My dad used to tell me so many stories about growing up in Italy. He could remember every detail of every experience that took place in that tiny little town on the mountain. Montenero di Bisaccia was no bustling metropolis but it had a rhythm and excitement all its own. At least that’s what I’ve gathered from my dad’s stories. Many of his stories were serious like his memories of the war, while others were lighthearted tales of the mischief he got into as a kid. The ones I like best however don’t involve the war or crazy antics of getting into trouble. Instead they were the simple stories of food.
Sadly, I’ve forgotten so much of what my dad recounted to me over the years. Often the details and explanations I thought I would remember forever get jumbled and confused. One story that I always enjoyed however, and that I still think about to this day is how his mom would make fresh ricotta cheese and how much he loved it. He could recount to me every detail of the cheese making process as if he just witnessed it yesterday. He was so convincing and enthusiastic when he described the fresh taste and creamy texture. It made me wish I could recreate it myself. He had an incredible memory for detail and an expressive voice that made you want to hear more. Every time he told the story, he described each step and every nuance in exactly the same way. It never deviated, but somehow I still thought he was leaving something out.
I was convinced that making something as delicious as ricotta couldn’t be as simple as my dad explained it. In my head there was some piece of magic that he was leaving out of the story. It had to be more complicated than that. If not then everyone would do it. Everyone would just make their own ricotta. Why wouldn’t they? Who would settle for store bought with its additives and preservatives if it was so simple to just make your own fresh version whenever you wanted.
Like usual my dad was right and like usual I believed him with conditions. Surely he was mostly right but was just leaving out the magic. I reasoned that his mom probably hadn’t shown him that part so he just didn’t know about it.
One day I happened upon a video of our favorite celebrity food couple, Gabriele Corcos and Debi Mazar making ricotta. I watched carefully, anxious to finally discover what the magic was, the complicated step requiring some special Italian machine and long drawn out process that would prevent us from trying this at home. To my surprise they got to the end of the program and there was no magic step. But even still, just as my dad had recounted to me so many times, the result was a soft, creamy cheese. To be clear, what they made was really just the precursor to actual ricotta, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
I couldn’t believe that the cheese making process was actually as easy as my dad described it and I couldn’t wait to try it. All you need is milk, an acid (more on that later) and about thirty minutes. Most of that time doesn’t involve you actually doing anything. Mike and I were anxious to try for ourselves. As usual Mike started reading up on the process and collecting as much information as possible. We probably over prepared for our first attempt but that was all part of the fun. We heated whole milk in a large skillet which took about ten minutes of stirring and watching. For the acid we used white vinegar. You can use lemon juice too but it will make your ricotta taste lemony (which isn’t bad at all). If you want a neutral flavor stick with white vinegar. The acid acts to separate the curds from the whey and the next step is to gather the curds with a slotted spoon placing them in cheesecloth to drain and dry. Your work is now done! The rest of the time involved is just letting the cheese dry a bit. We simply tied the cloth closed with kitchen twine and hung the sack of cheese from the faucet. It only took 15 minutes for the cheese to dry sufficiently and then we were spreading it on Italian bread for a really delicious snack. We had just made ricotta OR a cheese very similar in taste and texture to ricotta. In my research this cheese was sometimes referred to as whole milk ricotta.
The one thing missing from the video wasn’t magic at all. It was the last step in the process that my dad used to tell me about and it’s a bit of a grammar lesson as well. Ricotta literally means recooked and as I learned during my research, it’s the step that most articles and recipes leave out. The whey that is produced in the simple cheese making process that I just described is then heated (recooked) to create more curds which will finally become the creamy and flavorful real-deal ricotta cheese. So far we’ve been making and attempting to perfect only the first part of the process. Next we will move on to the final step which is really only a repeat of step one thus proving my dad right as usual. It really is pretty simple. Don’t be doubtful like I was. Get the full recipe right here in the recipe section – no magic required. Seriously, you could do this on a rainy day for fun and inexpensive entertainment. Plus you get to eat it!
We’ve made some really great dishes taste even better by using our own made-by-hand cheese. From homemade ravioli to stuffed zucchini blossoms we’ll share our success stories and also our blunders. Sometimes things don’t work out perfectly the first time…or the second time. That’s all part of the learning process. Hopefully we can spare you a few mistakes as you learn from ours. In the meantime we encourage you to try your hand at making this cheese. If it’s not perfect on your first attempt, don’t be discouraged. It’s worth trying again. While you’re still in the learning phase, try it over grilled Italian bread and a drizzle of your favorite extra virgin olive oil. By the time we share recipes that include ricotta, you’ll be an expert. We have a great fall recipe involving grilled pears that will come to you just in time for the holidays so start practicing now. In the comments let us know your favorite way to eat ricotta. You may end up in a future post!