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CHEF JESS: Make ricotta cheese from scratch

Fresh, creamy, homemade ricotta cheese makes a delicious topping with fruit jams over toasted baguette slices. (Photo by Accent contributor Jessica Karley Rerick)1 / 4
The milk mixture drains for the fresh ricotta. (Photo by Accent contributor Jessica Karley Rerick)2 / 4
Fresh Ricotta Cheese (Photo by Accent contributor Jessica Karley Rerick)3 / 4
Strainer and bowl lined with damp cheesecloth. (Photo by Accent contributor Jessica Karley Rerick)4 / 4

I am usually all about keeping things in the kitchen as easy and "real life-ready" as possible. Most of time, that involves buying some prepackaged foods and adding my own flair to it.

However, this past weekend, I decided to do just the opposite. I decided I was going to conquer cheese making. Alright, that sounds a lot more difficult than it is because all I was really planning on conquering was ricotta cheese, but hey, it's a start.

For everyone out there who is into technicalities, this cheese is actually a paneer. A true ricotta is made from the whey you would have left over from making other cheese.

Since 99 percent of us don't have that lying around, we use fresh milk. I, along with many other people, refer to this cheese as ricotta.

Most of the ricotta we purchase in stores is made the same way. Rather than going to the store, I like the sound of calling my girlfriend to invite her over for a wine and homemade ricotta cheese tasting.

Making ricotta cheese only takes about 5 minutes of actual labor time and can be ready to eat or cook within as little as 30 minutes. That's about half the time it takes me to start the car, get coats, boots and hats on everyone, get the dog in the kennel, get everyone into the car, head back into the house to find missing mittens, get into the store, avoid all aisles that might contain things that appeal to children, get back to the car, unload the one item you meant to purchase along with the 30 you didn't, and start finally cooking. That is if you are even calm enough to cook at this point or you didn't just give up and grab a pizza in the freezer section to say, "The heck with it."

Whew -- sorry for the rant. Back to the cheese making and lovely girls night in!

To make ricotta cheese, I brought 4 cups of whole milk and ½ teaspoon of kosher salt to a boil over medium heat while stirring it occasionally to make sure the milk is heating evenly.

Once it boils, turn off the heat and stir in the acid. I used a combination of white wine vinegar and lemon juice. You can go with just one of those options, but make sure that the total amount of acid is the same. Keep in mind that if you use all lemon juice, your ricotta will have a slight lemon flavor.

When the acid is added, I only stir it long enough to combine it and then set the pot aside for 2 to 3 minutes. While the pot is resting, place a strainer on top of a mixing bowl and line it with 2 to 3 layers of dampened cheesecloth.

Once the mixture has finished resting, slowly pour the milk into the cheesecloth-lined strainer and let it again rest for 20-30 minutes. The longer the mixture rests, the drier and thicker your cheese will be.

Using 4 cups of milk generally yields about 1.5 cups of ricotta cheese. It might be a little more than that, but if you are looking to use this in an exact recipe, you will want to err on the side of caution.

If you would like a slightly creamier cheese, you can also try adding a touch of heavy cream or half and half to your milk amount. I love to do that for instances that I am serving the cheese on crackers or bread. If I am using it in a lasagna or baked pasta, I prefer the whole milk version.

Once the cheese is strained, I place it in a container and store it in my fridge until I am ready to serve it. It will keep for five to seven days in the refrigerator if you can stand to not use it that long.

To use my fresh homemade ricotta, I had a delicious apricot riesling jam in my pantry that I had been waiting to use. I figured that jam would go perfectly with my new cheese, a few slices of toasted baguette and, of course, a nice glass of white or sparkling wine.

We loved the cheese so much that I decided to make another batch a couple nights later so that we could enjoy it in a baked pasta dish, which is an ultimate comfort food to me, and even found a few good recipes for ricotta cheesecake, which is a lighter alternative to the heavy New York style that most of you are familiar with.

However you want to serve it, this homemade ricotta is an easy way to add something special to your dinner.

Homemade Ricotta Cheese

4 cups whole milk or any combination of high fat milk and cream (I prefer 3 cups whole and 1 cup heavy cream.)

½ teaspoon kosher salt

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

1 tablespoon lemon juice

In a large, heavy-bottom kettle, combine the milk/cream and kosher salt. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally.

Turn off the heat and add the vinegar and lemon juice. Stir 1 to 2 full circles around the pot to make sure the acid reaches all of the milk. Let the mixture stand for 2 to 3 minutes.

While the mixture is sitting, place a large strainer over a mixing bowl and line it with damp cheesecloth. Pour the milk into the strainer and allow it to drain for 20 to 30 minutes. The longer the mixture drains, the thicker the ricotta will be.

Remove the ricotta from the strainer and transfer to storage container, use in recipes or chill in a serving dish until ready to serve. Ricotta will keep in the refrigerator for five to seven days.