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Homemade Ricotta

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I crossed a life goal off my list this weekend: making cheese. It was so easy it felt like cheating. A pot full of hot milk and buttermilk was transformed into a firm bundle of cheese in about 30 minutes. It took me longer to half-heartedly scrub a few lines of grout in my bathroom than it did to make cheese, which, you know, can come as a bit of a surprise. Now, granted, we're talking about fresh cheese, but still. Even creme fraiche takes longer than this!

Here's the thing, though. Ricotta made with cow's milk basically just tastes like cottage cheese or farmer cheese. I followed the article's lead and loosened the block of it with some milk before sprinkling it with herbs, salt and olive oil for a nice little pre-dinner snack spread of toasted bread gently rubbed with garlic. And it was just fine - everyone seemed quite happy with it (I think the pink Champagne we served might have helped). But unless you're using sheep's milk, you can forget about this tasting like real Italian ricotta.

Still, it's a great alternative for American recipes calling for ricotta - you'll be far better off using homemade than the stuff that comes in a tub at the grocery store. If anyone knows how to get their hands on some fresh sheep's milk, though, let me know. I'm finding it surprisingly difficult to track down, but I'd like to attempt this again.

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I've been wallowing in a swamp of homesickness for Europe lately, the ache lodged in my chest like an unchewed piece of bread. We booked our annual flight to Italy last week, so I now find myself in the strange position of hoping to savor summer's hot days while simultaneously wishing desperately that the weeks fly by so that the last week of August gets here just as soon as it can. I'll be mixing the leftover ricotta into a plain tomato sauce with pasta tonight and eating it, hopefully without crying, to remind me of all the good things to come.

Fresh Ricotta
Yields approximately 2 cups

2 quarts whole milk
2 cups buttermilk

1. Line a wide sieve or colander with cheesecloth, folded so that it is at least 4 layers thick. Place in sink. 

2. Pour milk and buttermilk into a heavy-bottomed pot. Cook over high heat, stirring frequently; scrape bottom of pot occasionally to prevent scorching. As milk heats, curds will begin to rise and clump on surface. Once mixture is steaming hot, stop stirring.

3. When mixture reaches 175 to 180 degrees on a candy thermometer, curds and whey will separate. (Whey will look like cloudy gray water underneath a mass of thick white curds.) Immediately turn off heat and gently ladle curds into sieve.

4. When all curds are in sieve and dripping has slowed (about 5 minutes), gently gather edges of cloth and twist to bring curds together; do not squeeze. Let drain 15 minutes more. Discard the whey.

5. Untie cloth and pack ricotta into airtight containers. Refrigerate and use within one week. 

Ricotta Crostini with Fresh Thyme and Dried Oregano
Serves 6 to 8

About 8 slices (about  3/4-inch thick) crusty bread such as ciabatta or levain, chewy and substantial but     not very sour
Extra-virgin olive oil to taste
Kosher or table salt, to taste
2 cups fresh ricotta, at cool room temperature
1 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 peeled garlic clove

1. Heat a grill or broiler to very hot. If bread slices are very large, cut in half or thirds. Brush bread slices on both sides with olive oil and sprinkle with table or kosher salt.

2. In a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment or in a bowl, whisk ricotta and milk together until light and fluffy. Add 1 teaspoon kosher or table salt and mix well. Transfer to a shallow serving bowl and sprinkle with sea salt, pepper, thyme and oregano. Drizzle more olive oil on top, about 2 to 3 tablespoons.

3. Grill or broil the bread until toasted all over and lightly charred in places. Lightly rub each slice on one side with the garlic clove. Serve hot, with ricotta mixture on the side.

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