If Shavuot is all about dairy, then making your own cheese is the ultimate celebration. Sure it’s well and good to make blintzes and cheesecake, but this year why not go the extra step and create their fillings from scratch? While it may sound intimidating, it doesn’t take a professional fromager to produce a basic soft, white cheese at home, with ricotta being a great place to start. You don’t need a lot of fancy equipment, although a thermometer and cheesecloth help.
There are plenty of ways to arrive at fresh, homemade ricotta. Most recipes start out with whole, pasteurized (but not ultra-pasteurized) milk, which gets curdled by heat and an acid — either distilled or white wine vinegar, lemon (or even lime) juice, or buttermilk. Some add heavy cream or even yogurt for extra richness. My preferred method calls simply for milk and buttermilk, and works like a charm every time.
Like so many good recipes, this is one based on a simple ratio. As long as you use 4 parts milk to 1 part buttermilk, you can easily make any amount of ricotta you like (made this way, purists would insist that this is farmer’s cheese and not technically ricotta). As you bring them to a simmer, you can watch the curds and whey separate; the curds will be your ricotta. After straining, the highly nutritional whey can be discarded, or saved to use in bread (like this one), stocks, polenta, compost, or more (check out some ideas here.
Once you’ve made fresh ricotta, you may not buy it ever again. And its uses, especially for Shavuot, are endless. Go the traditional route and add it to kreplach, strudel, or kugel. Or allow your imagination to run free and make an elegant crostini with fresh ricotta and honey, a rich, cheese-filled lasagna or ricotta gelato.
My favorite, for Shavuot or any night, are delicate ricotta gnocchi. Where traditional potato gnocchi can be heavy or mushy, ricotta gnocchi taste similar but are much lighter and more delicate in texture. They couldn’t be easier to make and are perfect with simple browned butter, your favorite tomato sauce, or topped with more cheese.
Makes about 2 cups
1/2 gallon milk
1 pint buttermilk
1) Put the buttermilk and milk in a large, very clean, non-reactive pot.
2) Heat on medium-low until it reaches 180F.
3) If you do not have a thermometer, fear not – you can judge it with your eye. 180F is approximately when the milk will begin to simmer. Prior to this you should be able to see it beginning to separate into curds and whey, Little Miss Muffet style. When the curds are quite solid and the whey is almost clear, it’s time to strain it. This should take about 5 minutes.
4) Pour the contents of the pot into a cheesecloth-lined colander (place it over a large bowl if you wish to save the whey for another project, otherwise discard). If you do not have cheesecloth then line the colander with a double layer of paper towels. Coffee filters work in a pinch as well.
5) Season lightly with salt.
6) Draw together the ends of the cheesecloth and tie together. Leave it in the colander to strain for at least 10 to 15 minutes, or until it reaches the desired consistency.
7) Transfer to an airtight container and store in the refrigerator for up to three days.
Makes 4 servings
12 ounces ricotta
2 cups “00” pasta flour, divided (substitute all purpose flour)
1) Put the ricotta, 1 cup of the flour, and the egg in a large bowl and stir with a wooden spoon to combine.
2) Begin kneading the dough with your hands. The amount of flour you need to add will depend on how much moisture is in your ricotta, and how long you let it strain. Continue adding flour, ¼ cup at a time, until you have a smooth, elastic dough that is soft but not overly sticky.
3) Roll into a ball and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
4) Separate the ball into 8 or so pieces. Working one at a time, roll out on a floured work surface into a long, even snake.
5) Using a pastry cutter or knife cut the snake into ½-inch segments and transfer to a parchment paper-lined plate or baking sheet.
6) Repeat with the remaining dough.
7) Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
8) Add the gnocchi all at once and cook, stirring often, for 3 to 5 minutes, until they all float to the surface.
9) Drain and immediately toss with your favorite pasta sauce.