A bowl of cheese

Today, I’d like to tell you about a bowl of cheese.

Some of you out there may argue that a bowl of cheese is not a meal, and there was a day when I might have agreed with you. I don’t like to think about that day anymore.

Brooklyn readers, perhaps you recognize that bowl of cheese up there? I snapped that shot at a place called Five Leaves, where I met a friend for breakfast a couple of Sundays ago. She lives in Williamsburg, not far from Five Leaves, but she had never been there before. When we were on our way out, she said, “I’d like to come here again with you.” I decided to write that as one long sentence, since I think that’s how she meant it, with equal emphasis on the “here” and the “you.” But in truth, it sounded as if the “with you” part were tacked on, that what really mattered was having another go at that cheese or, in her case, that heaping bowl of house-made granola, yogurt, and fruit. I don’t blame her. It was very good.

The cheese, by the way, was fresh ricotta, served with figs, honey, and thyme. Fanned out on the plate beneath the bowl was bread, shot through with fruit and nuts. I’m not sure if you can tell from the photo, but this ricotta was drier and crumblier than the kind that’s been pressed into plastic tubs. Store-bought ricotta is often heavy and dense, a single, brick-like mass that you scoop out of the container in lumps. Fresh ricotta settles more in drifts. The curds are distinct, and cling to each other only loosely.

Ricotta is the simplest and most satisfying thing I’ve made in a while. If you can boil milk, you can make ricotta. Actually, if you can boil milk, you will make ricotta. So long as you add something acidic like vinegar, or lemon juice or, in the case of this recipe, buttermilk. From what I understand, the acid encourages the milk to curdle as it heats. The temperature climbs to 175 degrees and then, quite suddenly, instead of a pot of milk, you’re looking at a pot of curds and whey. I know it’s plain science, but it feels like magic. The curds bob and shimmy to the surface, you skim them into a cheesecloth-lined colander, gather up the corners of the cloth to form a small pouch, and leave it to drain for a quarter of an hour or so. And then, there it is. Cheese. That’s all there is to it.

I’m on my second batch now, and I’ve been sneaking ricotta into all manner of things. We’re bound to get to one or two of those things here sooner or later, but I feel it’s important to start with ricotta and toast, mostly because I’ve been eating so much of it. I can’t imagine a bread that wouldn’t pair beautifully with a heap of fresh ricotta, but I like it best on something chewy, brown, and lightly sweet. These days, I’ve been going with slices of a cinnamon raisin version of this loaf, or my favorite soda bread. It may not sound like much, but hot toast, a cushion of cheese, and a dribble of honey is a killer combination. Sometimes, I’ll prime the toast with a layer of apricot jam before I reach for the cheese, and then top things off with a pinch or two of chopped thyme. Now that is good stuff.

Five Leaves has three menus, one for breakfast and lunch, one for dinner, and one for “in between.” Their house-made ricotta is on every last one of them, which I take as a sign that a bowl of cheese is not only a meal, but any darn meal you please.

Homemade Ricotta
Adapted from 101 Cookbooks

In her recipe notes, Heidi writes, “Ricotta tastes and smells like the milk it is made from so use the best and freshest dairy you can find.” I second that. The fewer the ingredients in a recipe, the more important it is to make sure that they are of the highest quality. Heidi also suggests replacing a portion of the milk with goat milk for a variation on this recipe. I haven’t tried it, but it sounds good to me, and Heidi has never steered me wrong. Next time.

1 gallon whole milk
1 quart buttermilk
Sea salt (I use Maldon sea salt flakes.)

Pour the milk and buttermilk into a large, heavy pot and warm over medium-high heat. Stir occasionally to prevent burning. I clip a candy thermometer to the side of the pot to keep track of the rising temperature. Once the milk is hot, you can stop stirring.

While the milk is heating, line a colander with four or five layers of cheesecloth. Cheesecloth can be clingy, and typically comes in strips that are longer than they are wide. Rather than trying to fold the cloth multiple times, which can be tricky, I suggest draping the cloth in a single layer over the colander, and then folding in the overhang until you’ve got the desired number of layers. Oh, and a tip from Heidi: It’s best to use a wide-mouthed colander to facilitate faster cooling.

