cheese-making ventures. In contrast, this recipe begins with milk and produces whey as a byproduct; it’s the liquid that you strain off. Because this whey hasn’t been treated with rennet or other cheese cultures, you can’t use it to produce an endless cycle of ricotta (unfortunately). However, you can use it as a protein- and flavor-rich substitute for water in bread and soup recipes.