Having grown up in Wisconsin, it was probably inevitable that I would one day wind up making my own cheese.
I am always up for a culinary adventure and after discovering this, I just couldn’t resist. Last year I ventured out and made my own pumpkin puree for Thanksgiving pies, so making my own ricotta didn’t seem that big of a stretch. Plus, the recipe looked simple enough, and–believe me–it was.
You start with whole milk, buttermilk, heavy cream, and a bit of salt in a large pot. This would have appeared a monstrosity to me months ago, but since eliminating gluten, my lactose intolerance has vanished. Today, it was beautiful–so thick and clean and white. Pulling my spatula through the mixture, it looked as though I were stirring marble.
It took maybe half an hour or so for the milk to begin to curdle. Small, fine grains of white began to separate from the thin yellowish whey. It didn’t look like there could possibly be enough actual cheese in that pot to measure out at the two and a half cups promised by the recipe, but I turned off the heat and walked away anyway.
Ten minutes later I returned and began to transfer the curds into the cheesecloth-lined colander waiting in the sink. I didn’t have a wire mesh skimmer, and my slotted spoon wasn’t able to do much of anything beside release the curds straight back into the pot. So, I used a regular old spoon, slowly transferring the curds and whey into the colander and letting the cheesecloth do it’s work.
It was an incredible feeling, watching my creation slowly begin to look more and more like real ricotta. At several points along the way, I was so tickled with the fact that I had just made cheese that I laughed aloud and made excited declarations to myself. I made cheese!
Once I had allowed the ricotta to drain for half an hour, I gathered up the cheesecloth into a bag, tied it with kitchen twine, and hung it from the faucet.
I let it drain here for probably another hour while I started dinner–a grilled eggplant lasagna.
Grilled Eggplant Lasagna
2 large eggplants, ends removed and sliced lengthwise, ½” thick
1 28 oz can whole, peeled San Marzano tomatoes
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 cups ricotta (preferably homemade)
4 oz fresh, salted mozzarella, grated
8 oz fresh, salted mozzarella, sliced
3/4 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
2 eggs, slightly beaten
3-4 sprigs fresh time, finely chopped
5 leaves basil, chiffonade
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
Kosher salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Place a medium-sized saucepan over medium-low heat with a drizzle of EVOO. Add the minced garlic and saute lightly until fragrant. Season with a pinch of salt. Squeeze in a tablespoon of tomato paste and cook for another minute or two.
Increase the heat to medium and crush the tomatoes into the pot with your hands, removing the hard ends and any bits of skin as you do. Pour the remaining juices from the can into the pot. Increase the heat to medium-high and allow the sauce to reduce until thick. During the last three minutes of cooking, turn the heat to low and stir in the basil.
Preheat a large grill pan over medium-high heat.
In a small dish, such as a ramekin, combine about 3 tablespoons of EVOO with the balsamic vinegar. Brush one side of the sliced eggplant with the oil and vinegar mixture–the oil will keep the eggplant from sticking to the grill and the brush will pick up a small amount of the vinegar each time you dip it, to flavor the eggplant. Sprinkle with salt and place on the hot grill pan seasoned-side down. Brush and salt the other side. Grill until the eggplant is tender and well-marked on both sides.
In a medium bowl, combine the ricotta, 1/2 cup of the Parmigiano Reggiano, shredded mozzarella, eggs and thyme. Season with kosher salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Mix well.
Coat the bottom of an empty baking dish with a small amount of the tomato sauce, and cover the entire bottom with grilled eggplant. Spread one half of the cheese mixture over the eggplant and top with one third of the tomato sauce. Add another layer of eggplant, the rest of the cheese, and another third of the sauce. Create a final layer of eggplant and cover with the rest of the sauce. Top the lasagna with the slices of mozzarella and the last quarter cup of Parmigiano Reggiano.
Bake for 25-30 minutes. Allow to rest another 10 minutes before serving.
TIP: Since mozzarella is usually sold in 1 or ½ lb balls, save the extra ¼ lb along with the extra half cup of freshly made ricotta. Use on a following night as pizza toppings.
I cannot tell you how pleasantly surprised I was by how well everything turned out. I have honestly never been a huge fan of ricotta unless it was well-disguised in another dish but this cheese had a fine, soft grain and a smooth, sweet, creamy flavor that had me eating it straight out of the bowl. It was incomparable to the gritty, chalky, and utterly bland stuff found in the grocery store dairy case. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with using store-bought if you don’t have the time to make your own, however, after this experience, I don’t know if I’ll be able to go back.
This delicious homemade cheese absolutely made my lasagna. The tender, slightly charred eggplant and the ricotta were an excellent soft-sweet pairing against the saltiness of the other cheeses. And the thyme and basil played so well together that I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t introduced them sooner. All the flavors came together into one neatly blended mmm.
In conclusion, homemade ricotta: Time consuming? Slightly, yes. But oh the time spent consuming….well worth the wait.