Homemade Whole Milk Ricotta

Dear Reader,

I’m back!

I made ricotta. It was so much easier than I ever imagined.

Here’s the crazy part — it takes only three ingredients, milk, salt, and vinegar, and twenty minutes.

I might never have tried this had I not been cooking in the kitchen of the non-profit, The Nashville Food Project the morning fellow volunteer cook, Ann Fundis realized there was no ricotta in the walk-in for the vegetable lasagna she was about to make. Never flummoxed about anything, Ann pulled out a gallon of milk, vinegar, and salt and made her own. While she was at it, she pulled out butter, flour, thyme, nutmeg, salt, pepper, and more milk to make a béchamel sauce. She is a rockstar.

I started taking notes as I often do when I cook with Ann. She brought milk and salt to a boil and then added vinegar “until the milk starts to break up.” She let it rest a few minutes and then used a spider (a wide and shallow, wire-mesh spoon) to scoop out the spongy curds that had floated to the surface of the milky-yellow whey.

I tried a spoonful while it was warm. Oh my goodness, the ricotta was moist, fluffy, and delicious. For me, ricotta is at its best when it is freshly made and still warm like this. As it drains and cools, the texture firms up. It has a different mouth feel — still excellent, just different.

Making ricotta was in my future. I stopped at the grocery store on my way home to get a gallon of milk.

Ingredients for one quart of ricotta:

1 gallon whole milk (do not use old milk)
1½ teaspoons fine salt
⅓ cup white distilled vinegar or other acidifier (like lemon juice or white balsamic)
olive oil or cooking spray to coat bottom of the pot

Instructions:

Read the Cooking Notes below before starting.

Lightly grease a heavy-bottomed 8-quart saucepan. Pour in milk. Add salt.

Heat milk slowly over medium heat, stirring occasionally to keep from sticking, until the milk foams and starts to boil. This should take about 15 minutes. Remove saucepan from heat.

Add white vinegar, or whichever acid you have chosen to use, and stir. Once the vinegar has been distributed, stop stirring and let the milk curdle for 5-10 minutes without disturbing. It will separate almost immediately into curds and whey, and the curds will float to the top.

There are two ways to extract the curds. One is to use a slotted spoon or a spider.

The other way is to pour the mixture through a cheesecloth-lined colander or sieve and let the whey drain out. The longer ricotta drains, the drier and firmer it becomes.

I usually spoon it directly into a storage bowl and leave a little whey in the bowl to keep the ricotta moist until I use it.

Cooking Notes:

The pot needs to be large enough to contain the milk as it foams, rises, and comes to a boil.

A common problem that occurs when heating milk is it often burns the bottom of the pan. A scorched pan is a pain to clean and lends a burnt flavor to the end product, often resulting in having to throw the milk out and start over again. I found a solution on Cook’s Illustrated’s website. They suggest lightly spraying the bottom of the saucepan with oil to keep the milk from sticking. Their explanation follows: “When you add milk to a dry pan, it flows into the microscopic imperfections in the pan bottom. As the milk heats, its proteins coagulate and stick to the pan and each other. Misting the pan with vegetable oil spray prior to adding the milk creates a thin film on the pan’s surface, which acts as a barrier and makes milk proteins less likely to adhere.”

I found that when I cooked old milk, milk that was close to its “sell by” date, the ricotta had an unpleasant aftertaste bad enough that I had to throw it away.

Thinking more flavorful acidifiers like lemon juice or white balsamic vinegar would improve the flavor of the ricotta, I gave them each a try. I did not detect an appreciable difference in flavor and went back to using plain vinegar.

I experimented with varying amounts of salt and settled on 1½ teaspoons per gallon of milk, which is very neutral. Since I don’t always know how I am going to use the ricotta during the week, I prefer to be able to control the  saltiness by adding more as needed.

I used whole milk. You can add a cup or two of heavy cream to make the ricotta more deluxe, if desired. I was surprised to see, in some ricotta recipes, that buttermilk was used as the acidifier. I tried it and it worked.

