Gateway Cheese

It all started with ricotta.

A recipe would call for it, a sumptuous lasagna, perhaps, or possibly stuffed shells.  Living on a tight budget in an expensive town meant no ricotta unless it was steeply discounted.  (The day I found 99c ricotta on clearance was a very good day indeed.)

One day a couple of years ago, I wandered around the ‘Net, looking for something to do with a gallon of milk in my fridge that was woefully close to its expiration date.  While I like my cereal, using up a gallon in 18 hours seemed a daunting proposition.  I found my answer on a foodie site called eGullet: make ricotta.

It’s not true ricotta which is made from whey left over from making some other cheese, but it’s certainly close enough for me.  Most cheesemaking, using as it does various molds, wild yeasts and other unsavory characters bebopping around in our atmosphere seemed rather scary to me at the time.  Ricotta, with its simple instructions to bring milk to 180F then strain anything solid out, seemed foolproof.

Plus, a gallon of milk costs much less than a pound of ricotta and it would go bad anyway, I reasoned.  What was the harm in experimenting?

It came out beautifully.  Fluffy white curds of ricotta floated in a yellow sea of whey at the end of the time allotted.  I scooped them out carefully, stopping to taste a bite here or there.  It almost seemed a waste to cook this into a lasagna, to relegate it to merely a supporting character.  

The lasagna never did get a chance to envelope my ricotta that day.  Instead, I topped portions with honey and nuts to nibble on decadently with a favorite book.  I made a ricotta souffle that I’d always wanted to try but never wanted to risk the money on an inferior brand that would taste more like plastic than cheese.

After that, I began to play more with cheese.  When I wandered off to Latvia, I learned how to enjoy clotted cream, creme fraiche, biezpiens (known in the US as “quark”) and most importantly, kefir.   Most of my cheesemaking right now consists of manipulating kefir in various ways to turn out soft cheesy spreads and quark for making Latvian-style pankukas.

Later this month, I’ll be working with another fast, easy cheese called “Jāņu siers” or “St. John’s cheese”, a Latvian caraway seed cheese made traditionally for Midsummer celebrations, or Jāņi.  But that’s a tale for later.

Ricotta Cheese [printable recipe]

Yield: Approximately 200 g.

  • 1 L whole milk1
  • 250 mL buttermilk2
  • 120 mL heavy whipping cream3 (optional)
  • 1/4 tsp fine salt

Line a large colander or sieve with a clean cotton kitchen towel or cheesecloth, if you have it. Allow the edges to drape over the outside of the colander and place into a large bowl.

Combine the milks in a large, heavy stockpot. Attach a thermometer to the edge of the pan so that it extends at least 2 inches into the milk. Cook over medium-high heat until the thermometer registers 180F/77C (about 20 minutes), gently stirring occasionally. As soon as the mixture reaches 180F/77C, stop stirring as the whey4 and curds will begin to separate.

Continue to cook, without stirring, until the milk reaches 190F/88C. If you stir, the delicate curds that have formed will begin to break apart and your ricotta will become grainy. Immediately remove from heat and allow it to sit, undisturbed, for about 30 minutes.

Using a slotted spoon, gently remove curds to the colander. Allow them to drain5 for a couple of hours, though you can tie the cheesecloth together and hang it from your sink faucet, which can shorten draining times.

Scrape the ricotta into a bowl and sprinkle with salt, tossing gently with a fork to combine. Refrigerate.

Notes:

  1. Use the best milk you can afford (or prefer) for the best tasting cheese. Skim or low-fat cheese will not make a great cheese. (Remember, fat is flavor!)
  2. Instead of buttermilk, it is possible to use citric acid (1/2 tsp per litre) or distilled vinegar (1 Tbsp per litre) after the milk reaches 180F.
  3. For creamy dessert-style ricotta, add a quarter-pint of heavy whipping cream to the litre of whole milk when you start for a richer and more decadent cheese.
  4. The leftover liquid, called whey, can be chilled and drank straight like my husband loves to do. It can also be used in place of buttermilk in recipes. A true ricotta is made from whey rather than milk but if you don’t make cheese on a regular basis, making it this way is quite a bit more accessible and tastes just as good.
  5. The longer the cheese drains, the drier it will be. Check on it periodically and remove it to the fridge when it’s at the consistency you prefer.

