Sun 27 Sep 2009
When you feel helpless, the urge to search for ways to contribute something, somehow, overrides the little voice that says Hey, This Might Hurt. This is why a woman I knew volunteered to have her bone marrow tested for its compatibility with her brother’s even though his doctors were much more confident their other brother would be a match. Her name was Randy, and I was training her to replace me as the director of catering at a hotel in Montana.
Her brother had been diagnosed with leukemia, and it was both a crushing disappointment and a relief to him and his family. Though the outlook was fairly grim, everyone exhaled for the first time in months, now that they finally knew what was ailing him. Randy was tall, a sturdy Montana girl with a giant skull and beautiful skin. When she spoke, a northern Midwest accent chimed through each word. It’s the accent many people associate with North Dakota, because of Fargo, but sounds more like Montana to me. She offered up an honest-to-goodness doncha-know every third sentence. As she hung her massive head and cried about the diagnosis, she told me she wanted to be tested as a potential donor because it seemed like the only thing she could do to help.
She sat gingerly in my office – soon to be her office – after the appointment where they extracted a sample. The procedure had been painful, though no more so than one would expect to find any process that involves taking a bit of the good stuff out of your hip bone through a needle. Still, more than the pain, Randy was bewildered by what the extracted marrow actually looked like. “It just looked like a little tube of blood!” she exclaimed. I wondered, out loud, what she had been expecting. “Well, from the pictures on the wall in the office, I was expecting it to look like…like…” she paused, “what’s in manicotti?” I blinked. “Ricotta?” She slapped the top of my desk and grinned. “Ricotta! That’s what I thought it would look like. I’ve been thinking of nothing but ricotta for a week.”
I was then faced with one of those adult moments, where one has to balance discretion and self-control with a serendipitous opportunity to be really, really funny. Should I smile and nod and suggest we hit the new burrito stand across the street? Or should I take advantage of the best segue ever to land in my lap and ask if she wanted to try the hotel chef’s newest lunch creation, pasta shells stuffed with sausage and ricotta?
The burrito was delicious.
Now, how about some ricotta! It’s actually pretend ricotta. Proper ricotta is made from leftover whey after making cheese, but this is a nice approximation for home use. It’s ridiculously simple and leaves you with that lovely, smug look-at-me-being-very-Laura-Ingalls-Wilder feeling without taking much in the way (whey, heh) of time or special equipment.
Yields approximately 4 cups
1 gallon whole milk
1 quart buttermilk
Large, non-reactive saucepan or stockpot
Large piece of cheesecloth, big enough to fold into 4 layers and cover the colander with room to spare
- Bring the liquids to 175 degrees
- Ladle curds into cheesecloth
- Tie and hang for 15 minutes
Combine the milk and buttermilk in a large pot over medium-high heat. Stir very gently, prodding the bottom of the pot every so often to avoid excessive curd build-up. As the temperature approaches 175, the top layer will become increasingly fluffy with curds. Do not allow it to come to a boil – monitor the temperature with an instant-read or candy thermometer. Depending on how cold the liquids were to start, the process can take up to 20 minutes.
While the liquids heat and separate, fold the cheesecloth over itself twice to create four layers. Line the colander with the folded cheesecloth, taking care to leave plenty of cloth hanging over the edges so you have something to work with when it’s time to tie.
Once the liquids reach 175, you will have a substantial layer of curds floating on top. Remove the pot from the heat. It is easiest to set your colander in the sink and move the pot nearby so you have minimal dripping as you transfer the curds to the cheesecloth. Ladle the curds into the cloth-lined colander. As you get toward the end, it will be easier to skim the curds with a slotted spoon. Do not pour the entire contents of the pot through the cheesecloth.
Without pressing on the cheese, gather the sides of the cloth and tie the whole thing into a bundle. If you can, tie the bundle to your faucet so it can hang and drip. Leave for 15 minutes, untie, and store the drained ricotta in a sealed container in the refrigerator. Use within one week.