By the way …

The word ricotta comes from the Italian verb to recook. Traditionally, Italian cheesemakers saved and recooked the cauldrons full of whey left over from making other cheeses. The reheated whey would produce clumped proteins, or curds, that were skimmed off and called ricotta. Some cheesemakers still make it this way.

Ways we use homemade ricotta at our house:

Tomato Cobbler and Ricotta Biscuits, a fantastic recipe from The New York Times. It has changed the method I use to make biscuits.

Spinach tortellini, a dollop of ricotta, and @JudysChickens Marinara Sauce

Toast spread with ricotta and a drizzle of local honey. This is what I often eat for breakfast.

Tomato and peach salad with a dollop of ricotta

Italian Ricotta and Lemon Cookies

Ann’s TNFP Vegetable Lasagna with Roasted Butternut Squash and Sautéed Greens

How do we use the whey?

This recipe makes one quart of ricotta and three quarts of whey. We save the whey and pour it over the dog’s food. She adores it.

Related Posts:
How to Make Yogurt at Home
Homemade Grape Jelly
How to Peel an Orange or Grapefruit Quickly
How to Tell If an Egg Is Fresh or Hard-Boiled
How Canola Oil is Made (from plants grown locally)
How to Make a Thaw Detector for the Freezer

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© 2014-2019 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may only be reproduced with the written consent of Judy Wright.

Kugel with Raisins, Orange Zest, and Cinnamon, aka Noodle Pudding

This is how my brain works: you say Jesse’s birthday, I think carrot cake. You say Easter, I think Mom’s Roasted Lamb with Herb and Goat Cheese Topping.  For Christmas, it is Mamanika’s “S” cookies, and for Hanukkah, it’s kugel and latkes.

Holidays for me are about the joy of cooking and remembering my favorite relatives through the recipes, songs, and traditions I now share with my family (and friends!). Talking on the phone with family and close friends about what we are each cooking for a special meal or for dinner that night is one of the dearest joys of life. Each year, about a week before Thanksgiving, my mother would always call and ask me to email her copies of The Recipes. She could never keep up with her boundless collection. JudysChickens.org was started as a way to store those time-tested recipes for my brothers, sons, and nieces and nephews.

So what is kugel? It is a  sweet, baked noodle pudding often made with raisins and spices and served as a side dish at Jewish holiday meals.

I was fortunate to grow up in a blended family long before there was a name for families who came together after a divorce. In our case, our religious practices were blended, too. How many times did my stepfather light a menorah on a table close to my Italian grandfather’s creamy white ceramic nativity set? Kugel was one of the foods that became part of our blended holiday meals.

This is an old photo of my two youngest brothers.

Choosing a recipe for kugel is a lot like choosing one for Thanksgiving dressing (or stuffing) — people want these dishes to taste the way their mother, grandmother or great aunt prepared them. I love that. It shows how deep the connection between holidays, the people present at the table, and the foods served are connected in our memory and ultimately become the traditions we yearn for when family and friends come together.

For Mom’s kugel recipe, at first glance, and every glance really, there are a lot of calories from fat and sugar; that is the way this side dish rolls. In the end, after trying to make the recipe with fewer calories, I found I was only able to dial back the sugar by a quarter of a cup. Woohoo.  I love this dish!

Yield: Serves 8-12

Ingredients:

1  8-ounce package egg noodles (about 4½ cups cooked)
1 cup raisins
1  8-ounce can crushed pineapples with juice
½ navel orange, grate the peel and scoop up the juicy pulp
½ cup (1 stick) butter, melted
4 eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
¾ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon salt, plus more to salt the water for cooking the noodles
1 pound (almost 2 cups) sour cream
2 teaspoons cinnamon sugar: ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon and 1½ teaspoons sugar

Instructions:
Preheat oven to 350º.

