Friday, April 1, 2016

Beginners' Cheesemaking II- Fresh Ricotta

Few things in life are as good as fresh pasta. The real thing. Fresh homemade ravioli filled with creamy ricotta cheese is probably my favorite. When I was much younger I made this all the time- it filled my kids' bellies and impressed my friends. Funny thing, back in those days I lived in a little country village in rural Suffolk County and finding ricotta cheese was next to impossible. This is where my stockpile of cookbooks came in handy. One of those books had great recipes for cooking with kids, I think I told you about that book before, including making easy cheeses. 

Fast forward more than twenty years and guess what is one of the new culinary trends? You got it- cheesemaking. Now you can get all crazy and involved and learn how to make your own aged cheddar and cheeses like that, or even get some friends together and pull some mozzarella but I'm keeping it super simple for this installment of Beginners' Cheesemaking. We are going to make a batch of fresh ricotta cheese, so easy, so super creamy and rich, and fresh! But that's not all. Since fresh ricotta is so simple, I would be pretty lazy if I didn't use that delicious cheese in a recipe, so after we make our cheese, we will be making my super easy, super fast, and fantastically delicious Cheatin' Cheese Ravioli.

Large scale cheese producers rely on exact temperatures and cultures and bacteria and all sorts of scientific research to get milk to form cheese. In the home kitchen with many soft cheeses it's simply a matter of heating the milk, introducing an acid that separates the curd from the whey, and straining. That's truly as technical as we're going to get. Heat the milk, add some lemon juice, and voila- fresh ricotta. Ready to get started?

To make the cheese, you will need-

2 quarts whole milk*
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

*If you're really lucky you will have some raw milk, but if not just be sure not to buy ultra pasteurized milk. It doesn't separate very easily.

Prepare a sieve by lining with several layers of cheesecloth and placing in a CLEAN kitchen sink.

Combine the milk, cream and salt in a heavy stockpot. Slowly bring to a full boil over medium heat, stirring often to prevent scorching. Reduce the heat to low and stir in the lemon juice. Continue heating for a minute or two, just until the curd separates and the mixture looks a little like watery cottage cheese. Carefully pour into lined sieve and allow to drain for an hour. Unmold the ricotta into a clean bowl, cover and store in the fridge. Be sure to use within a couple days as this cheese has zero preservatives.

We don't have to worry about it being around too long because we are going to use it right away. I learned this trick from a cooking class at a local kitchen store years ago and have been using it ever since. It's easiest "cheat" you'll ever find. Before you make the ravioli think about what kind of sauce you'd like to serve with it. I love a good old fashioned marinara sauce with my cheese ravioli, not too chunky with vegetables and no meat. Yes, I do use dried herbs in this sauce- fresh herbs just don't hold up, but by all means, if you prefer that, use them. You can also use Italian seasoning instead of the separate herbs- just use what you have and what you like, just be sure to adjust amounts accordingly. My sauce is so easy to make and just like my mom's, I hope you'll like it.

Monica's Cheatin' Cheese Ravioli

1 quart tomato sauce
2 tablespoons finely minced onion
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 bay leaves
2 teaspoons dried basil
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram
pinch of crushed red pepper
salt and pepper
olive oil
1-2 packages small wonton wrappers
1 recipe ricotta cheese
3/4 cup finely shredded mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, plus more
2 tablespoons minced parsley
4 scallions, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced

In a stockpot heat a drizzle of olive oil. Add the onion, cook and stir until onion is softened. Add the garlic, and cook for a minute or two. Don't let the garlic brown. Add the herbs and tomato sauce. Add salt and pepper to taste. Reduce heat to low and cover, simmer for at least an hour.

Measure the ricotta cheese into a bowl. Add the mozzarella and 1/2 cup of the Parmesan. Add one egg for every cup of cheese in the bowl. Add a big pinch of salt and a little bit of black pepper and stir in the parsley, scallions and garlic. I like to saute the scallions and garlic in a tiny amount of olive oil just to soften, but this step is optional.

In a small bowl beat one more egg with a tablespoon of water. Using the wonton wrappers, brush the egg wash all around the edge of one wrapper. Place about 1 tablespoon filling on the wrapper and spread out, leaving at least 1/2 in uncovered. Top with a second wonton wrapper, or fold the wrapper over to make a triangle and press edges to seal. Set aside on parchment lined pan until all are filled.

** Want to get super fancy? Save some large leaves from fresh flat leaf parsley and carefully place a leaf on top of the cheese before adding the second wonton skin. After cooking you will be able to see the parsley through the delicate dough. Looks impressive on the plate.

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add a few ravioli at a time, watch carefully to prevent sticking, stirring gently. Cook until the ravioli rise to the top, it doesn't take more than a couple minutes to cook through. Drain and place on serving plate. Spoon the sauce over and sprinkle with additional Parmesan cheese.

The "pasta" is so tender and delicate but so delicious- it really is an amazingly fast way to have fresh pasta on the table in a flash. If you like to make your own pasta dough just adjust the cooking time accordingly.

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