My Pandemic Diary, Entry #41
Hello Fellow City Cooks,
It’s Sunday, May 3rd, and it’s a soft, slightly cloudy day with a nice breeze. Mark and I again managed to get out early to do a walk and beat the crowds. We took a slightly different route today, venturing into a neighborhood near ours to look at different building facades just to have a distraction. It seemed the only other people we saw were either dog walkers or grocery delivery guys, some pushing bag-filled grocery carts from neighborhood markets and the others pulling piled-high dollies from Fresh Direct.
I have little to report today. As expected, I spent most of yesterday housecleaning. I always like that moment just as you finish cleaning your home, when you can stand back for that moment of appreciation, when everything is gleaming and the towels are fresh. But the best part of yesterday was getting to have a deeply satisfying long phone visit with a dear pal who even in healthy times, I never get to see often enough.
My wish for today is to have a relatively lazy day. I do need to update my grocery list because I’m anticipating having to shop within the next three or so days, and I’m also watching the Sunday political shows and I will read today’s Times and yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. And after all that, I’m hoping for a few hours with my book.
Cooking and Groceries
Yesterday’s ricotta-making experience was a terrific success. It was so remarkably easy to do and the result made a huge difference in the flavor and pleasure of the spinach pasta I made for last night’s dinner. I love finding foods that I can make and that end up tasting so vastly better than anything commercial, plus there's the bonus that it costs less to make than to buy.
I Googled “how to make ricotta” and found recipes from The Pioneer Woman, Epicurious, Ina Garten, The Kitchn, Serious Eats, Jamie Oliver, dozens of blogs, and on and on. The recipes were essentially all the same: you bring a pot of salted whole milk, or milk and cream, to a boil, take it off the heat and add a few tablespoons of acid, either lemon juice or white wine or distilled vinegar, let it sit for about a minute as you watch it curdle, and then strain it to separate the curds from the whey. That’s it.
I used 4 cups of whole milk and 3/4 cup of heavy cream because I had it, 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, and two tablespoons white distilled vinegar. It produced almost two cups of finished ricotta.
And the flavor? It was scrumptious. Its texture was smooth, creamy and pillow-y, and its flavor was milky but with personality from the most subtle ping from the vinegar. I made my ricotta just before I also made tomato sauce (4 thinly sliced garlic cloves softened but not browned in 2 tablespoons evoo, add a 26 oz. box of Pomi crushed tomatoes, a pinch of red pepper flakes, and about 1/2 teaspoon salt) which simmered while I brought a big pot of salted water to a boil so I could cook the spaghetti. Although I sauced the cooked pasta, I kept the ricotta separate so to add it on top thinking that because it was so very delicious that it would be a shame to just stir it into the tomato sauce where it would disappear. The only other thing I added was some grinds of black pepper on top but actually, you didn’t need it.
Armed only with one experience to make me an expert, I have a few tips that I gathered from all those Google results.
One, if you use a fine sieve, you don’t need cheesecloth. In fact, it can just make a mess. Only use cheesecloth, or a paper towel or a coffee filter, if you’re using a larger-holed colander instead of a fine sieve. But otherwise a fine sieve, which is what I used, worked perfectly and caught all the curds.
Two, don’t drain the pot of hot curdled milk right into the sieve. Instead bring the pot to the sieve (I had put mine over a large bowl and put both into my sink) and transfer the curds to the sieve using a slotted spoon. That will let you be gentle and not break up the curds, plus you won’t get a hot splash-back from pouring everything at once.
Three, when you bring milk to a boil, it can foam up really fast. So use a big pot and don’t take your eye off of it as it approaches the boiling point. Otherwise it can instantly overflow and you'll have a terrible mess and will never make ricotta again.
Four, don’t let it drain for too long. I let mine sit for less than 10 minutes and the texture was perfect – not too dry, not too wet. The best thing you can do, I think, is to not walk away; keep an eye on it so you can gauge when it's to your liking and then transfer the ricotta to a bowl or jar. If you think you’ve over-drained it, just spoon in a little of the leftover whey.
Five, when making the choice of whether to use lemon juice or vinegar, one of the sources I read said that while the taste difference between the two is very subtle, it can make a difference depending on how you’re using the ricotta. So if you’re making something sweet, such as a ricotta cheesecake, make the ricotta with lemon juice. If you’re using the ricotta as a savory, as on pizza, spread on bread, or in pasta, make it with vinegar.
Six, save the whey. It has nutrition and flavor. I’ve saved mine (in a covered deli container, refrigerated) so to use it in a batch of no-knead bread that I’m making. Tonight I’m trying the no-knead method with some rye flour and I’m hoping the whey will add even more flavor. Other ideas are to add it to soups or smoothies or even drink it as is. The Spruce Eats, which was one of the blogs I read for its ricotta recipe, has a long list of other ideas (and the rest of the blog is also very good).
Finally, this would be a great thing to make with kids. It’s simple to do and you can watch the milk transform into ricotta. There’s no waiting.
Stay safe and have a nice dinner.