Bring salted water to a boil, add the dry noodles, and cook until done. Drain. Place noodles into a 9 x 13-inch casserole or a deep-dish casserole, as I like to do. Add the melted butter and stir. Set aside.

Pour raisins into a small bowl. Grate the peel of one-half an orange over the raisins. Squeeze out the orange’s juice over the raisins. Scoop out the pulp, chop it up, and add it to the bowl of raisins. Discard the pith. Add crushed pineapples with their juice. Mix together the raisins, orange zest, fruit, and juice until each is well distributed in the bowl. Set aside.

In a mixing bowl, beat together the eggs, vanilla, sugar, salt, and sour cream until well blended. Set aside.

Pour the fruit mixture over the buttered noodles and stir. Add the egg batter. Stir until well blended. Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar.

Bake for sixty minutes until the top is golden brown and crunchy and the eggy part is a little bubbly. If the noodle tips start to burn, cover the casserole with foil for the last ten minutes of cooking. Allow to cool for ten minutes before serving. If you want a creamier interior texture, cook it for only 50 minutes. I think the flavors are more intense when it is cooked for the full sixty minutes.

Happy Hanukkah to my family and friends!

Here are lots of recipes, like these Brie Bites, to get you through special meals from now until New Year’s Day.

Meanwhile, I would love a good recipe for latkes. I have never made them but sure have enjoyed eating them.

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Remember to always check this website for updated versions of a recipe.  

© 2014-2018 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may only be reproduced with the written consent of Judy Wright.

@judyschickens Marinara Sauce

I have two ways of preparing marinara sauce, the summer way and the winter way. Either way, marinara sauce is super easy to make and so much better than store bought sauce.

In the summer, I use fresh tomatoes. I often use the over-ripe and cracked tomatoes for cooking and save the pretty ones for salads.

In the winter, I use Italian, canned, whole, plum tomatoes.

There is also a “hybrid” version of sauce that I make at The Nashville Food Project. There, I use a combination of fresh and canned tomatoes — a mixture that includes canned tomatoes that are often dented (they’re okay to use) and homegrown tomatoes (some perfect, some cracked), all of which are either donated or grown in TNFP’s production gardens. I happily get to make that version in a tilt-top stove which can hold enough sauce for 300 servings!

I use the same ingredients in all three versions: tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, basil, sea salt, and ground cayenne or red pepper flakes. What I don’t use is dried oregano. I’m not sure why people think oregano should go in Italian tomato sauce, but no one in my family ever used it. All versions simmer for ten minutes on medium heat once they have come to a rolling boil. Marinara sauces do not cook for as long as a thick and meaty “Sunday Sauce.” They are meant to show off the beautiful flavor of tomatoes.

Although I’ve been making marinara sauce for most of my life, it wasn’t until the summer of 2006, when our family was on an overnight sailing trip in the Adriatic Sea with friends, that I learned to make a delicious marinara. Our skipper, Toto, prepared lunch for ten on a two-burner cooktop in the small galley kitchen of his boat. What did he do differently? He did not add onions (I used to), he used a pinch of cayenne pepper (for heat), and he only cooked the sauce for ten minutes (I was cooking it for 30-45 minutes). In other words, he kept it very simple.

And I’m not the only one who loved the sauce. To this day, if you ask my boys, they will tell you it was the best spafhetti and marinara sauce they ever had.

Yield: Makes 4-5 cups

Ingredients:
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
6-8 cloves of smashed and chopped garlic (about ¼ cup, chopped)
4 pounds of ripe tomatoes, cored, seeded, and rough-chopped (about 8-9 cups) or 2 28-ounce cans of whole Italian plum tomatoes
2 teaspoons sea salt
A pinch of cayenne pepper OR ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
15 large leaves of basil, rough-chopped OR 2 loaded stems (about ½ cup when chopped)
1-2 teaspoons sugar (optional, it cuts the acidity)

Instructions:
Core the stems of the tomatoes, slice tomatoes in half (horizontally), and use your index finger to scoop out the seeds. Rough-chop tomatoes into 1 to 2-inch chunks. I do not peel the tomatoes. If using canned tomatoes, pour them into a bowl and break them up with your fingers. Swizzle each empty can with a ½ cup of water and pour the liquid into the bowl. Set aside.

