Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Ricotta: fail?

     I may not be a great housewife. I sleep in almost every day. I made myself a chore list, but I don’t stick to it. I get lazy about dishes. I don’t put away my laundry most times. But I like to think that being obsessed with grocery shopping and cooking make up for all that. (Which could also be why my husband has gained ten pounds since he came home six weeks ago.)

     I don’t think of myself as a food hoarder. My refrigerator is stocked with more beverages than food, and my pantry is only superficially faced one or two jars deep (thanks, grocery store job training, for facing all of my cans and jars label-forward and sorted by genre).

     A recipe hoarder, on the other hand.. Yes, definitely. Since I’ve been introduced to Pinterest, I have been collecting recipes like a … well, something that collects stuff. Pack rat maybe. A virtual pack rat. I have even branched out into multiple Boards to accommodate Sweets, Breakfasts and other recipe types.

     I seek out ways to make stuff the old, difficult way that takes hours upon hours instead of zapping frozen stuff in a microwave. Truth be told, most “old, difficult” ways are rather simple and when they produce quality food who cares how long it takes? I really *enjoy* cooking, and I especially love cooking “from scratch”.

     Needless to say that I was quite giddy when I saw Karen’s recipe for homemade ricotta cheese, and had to give it a try. I did a quick search for “homemade ricotta recipe” and found a dozen others similar to hers (most varying only in whether or not they used lemon juice or vinegar), so I went for it.
     I don’t drink regular milk (its rice or almond milk around our house), so I had to go out and buy milk for this occasion. Since I’ve not done this before, and was bound to fail, I just bought the store-brand 2% milk from our local Sprouts market. I usually opt for organic, especially where dairy is concerned, but figured I ought to be wallet conscious until I get the hang of this. And that, my dear friends, was the best decision ever.  Because, and this is the big disclaimer here, I'm still learning. Get it? I'M A NEWB. Learn from my mistakes!

    So as the recipe goes, simple as can be, you just plop four ingredients (4 cups milk, 1 cup heavy cream, 2 Tblsp lemon juice or vinegar, salt)  into a pot, heat, strain and eat! Um, nope.  Not in this kitchen! I heated the milk/cream/lemon/salt until little bubbles started to form and set it aside for quite a bit longer than recommended. When I started to scoop out the curds, there were few. In fact, I got only two almost-spoonfuls. 

     I thought perhaps I heated the milk too fast and so it didn’t have the opportunity to separate like it should. I decided to reheat the milk on lower heat this time. As soon as I put it back on the burner, my husband came in from the garage asking for a water refill and a spray bottle of vinegar for weed killing (being ever-so-conscious of not dragging his dirty boots into the kitchen because I just mopped the floor yesterday), and when I stepped out to hand it to him he called me out to see what he had done. Because I have the memory of a goldfish, I temporarily forgot all about my pot o’milk on the stove and wandered out into the driveway with him for a five minute chat. It wasn’t until I stepped back in from the garage that I saw my pot boiling over.  ..sigh..

      I dumped it in the sink and started over. Batch #2 was put into a large stock pot where I figured perhaps the shallow layer of milk may help it heat more evenly. But again, the only thing that separated was the skin that had formed over the milk. Dear google, please help!

     I sought out answers as to why my curds were not separating. I found a recipe different from all the others I had found in previous searches as well as a message board discussing various ways to make ricotta. Or, ricotta style cheese, as many of these same ricotta enthusiasts recognized that this method of making cheese is not "true" ricotta, but rather more similar to an Indian paneer. Regardless of what you call it, it is a divine soft cheese that surely inspired some of Botticelli's best.

    Some of these enthusiasts use whole milk, some use only cream, some use only whey from post-mozzarella production and some use citric acid rather than vinegar or lemon juice. Regardless of what they use, it seems the idea is to heat the milk first and THEN add the acid (ie vinegar or lemon juice or citric acid) to make it curdle. Then and only then can you separate the curds (Duh.. curdle = curds). This particular recipe suggested heating the milk over low heat for a couple of hours, stirring often. So that’s the route I chose to reheat the pot full of milk, cream, and lemon juice.