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4 Responses to Gateway Cheese

  1. Ivars Avens says:

    Looking forward to the Jāņu siers! We live in north Tasmania – about as far away as I can think from anyone who knows what biezpiens is, let alone sells it 8( I am going to have a go at making Jāņu siers this year. My sister-in-law in Latvia taught me how to make it when I was there last year. I finally tracked down some quark here but unfortunately it has been made the German way (according to Wikipedia), is wet and smooth – not like biezpiens at all. I was fascinated by your kefir biezpiens. Is this what you are going to use for your Jāņu siers? Love your blog and can’t wait for the next installment.

    • Cori Rozentāle says:

      Thanks! :-) The recipe I’ll be posting later this weekend is the one my mother-in-law traditionally makes in Kurzeme. I’d love to know how it differs from your sister-in-law’s especially if she’s from a different region! According to my husband’s experience, the texture of the biezpiens doesn’t matter too much since you can drain it and you have to press it anyway, but I think from your description that you might be better off making kefir or buttermilk biezpiens to substitute instead. I’m in the process of making the kefir biezpiens today as a matter of fact and am hoping it will cooperate and give me nice dry curds to work with.

  2. Ivars Avens says:

    I took your advice and have a brew of kefir draining in the fridge. The quark I remarkably found here is more like sour cream and very very expensive, so this was not going to be the way to go for Jāņu siers. All looks and sounds good in the fridge so far and we will see what has happened in the morning.

    My sister-in-law (Gunta) got her Jāņu siers recipe from a magazine you may have seen in Latvia called “Ievas māja”. If I have understood how Tinyurl works, a photo of the mag, my Aldaris Gaišais :-) and Gunta’s finished product can be seen at http://tinyurl.com/nmkhwo , Gunta with her Līgo pīrāgi and her other wonderful creations at http://tinyurl.com/ntr2eb .

    As best I can translate it, the recipe goes like this (adjusting quantities as appropriate:

    To make 2kg Jāņu siers we need:

    1. 5 liters milk
    2. 2 kg biezpiena
    3. 5 eggs
    4. 400 gm butter
    5. caraway seeds, salt

    Important: The biezpiens must be dry. Very fresh cheese is not suitable – it should be at least three days old.

    Method:

    * Heat milk to 90°C (heating must be stopped before the milk boils)

    * Break up biezpiens rubbing by hand, with a mincer or through a sieve (I may use a food processor).

    * Add milk to biezpiens.

    * Gently heat mixture stirring constantly until the milk has been curdled by the acid in the biezpiens and the mass has become elastic (resembling dough).

    * Strain the mixture carefully (suggestion: use a wooden spoon to press liquid out).

    * Melt butter in a saucepan and add strained biezpien mixture.

    * Beat eggs and add to mixture in the saucepan

    * Add 1 – 2 handfuls of caraway seeds and salt to taste (about one tablespoon)

    * Heat the mixture stirring briskly until the mixture becomes elastic.

    Note: The longer the mixture is heated the harder the end product will be. N.B. If stirring is interrupted the mixture will catch and burn.

    * When ready transfer mixture to containers of choice, allow to cool and then place in fridge to harden. When hard, remove from container and slice – enjoy.

    Looking forward to your version.

    • Cori Rozentāle says:

      I remember my mother-in-law reading Ievas māja and tearing out recipes to try later on, as a matter of fact.

      Hmm. Some comments on your recipe. Don’t use a food processor, it will affect the texture of the cheese if you get anywhere close to biezpiens. It will make it too smooth. Also, you might want to add some fresh buttermilk if it doesn’t curdle up well. I don’t know how you’re making kefir cheese (from commercial?) but looking at your pics, I’m betting Gunta might have a supplier of fresh milk like my mother-in-law does (she gets it from the guy next door, the lucky woman!) which curdles up easier and faster because of the acids and bacteria present, though with a 2:5 ratio of biezpiens to milk, you might not need it. It’s also traditional to put weights on the cheese and to rub it with salt all over once it’s hard enough to do so. The recipe looks great, it’s very similar to the one I’ll be using though it calls for more biezpiens than mine.

      Definitely enjoyed the pictures you included. The pirāgi, which I know (and love) as “speķa rauši”, look delicious and so does the ābolu rausis! My husband laughed when he saw the little sugar bowl on the counter — his family had the same set back in the day — but thinks you ought to try a better beer next time you’re there, like Bauskas or Užavas. ;-) Can I ask what region she lives in? And you will have to let me know how the cheese and biezpiens came out!