Whey Cool: Lasagne with Homemade Cheese

There’s nothing more fun than learning something new and then just doing it! So as 2010 draws to a close, I finally challenged myself to do something I had only lusted after until now. Yes, I made fresh cheese at home. It all started with a craving for lasagne (so many good things do…) but we didn’t have any ricotta or even cottage cheese to make a filling. What we did have: almost a half gallon of organic milk. OK, on to the InterWebs we went….

The ingredients for making fresh cheese are remarkably few: milk, salt, and some kind of acid, usually vinegar or lemon. There are many recipes out there for making paneer or ricotta cheese at home and many declare that they are easy to do. Then I came upon what was truly the easiest recipe of all… no thermometers necessary, no threats of pots boiling over, and best of all, no messy milk-scorched pots to clean afterwards. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, you’re my hero! Mr. Lopez-Alt, an editor and master food deconstructionist at Serious Eats, writes at length and in engaging detail on Serious Eats’ Food Lab about the making of whole milk ricotta cheese at home: the different types of acids that are commonly used (buttermilk, vinegar, lemon) and how each affects both the texture of the final product and the flavor, the temperature to which the milk must be brought, and draining times. His final conclusion, though, is that fresh cheese is best made in a microwave, not the stove top! Love it! Suddenly, cheese-making is a much less daunting task, and so at 5:15 yesterday morning, I started to make ricotta-style cheese in my own kitchen.

I tripled the whole-milk ricotta recipe on the Food Lab site (BTW the recipe link is separate from the article link) to use the full amount of milk we had — to make certain I had enough for my lasagne (let’s not forget, this is why the quest began, right?). As promised, the methodology Mr. Lopez-Alt describes was incredibly straight-forward and easy. If I can do this, Folks, any one of you can too!

The set-up: milk in a non-metal bowl,
colander set in bowl, and lined
with 2 layers of food-safe paper towels,
sea salt, white vinegar

After 5 minutes in the microwave on High (right), you can just start to see chemistry in action. Pretty cool, right?
After tripling the time in the Food Lab recipe as well, the curds and whey have fully separated.

Drain mixture in colander.
Draining time will depend on
what you plan to do with the cheese
(see Food Lab article).

Voila! Real Cheese!
The final product, after 35 minutes of draining.
I started with 6 cups of whole milk and ended up with almost 1-1/2 cups of cheese.
The whole thing, from set-up to the end of draining was about an hour,
but your time will be less if you want a softer cheese.
As someone who had only tried commercial ricottas, the flavor of this cheese was a revelation to me: sweet and clean, no aftertaste or bitterness. It was firm (the long draining time) but tender to the bite, and smooth — not at all grainy or coarse. I would have happily eaten the whole thing just as it was, if that lasagne wasn’t still calling…

Even though lasagne was the driving force behind this project, this post isn’t about the pasta… It’s to encourage everyone to make this cheese for themselves early in the New Year! Were not big milk-drinkers but we’ll be buying our milk by the gallon from now on so we have plenty on hand to make this tasty treat again. Think of the possibilities: blintzes, crepes, stuffed shells, and of course, just plain eating out-of-spoon… or bowl… Yummmmm…. And yes, it did make a darn fine lasagne, even with a bottled sauce.

We’re left with about a half-quart of liquid (whey), which seems a waste to throw out, so I’m looking now for ways to use that too. Stay tuned to this bat channel in 2011….

Until then, Happy New Year, Everyone!