When the temperature of the milk reaches about 175 degrees, the curds and the whey will separate. Remove the pot from the heat, place the colander in the sink, and spoon the curds into the colander. After every few spoonfuls, add a couple of pinches of salt, to taste. Gently lift the sides of the cheesecloth every now and then to drain off excess liquid. Do not squeeze the curds, or press down on them with the spoon, or you’ll destroy the texture of the cheese. Once you’ve loaded all of the curds into the colander, gather the edges of the cheesecloth and tie them together with a piece of kitchen string. Tie the pouch to the faucet and leave the curds to drain for about 15-20 minutes. (You can adjust the time based on your desired consistency. The longer you leave the curds to drain, the drier your cheese will be.)

Transfer any unused cheese to an airtight container and refrigerate.

Makes about 4 cups.


Rogue Unicorn said...

Must make now.
Reading about the Five Leaves' "in-between" menu immediately made me think of Hobbits-possibly because I am re-reading The Lord of the Rings for about the millionth time, or possibly because I would like to believe that there is a place in Brooklyn that serves Hobbits. And.....now you know the true extent of my geekdom. *slinks back to thesis writing* xo

Leah said...

I've been meaning to make ricotta for the longest time, and I really need to just do it.
I've recently been obsessed with 'California style' cottage cheese (it's thicker, tastier, and saltier than normal cottage cheese) with Agave syrup. The ricotta would probably be even better.
When I get around to making some ricotta, whatever I do with it, it will most likely show up here:

darbyoshea said...

Wow - ricotta with buttermilk! I'll be trying that soon. I bet it gives it a milder tang than the straight-up vinegar I have used in the past. Anyway, welcome to the ricotta-making party!

Clarice said...

This is an interesting idea. I love the idea of having this with honey, fruit and thyme. The restaurant menu looks amazing! Thanks.

buttersweetmelody said...

mmm ricotta and honey! best thing ever! I'm scared I won't end up with ricotta but with plain curdled milk! ): I'll have to try it smoetime though! Thanks!



the blissful baker said...

oh wow, i didn't know you could make your own ricotta! sounds great!

Char said...

oh...it sounds so easy. i need to try this

linda said...

ricotta w/figs, honey & thmye…yum yum!

curious…how was the accompaniment of figs, honey & thyme prepared?

Anna said...

i can't believe i had no idea it was that easy?! I must try this...

Molly said...

I would go to bat (fiercely, ferociously) for cheese as meal, any day of the week. Homemade ricotta, perhaps more than any other. It is gooooood stuff, indeed.

PaganAngel said...

Interesting note about not pressing it--I've made my own cheese, which I've called paneer, and pressed into a block for cubing in curries. I'll have to try this version just to see the difference (well, that and because it's delicious!)

Shannalee said...

Oh, so inspiring!

Maddie said...

"Actually, if you can boil milk, you will make ricotta."

This made me laugh out loud. Thanks for giving me a reason to smile, Jess!

Julie said...

Oh so brilliant. It doesn't get much better than fresh ricotta. A whole bowl of it? Yes please.

Jess said...

Good morning, all. Yesterday felt like about three days rolled into one. Whew. It was so nice to find your notes when I finally made it home. Thank you!

Rogue Unicorn - It's so funny that you should mention The Lord of the Rings. Just a couple of nights ago, a friend of ours - Eli's climbing partner - was in town, and he was telling us about how he's trying to get his daughter to read it. I, of course, mentioned my favorite part about the Hobbit world: second breakfast! (Not to be confused or combined with "elevenses," of course.) I was a latecomer to The Lord of the Rings. When Eli and I first started dating, he loaned me his set of the books and all but commanded me to read them. Those stories meant so much to him when he was growing up. When the movie came out, I remember him saying, "It's so amazing getting to see that world brought to life." I loved that. As for Five Leaves, I'm not sure it serves Hobbits, but it sure as heck serves Brooklyn hipsters, an equally odd, hairy and, I suppose, lovable bunch. For what it's worth, I think you and your geekdom are great. xo.

Hi, Leah. I've never heard of California style cottage cheese, but now I'm curious. Thanks for putting it on my radar, and for sharing the link to your blog.