     I do not fault Karen's recipe for quick thirty minute ricotta. In fact, I am jealous that she is able to do it that way. Would my effort had been different if I tried whole milk or cream-top milk? I wonder if she gets better quality milk and cream, being from a town in Canada? I don't trust big-city-dairy even if they have a "California Cows are Happy!" campaign. I especially don't trust big-city-dairy because  they have a  "California Cows are Happy!" campaign.

     I heated the milk, cream and lemon juice (already mixed in the milk/cream from the previous attempt) slowly over low heat. When it did start to form a skin, I gently and very slowly scraped my silicone spatula across the bottom of the pan in a Z pattern (or an N, if you’re picky. Or a zigzag. Or a chevron. Or a Charlie Brown. Whatever creams your cheese.) to mix in the skin and keep from burning on the bottom. It took a while to get to the recommended 180/195/205 degrees (depending on which source you trust), but even at about 157 degrees I could already tell the difference – it was thicker than after simmering in previous attempts. I was feeling confident!

     At about 165 degrees, it started to look a little chunky, I assumed because it already has the lemon juice in it from the previous attempt. At 170 degrees it was quite a bit thicker. With another water refill and yard talk request, I was smart enough to set a 2 minute timer (AND take it with me) so that I could politely walk away from weed-pulling plans and go back inside to Charlie Brown the milk.

     At 175 degrees it started to get super chunky in the middle and at the long awaited 180 degrees it was like soupy porridge. Well, I’ve never made porridge so I don’t really know if that’s true. But I took it off of the heat anyway, gently chevronned in about ¼ teaspoon of vinegar (just in case) and let it sit for 20+ minutes.

     It looked worlds different than the first time, which in retrospect probably yielded only the skin (so I tossed it out). I started to scoop out the curds with a slotted spoon, found it to be too small (the curds were slopping over the sides) and switched to my large plastic slotted cooking spoon, which turned out to be too large (small curds were slipping through the slots) and finally settled on dumping the whole damn lot into the strainer. After a few minutes I found that the whey had drained and met up with the bottom of the strainer, thus no longer straining but rather steeping like soupy porridge tea, and had to come up with a plan G. I had to switch to another bowl that was taller and not as wide so that the strainer didn’t reach the bottom yet could easily rest on the rims.

     After ten more minutes or so of draining, I picked up the four corners of the cheesecloth (as had been recommended in some other recipes), cinched it off with a bag clip and hung it from a cabinet to drain. I,uh, don’t recommend this method because I was afraid the whole time that the door would pop open and the glasses I had put on top of the cheesecloth to weigh it down would come flying out and break in my cheese. Other folks recommended tying onto the faucet to drain in the sink (but I would only do this if you keep a bowl beneath it to catch the whey that drains from the cheese!). Thirty minutes later - voila! Cheese!

    In retrospect I should have let it drain longer than 30 minutes, but we were starving and jumped the gun to make dinner. When I opened the cheesecloth, I found the most wonderful soft cheese and it was perfect stuffed in chicken breast with spinach and garlic :)

Do not - I repeat: DO NOT throw out the whey that drains from your cheese! It can be used, and I'll tell you how in another post... dun-dun-dunnn! Until then, keep it refrigerated (or frozen) until you can use it!

I hope your first try is more fruitful than mine. Enjoy!

Update: I've made this a second time, heating the milk and cream alone before adding the lemon juice and it yielded the same problems. I had to reheat the milk/cream/lemon juice and add a smidge of vinegar. Perhaps my lemons are too old and don't have enough zing, or I used too little juice or heated too quickly or too slowly or... who knows. Fact is, I had to reheat slowly until it chunked in the pot and then let it drain a couple of hours. It still turned out dee-lish. If you have any tips or tricks I'd love to hear them!