There is no cheese that I enjoy more than high quality, handmade ricotta. For years I poo-poo’d it because all I had ever tasted was the shelf stable, strangely homogeneous, fairly tasteless, mass-produced grocery store variety. And then a few years ago I had a ricotta epiphany! My friend Nora (the Cheesemonger at The Kitchn and food expert extraordinaire) introduced me to artisan handmade ricotta from Saxelby Cheesemonger in the Essex Market in NYC. Creamy, wonderfully textured, subtly yet richly flavored, I was smitten from my first bite to my last.
Since then I’ve searched out artisan ricotta, and it’s harder to find than one would hope. Call me picky, but in SF, THE city of foodies, the only ricotta I have found that I really love is Bellwether Farms ricotta. They make a cow milk and sheep milk version, and both are delicious. Unfortunately, only a handful of shops carry the cheese (none of which are my regular grocery stores), and the cheese turns sour if left for more than a few days. How disappointing it is to be excitedly looking forward to the last few bites of perfectly textured, creamy ricotta, only to open the container and smell a sour aroma…
I have tried making ricotta before, using whole milk and lemon juice as the coagulant, but I found the taste to be a little strange, and the texture too dry and spongy… The whole experiment was a bit of a bust, and I sort of gave up on the idea of homemade ricotta. That is, until I saw this article over at the Kitchn describing fresh buttermilk cheese. Though it’s decidedly not ricotta, it seemed like something I would enjoy (and it’s absurdly easy to make), so one night after work last week I decided to make cheese.
And the result? Absolutely fantastic. It has that elusive and wonderful texture only found in high quality ricottas, and the flavor is great — subtle, not too rich, with just a slight tang, and lots of character. The lemon and thyme add a nice touch, though on its own or with another simple seasoning (black pepper, tarragon, even lavender perhaps), the cheese would be delicious.
I took Nora’s advice and crumbled about 1/4 cup into scrambled eggs, and they were divine! Spooned over some crunchy toast, it could be my new favorite breakfast…
Thyme and Lemon Fresh Buttermilk Cheese
Adapted from From Nora Singley’s Cheesemonger column
1 qt. whole milk
1 1/2 c. buttermilk
2 t. coarse sea salt
1-2 t. fresh thyme, minced
1 t. lemon zest
Line a colander or strainer with either a cotton handkerchief or 3 pieces of cheesecloth that have been cut into 12 inch squares. Set colander in sink or over a large bowl.
Combine milk, buttermilk, salt, thyme, and lemon zest in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan, and heat over medium-high heat until mixture has separated into white curds and translucent whey, about 8 minutes. If using low-fat buttermilk, separation occurs at about 180 degrees and the curds will clump together readily. If using whole buttermilk, separation occurs closer to the boiling point, about 212 degrees, and the curds are finer-grained. When using whole buttermilk, let curds and whey stand off heat for about 3 minutes after separation, so the curds cling together and facilitate the straining step.)
Ladle the contents of the saucepan into the prepared colander. Let the whey drain, 1 to 2 minutes. Lift the four corners of the cheesecloth and gather them together.
Gently twist the gathered cloth over the cheese and press out any excess whey. Do not squeeze out too much liquid of the cheese will be dry and grainy.
Serve unwrapped cheese warm on French bread, drizzled with olive oil and seasoned with salt.