Darbyoshea - Thank you, Em, for the ricotta inspiration! Of course, now Eli is wondering when I will make your gnocchi. Any chance you'll post the recipe soon? I actually thought (and was hoping!) that I would taste the buttermilk more in the finished cheese. The tang is indeed quite mild. I'd be interested in doing a side-by-side comparison of ricotta made with several different curdling agents. I wonder what the differences would be in texture and flavor.

Clarice - Yes, it's a winning combination. And yes, I'd like to try everything on that menu... if ever I could tear myself away from the ricotta, that is. Also, isn't the menu itself just beautiful? I love the design.

No fear, Amalia! It does seem unbelievable that dumping milk and buttermilk into a pot and heating it leads to cheese, but it really does work. If you can handle cakes, and cookies, and homemade pasta - and I see from your blog that you can - this ricotta will be a snap.

the blissful baker and Char - It's easy-peasy, I promise. Give it a try. You'll be hooked!

Jess said...

(Hi, again! I had to split up my replies, since I had apparently written more than this little text box could handle.)

Linda - The figs were simply sliced in half, the thyme was pulled from the stem (lightly chopped, maybe?) and sprinkled over top, and the honey, still in the comb, was nestled into the top of the pile. It was a beautiful, simple presentation.

It really is, Anna! Now my question for you is this: How on earth might one "style" ricotta cheese in order to get a decent photograph? It's pretty camera shy, I found. (By which I mean that in several shots, it looked like something that you probably wouldn't want to put in your mouth.)

Molly - I can always count on you to stick up for what's right.

Ah, PaganAngel, you got me! Technically speaking, this recipe is for paneer. Squeeze and press the liquid from it and you will indeed have a beautiful block of cheese that you can slice and cube. True ricotta is made from whey (the milky water that's left behind when the curds separate). But from what I understand, you need a whole lot of whey -- the whey from five gallons of milk, according to this website, to make just 1.5 pounds of ricotta. Making true ricotta is also more time intensive. You have to make a cheese to make a cheese, after all. This recipe is more accurately a ricotta-like cheese or, as I like to think of it, ricotta for the home cook. By draining the curds without pressing or squeezing, you end up with a texture that's very similar to true ricotta.

Thanks, Shannalee!

My pleasure, Maddie. You often do the same for me, so I'm happy to return the favor.

You know it, Julie!

Amy said...

You made ricotta?!?!?! I am impressed. Will have to give it a try. Now...how do you make greek yogurt??

Jess said...

Amy - The result may be impressive, but I assure you that getting there is not. It really is as simple as boiling milk. As for Greek-style yogurt, it's even easier: Just strain some of the water from your favorite yogurt! Mark Bittman wrote about it earlier this year over here.

Molly said...

There are so many things I love about this post: First, fresh ricotta is possibly the best thing ever, especially on toast with honey. Second, I used to frequent Five Leaves, and reading this post makes me miss living in Brooklyn (just a little! Cambridge is nice too!). And finally, I love "in between" meals. In fact, I'm pretty sure I was a hobbit in a past life. I might just have to make some ricotta to eat with toast for my second breakfast today. xo.

Nithya said...

Jess, you've described the exact process I use to make paneer. I use it in a lot of savoury dishes myself, and my favourite by far is paneer bhurji which coincidentally, I'm having for lunch right now.
I simply have to share my recipe with you, unsolicited. I do think you'll love it.
1 onion, 1 tomato, diced but not too finely
1 cup paneer
1 green chilly, chopped very fine (de-seed if you like)
1 scant teaspoonful each og red chilly powder and turmeric powder
salt and sugar
In a wok/ saucepan, heat a teaspoonful of oil and saute the onions in it till they're just slightly tender. Then add everything else, except for the paneer. Salt to taste, then add pinches of sugar, tasting all the time, till you're sure you've got the balance right. Remember to add extra for the cheese yet to come. The tomato will wilt under the combined assault of the heat and the salt and it will release its juices, to pool at the bottom of your wok. That's when you crumble in the paneer, give it a quick stir and turn it off.

I generally have this with paranthas or chappatis, but I imagine it'll be amazing piled on toast, for breakfast.
We also make a version with egg, called egg bhurji, for a sort of glorified version of scrambled eggs. I do hope you can try it.

Stephanie said...

Oh my, that is lovely. I will have to try a recipe with vinegar, as buttermilk is hard to come by. Not sure how Korean milk, stripped of its lactose for ease on Asian stomachs, will hold up, but worth a shot.