Smash the garlic to break up the bulb. Remove the tissuey peel. Take the flat side of a chef’s knife and press it down over each clove to flatten and make it easier to remove the last layer of peel, then rough-chop the garlic cloves.

Pour olive oil into a 6-quart sauté pan. Add garlic. Sauté for about one minute on medium heat until the garlic starts to change color. Do not brown the garlic. If you do, discard and start over. It will make your sauce bitter.

Add the tomatoes, salt, and cayenne or pepper flakes to the garlic and oil. Bring to a boil and then simmer on medium heat for about ten minutes. Stir in sugar. Remove from heat.

Stir in basil. Let flavors meld together for at least 15 minutes. If desired, purée the sauce. Personally, I like a chunkier texture.

Serve over cooked bucatini and sprinkle with Reggiano Parmesan.

Recipes from Judy’s Chickens that use this Marinara Sauce recipe

Roasted Eggplant, Mozzarella, and Ziti  Amazingly delicious! My family loves it.

Fresh Marinara Sauce with Pasta and Mozzarella Yummy for a quick evening dinner. You could add cooked chicken for protein if desired.

Spiralized Zucchini with Fresh Marinara Sauce I’ve taught this recipe to a few different groups and each time half the people present ordered spiralizers before they left the room.

Check out other family-favorite Italian pasta dishes here.

Never buy a bottle of salad dressing again! Keep a bottle of this 4-ingredient vinaigrette in the cupboard. Use it for salads and marinades: @judyschickens Everyday Salad Dressing

One of the most popular recipes on the blog developed by me after our trip to Croatia: “Croatian Cheese” a Flavorful and Exotic Appetizer Made with Feta and Goat Cheese

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Follow Judy’s Chickens on Instagram and Pinterest @JudysChickens.

Remember to always check this website for updated versions of a recipe.  

© 2014-2018 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may only be reproduced with the written consent of Judy Wright.

Baked Ziti with Roasted Eggplant, Mozzarella, and Marinara Sauce

Last night, my son and grandson joined my husband and me for dinner. I made baked ziti with eggplant.

The nicest compliment was when my son said the ziti was one of the top five meals I’d ever made. He said he wished it was served in a restaurant so he could get more whenever he wanted. (No need for that, honey; just say when:-)) It was all music to my ears. I’d been working on making a good batch of baked ziti and eggplant for years.

I love roasted eggplant. I was taught by my mother to sweat (salt and drain) eggplant before cooking to rid it of its bitterness. Indeed, for most of my adult life, I have equated the brown liquid that dripped from the colander during sweating as the color of bitterness. The more brown liquid in the sink, the more successful I thought I would be in producing a delicious eggplant dish. But recently, I learned the true reason for sweating had nothing to do with bitterness and everything to do with the anatomy of eggplant. Eggplant is porous; it is full of small air pockets that absorb oil like a sponge. Sweating draws out water from the cells. The water released floods the tiny air pockets essentially eliminating the open spaces that frying oil would otherwise occupy.

Since I no longer fry eggplant, this summer I eliminated this time-consuming step of sweating and instead simply lightly brushed each raw slice of eggplant with olive oil before roasting.

The results have been delightful. At a recent dinner party, guests started gobbling down the unadorned slices of roasted eggplant before I even got to the step of smothering them with marinara sauce and mozzarella. This is why I roast most vegetables, you get to taste their essence.

Recently, I went to the Richland Farmers Market in Nashville and bought these gorgeous, svelte, Italian varieties of eggplant (melanzana, in Italian) from Corner Spring Farm. They had delightful names like Violeta di Toscano, Rosa Blanca, Clara, and Beatrice.

