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.
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.