Or I could just move. (Long overdue email forthcoming).

Jess said...

Molly - I prefer you in Cambridge. Obviously. xo.

Thank you so much for the recipe, Nithya! I must try it. A couple of questions: When you make paneer, do you simply let the cheesecloth-wrapped curds drain until they are on the drier side, or do you press them between two plates? Also, what kind of green chili pepper do you recommend? I must admit that I am a little wimpy when it comes to very spicy foods. I wish it weren't so, and I'm working on it. I really am. In the meantime, can you suggest a middle-of-the-road pepper that would work with this dish?

I have a feeling that paneer bhurji and I are going to get along.

Steph, my dear, I just did some clicking around the interwebs and it looks like folks have had success making ricotta with lactose-free milk. I say, go for it. Or, yes, move. (Just what are you up to, lady? Can't wait to hear.)

Nithya said...

Jess, for bhurji, I prefer to just use the cheesecloth method, the curds are softer that way, and are more suitable for crumbling. I use the pressing-between-plates method only when I want to cut my paneer into cubes.
For the green chilly, I use those small spindly looking peppers I get everywhere in India, but you should probably be able to substitute with half a jalapeno. Remove the seeds if you don't care much for the spice. Just slice it really really thin, so it gets dispersed all over. I like adding the chilly for its colour, more than anything else, there's already plenty of heat from the red chilly powder (paprika, I believe you call it?)
This recipe, like most Indian ones, is simply a guideline. I recommend you adjust all the spices to suit your taste. You can also bung in more vegetables, if you like. Capsicum, for example, or finely chopped mushrooms. But I, for one, like it just as it is.

Tracy said...

Your post came at the most perfect time. We'll be in Brooklyn visiting family the weekend of Halloween. Five leaves is now on our list to grab eats. "Fresh ricotta settles more in drifts." I love that.

squirrelbread said...

All you needed to grab this Wisconsin girl's attention was "Bowl of Cheese." We've made our own mozzarella before, but never ricotta. Don't know what we're waiting for!! And yes, it IS a meal!



kamran siddiqi said...

Absolutely gorgeous! I actually made David Lebovitz' version of homemade ricotta sometime last year and it was absolutely lovely. I didn't even know that Heidi had a recipe for it on her site. I'll have to give your version a try when I plan on making lasagna when I find time between studying for midterms.

redmenace said...

No argument here. Bring on the cheese. I'm headed to Brooklyn next week and going to check it out. Wonderful timing. xoxoxo

Paula said...

what a great blog!
everything here looks so delicious!

have a nice time!

Joie de vivre said...

That sounds easy! I really want to make this. It sounds wonderful and soul satisfying.

Michele Napoli said...

I can't think of much better than fresh ricotta--for breakfast, lunch or dinner!

Jess said...

Hello, hello! I'm sorry for falling behind in responding to comments. I've been on the road.

Nithya - Perfect. Thank you for clarifying. I'll report back when I give it a try!

Have a great time in Brooklyn this weekend, Tracy. I was actually there again last weekend for my cousin's wedding, and I have another recommendation for you: Frankies Spuntino. The rehearsal dinner was there, and holy meatballs, it was amazing. There was a ton of food, but my favorite was the house-made gnocchi marinara with fresh ricotta. Mmmm, boy!

Hi, Heather. The cheese that I will forever associate with Wisconsin is "squeaky cheese." We bought a bag of it at the farmers' market, and we ate it like popcorn. Delicious.

Study hard, Kamran! But not too hard. You need your kitchen time, after all!

I hope you're enjoying Brooklyn, redmenace. See my response to Tracy, up above, for another recommendation. (So good!)

Thanks, Paula!

It is easy, Joie de vivre. I hope you'll give it a try.

I'm with you, Michele. 100%.

cheapbeets said...

Great post! And, consider yourself ahead of the trend. Yesterday I received this Goop newsletter from Gwyneth Paltrow.(Snickering aside, she actually has some good recipes. It helps that she's besties with Mario Batali)


Jess said...

Thanks, cheapbeets! You know what? I think Gwyneth rocks. I like her (or Ina's?) addition of herbs to the cheese. Thanks for the link!