When I got home, I added them to the hefty stash of Black Beauty and Japanese eggplants I had harvested from my garden. I decided to make a day of it and cook all the eggplants at once. When I trimmed and peeled the skin, I was surprised to see the contrast in color of my stash of eggplants and the Italian varieties. Their flesh was so much whiter. Once roasted, I noticed the Italian varieties were denser and maintained their shape better, too, plus they had the mouth-feel of artichoke hearts. Yum. Now I know why my mother would always choose Italian eggplants at markets; there is a difference. Next summer, I’m planning on growing more of the Italian varieties.

Yield: serves 8 as main course

Ingredients 

The ingredients list is segmented by the cooking steps for the eggplant, marinara sauce, pasta, and basil and cheese layers.

4 or 5 medium-sized eggplants (I didn’t weigh them before cooking, but after cooking I had one pound of eggplant equaling 3 cups)
3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
6 cloves garlic, crushed and chopped
2 28-ounce cans whole Italian plum tomatoes
2 teaspoons fine sea salt
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper or dash of cayenne pepper
¼ cup fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped
2 teaspoons granulated sugar (optional)

6 quarts water
1 tablespoon fine salt
1 pound penne ziti rigate pasta, cooked to al dente

1 pound sliced and then chopped, mozzarella
1 cup finely grated parmesan ( about 3 ounces)
1 cup basil leaves, about ¾ ounce

Mise en Place

Instructions

Preheat oven to 425º

Remove the stem, and peel and slice the eggplant. Slice them about one-half inch thick; better to err on the side of thicker than thinner slices.
 

Pour olive oil in a bowl and brush each side of each slice very lightly with oil. I only used 3 tablespoons of oil for all the eggplants pictured above.
IMG_2499

Arrange the eggplant slices on parchment paper-lined baking sheets. Roast for 30-40 minutes. If you want them browned on each side, turn them over after about 20 minutes. I do not bother with this extra step. They should only be lightly browned when done. If you can’t decide if they are cooked enough, try tasting one. That’s what I do. You want them to be firm enough to hold their shape.

At this point, you could store the slices for one or two days in the refrigerator, or freeze. To prep for this recipe, measure out one pound (about 3 cups) and chop into 1.5 to 2 inch segments. Set aside.

DSC_5175.jpg

While eggplant is roasting, start the marinara sauce. Heat olive oil in a 6-quart frying pan over low heat. Add garlic and sauté for about 2 minutes. Do not allow garlic to brown. Pour the tomatoes into the pan breaking them up with your fingertips as you do. Add salt, cayenne, and sugar. Bring to a boil over high heat stirring frequently. Turn heat down to medium-low and simmer for 15 minutes. Stir in the fresh basil and turn the heat off. Set aside.
 

While the sauce simmers and the eggplant roasts, start a large pot of salted water over high heat for the ziti. When water comes to a full boil, add the ziti, bring it back to a full boil, stirring frequently, and cook until al dente. Drain the pasta. The pasta will cook more as it bakes.

Now you are ready to layer all the ingredients into a 9 by 13-inch casserole.

Preheat oven to 400º.

Pour two cupfuls of sauce into the bottom of casserole pan.
Add half of pasta, half of eggplant, half of basil, half of mozzarella and one-third of parmesan,

Repeat layering starting with half of the remaining sauce, the rest of the pasta, basil, and mozzarella, and a third of the parmesan. End with the remaining sauce followed by the last of the grated parmesan.

Bake for 20 minutes on the middle rack of the oven.

Related Italian Dishes:
Tomato Pie for a Crowd
Grandma’s Italian Fried Cauliflower
@judyschickens Marinara Sauce
Peperonata!
Spiralized Zucchini (aka Zoodles) with Marinara Sauce
Roasted Tomatoes, Burrata, and Basil
Roasted Ratatouille
Pasta, Mozzarella and Marinara Sauce
Tomatoes: The Crown Jewels of the Summer Kitchen Garden
My Favorite Gazpacho

Always check the website for the most current version of a recipe.

© 2014-2017 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.