Last week, an article in The New York Times praised the simplicity and versatility of fresh ricotta. Several chefs declare that fresh ricotta can be profoundly delicious when served with a few intensely-flavored ingredients. I had never considered ricotta to be a destination cheese, rather a quick stop on the journey of making lasagna, but I'd also never made my own. My copy of Home Cheese Making in hand, I decided to follow the chefs' advice to make a batch of ricotta.
Traditionally made from the leftover liquid of cheesemaking, true ricotta is a whey cheese. The butterfat and casein (curd-producing protein) of the milk have gone into the first cheese, leaving albuminous proteins and a bit of lactose floating around in a lot of water. Whey ricotta (ri cotta, "to cook again") is produced by convincing those albuminous proteins that they want to be cheese, too. This is rather tricky to do, and whey ricotta is a very low yield cheese: even the experts expect to produce only a cup or two of ricotta from two gallons of whey. I have had very limited success producing ricotta from my mozzarella whey; however, the few curds I did manage to round up were quite tasty.
The chefs in the NYT article either had whey ricotta flown in from Italy, or they made whole-milk ricotta in their kitchens. Whole-milk ricotta eliminates the need for fresh whey (and a day of cheesemaking), and it offers a yield of up to two pounds of cheese per gallon of milk. Raw milk may be used, because the high temperatures required to curdle albuminous protein also pasteurize the milk.
The cheesemaking process is simple, the only special ingredient being citric acid, which I didn't have. I squeezed some fresh lemon juice into the milk, then heated it until it curdled around 180°F. The curds formed more gradually than I expected, likely due to the lemon juice substitution, but they tasted fresh and sweet. I will look for citric acid to try in future batches of ricotta; I've heard it can be found at the pharmacy. I've also seen recipes that call for fresh buttermilk.
I drained the ricotta for only a few minutes, keeping its texture a little loose like cottage cheese. We were surprised by the sweetness of the ricotta, which isn't notable in the cheese from supermarket tubs. Its sweetness foiled our appetizer of ricotta on garlic toast; however, I imagine that ricotta and tomato would make a toothsome bruschetta topping.
Though my savory applications of fresh ricotta need a little fine-tuning, the next morning's breakfast combination was dead-on. A dollop of ricotta on cinnamon-raisin Ezekiel bread with a drizzle of honey and scattering of walnuts... mmm, divine.