Little Miss Muffet

L,LOne of my favorite things to do for myself, especially on a slightly overcast summer day is to treat myself to lunch or an early dinner at Quartino, sitting outside, reading a book, sometimes with or without a quartino of wine, and enjoying a simple, but delicious meal.   I'm instantly transported to sidewalk bistro dining in Paris where I've sat for hours on Rue de Charonne sipping rosé, watching the lively buzz of Parisian locals of all stripes go about their daily business.

Incidentally, Quartino has a wonderful 2 people for $25 prix fixe lunch special - it's my favorite place to lunch with friends.  You and your favorite someone can have three courses for a mere $25 - what's not to like? This brings me to one of their house specialties that had me dreaming of billowy white clouds....of ricotta cheese.

Quartino has the most amazing house ricotta served with grilled bread.  They douse it with olive oil and sprinkle it with lively flakes of thyme.  I often order that and the rucola salad with mandarin and hazelnuts and I am as happy as a clam.  I'm gonna let you in on a secret, straight from the mouth of a Quartino server: request a side of honey with the ricotta cheese.  Your life will never be the same.

I only treat myself to Quartino periodically, but why wait to have amazing cheese?  Besides store-bought ricotta is pretty horrible.  It's watery and the curds are a bit grainy - fine for a lasagna, but not so much for enjoying on its own.  With a handful of materials, and a wee bit of patience, you too can have your Quartino experience— billowy clouds of ricotta, drizzled in honey and dashed with thyme.  Incidentally, the ricotta doubles as a lot of other things - cream cheese frosting when whipped with sugar and a pinch of vanilla to be stuffed in cannoli or slathered on "compost bread", cream cheese to be spread on slices of an easy no-knead loaf and topped with gravlax and red onion, or layered between noodles and sauce for a good old winter favorite - lasagna.  

Enjoy the cheese, but you may notice that it makes TONS of whey.  Don't throw out the whey!  I'm not much of a whey-on-ice as a soft drink kinda girl, but you can immediately repurpose the whey as a 1-to-1 substitute for water in the no-knead bread.  Otherwise, freeze it in cubes, use it as a  soup base, add to stocks, or throw it into smoothies for a protein boost.

 


Homemade Ricotta Cheese (adapted from several recipes including The Kitchn, Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything, and Food.com) 

Ingredients 

  • 1 half gallon (64 oz) of whole, fresh milk - UHT milk won't work here and I prefer nonhomogenized organic milk, but I've made this with regular whole milk, a homogenized organic milk, and nonhomogenized organic and get similar results.
  • 1 pint (8 oz) of heavy whipping cream - make sure it's heavy whipping cream
  • 1/4-1/3 cup of distilled white vinegar or lemon juice (source of acid)
  • 1 tablespoon of salt

Tools 

  • large nonreactive pot - don't use aluminum.  I personally use a 6 quart enameled cast iron Dutch oven
  • Slotted spoon for removing large curds
  • large colander or sieve
  • pot or container to drain into
  • straining material - flour sack cloths or a clean bandana work best here. You lose a lot of curds with cheesecloth and its wasteful since you only can use it once.
  • binder clips (optional) 

Set up your strainer - line the colander/sieve with a light layer of straining material. You want the whey (liquid) to drain out and the curds (cheese) to be left behind. I like the bandana best and only need one layer.  I also stretch the bandana fairly taught over my colander and secure it to the sides with binder clips. This allows the weight of the curds to aid in draining more of the whey off.

I let my milk and cream warm to room temperature first. Dump both into the large pot, then add salt and acid and give it a good stir. Heat on medium-high heat until little bubbles start to form around the edge - about 7-10 minutes. When you hear the liquid sound like it's about to boil, shut it off. Give it another good stir and go enjoy a cuppa tea.  This needs to sit undisturbed for a minimum of 15 minutes for curds to form, but I give it 20-30.

Come back and stir slowly, once, with your slotted spoon. By now, you should have lots of big curds - clumps of butterfat that are sticking together.  If you don't have many curds, add another tablespoon or two of acid and let it sit for another 10 minutes.  If you have a lot of curds (about 1/5 of the mixture should be curds) then it's time to strain. Ladle the big curds into your prepared strainer first, then pour the remaining curds and whey into the strainer.

At this point, I let the chese cool down and drain then either unclip it and hang it from my cabinet to promote faster straining or stick it in the fridge to strain overnight. Either way, it ends up in the fridge for a minimum of 24 hours of straining.  I like my ricotta fairly solid, so i strain for longer, but you might like yours a bit more milky.  To get even "drier" ricotta (ricotta salata), place a weight on top of the draining cheese to push more of the whey out.