I use ricotta in many dishes, from pastas and pancakes to smoothies and desserts. My favorite use: toasts. I spread a nice thick layer of the creamy cheese on toasts as a base for pestos, mashed carrots, grilled vegetables and even just a drizzle of honey.
After I had my first taste of fresh, smooth ricotta, I swore off the mass-market rubbery stuff forever. Hands down there is no comparison between the two. Adams Fairacre Farms sells a nice homemade ricotta as do many cheesemongers and Italian specialty grocers.
To make ricotta, you simply separate milk, skimming out the curds from the whey. This process is done by heating the milk, adding an acid (I prefer lemon juice but you can use vinegar), and using a strainer and/or cheesecloth to strain the curds. The result is a creamy, homemade spreadable cheese.
The key to good, rich cheese is whole milk. You need all those good fats in the milk that are removed from low fat and skim milks. I use Hudson Valley Fresh or Boice Bros. Dairy milk. Both these milks come from the consortium of Hudson Valley Fresh farms and are bottled at Boice's in Kingston, NY. Because of a bottling agreement, Boice's bottles some of the Hudson Valley Fresh milk under their own label. Most importantly, the milk is not ultra-pasteurized (UP). You cannot use UP milk when making ricotta. It will not separate because the extremely high temperatures of the process change the protein structure of the milk.
Hudson Valley Fresh is transparent about their practices and welcome you to visit any of their dairy farms. You may also visit Boice Bros. Dairy Milk House (62 O'Neil Street, tel. 845.340.2018) in Kingston, which is well worth a stop. A few blocks off Albany Avenue, this unpretentious dairy store has the best shakes in the area. The Colossal Black & White Malt is addictive. Always request hard-pack ice cream though, it makes a thicker, richer shake. Boice's is a good place to stock up on pints and half-gallons of ice cream for summer soirees. Also, remember to pick up a gallon of milk for your ricotta.
Whole-Milk Ricotta Cheese
Makes about 1 cup ricotta
8 cups (1 half-gallon) whole milk
1/4 cup heavy cream
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
Line a fine-mesh colander with a double layer of cheesecloth and set over a bowl. In a large pot, bring the milk, cream, and salt barely to a boil over medium heat, continuously stirring so it doesn’t burn. When the milk is just about at a boil, add the lemon juice and immediately bring down to low heat. Continue to stir until curds form, about 1 more minute. Remove the mixture from the heat and cover. Allow it to stand for 10 minutes for the curds to completely separate. Carefully pour the curd mixture through the cheesecloth (reserve the liquid, or whey, for another use). Allow the curds to drain through the lined colander into the bowl for about 20 minutes, or until the desired consistency is achieved. After it has drained, use as desired or store refrigerated for 3 to 5 days.