I just got back from a lovely visit to New York, spending Easter with my daughter Anne's family in their Brooklyn apartment. Admittedly, New York City is a bit of a culture shock to this old Midwesterner. There's no place to park a car, the grandkids can't just run outside and ride their bikes, and grocery shopping is done on a phone app and delivered to the apartment. Getting past all that, their Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood is quite cool: a hip-hop, hipster and klezmer mash-up.
And speaking of New York apartments, we met up with Jared, a sous chef I worked with in Minneapolis. He's now working in Brooklyn and living with his girlfriend, Laura, an actress, in her Greenwich Village apartment. Their rent-controlled apartment has been in her family for decades and the rent (gasp!) is slightly more than $500 a month! The apartment used to belong to her grandfather, actor Jason Robards. It is very tiny, about 500 square feet, but filled with so many memories. I could close my eyes and just imagine Jason Robards with his wife, Lauren Bacall, in this tiny space.
Anne takes her family holiday traditions very seriously, and Easter is her favorite. She honors her mother's menu by making paskha, a traditional dairy-rich Eastern Orthodox dish made with ingredients that were forbidden during the fast of Lent. Her paskha uses ricotta instead of the traditional tvorog, a fermented dairy product resembling cottage cheese.
One of the benefits of living in New York is access to ingredients not readily available elsewhere, such as handmade ricotta. Di Palo's Fine Foods, in the Little Italy neighborhood of Lower Manhattan, has been making its own ricotta fresca (fresh ricotta) and mozzarella by hand daily since 1910. Their ricotta is so superior to anything you can find in your supermarket and has been described as "eating a cloud made of milk." The term "ricotta" is Italian for "recooked," and refers to the two-stage heating and coagulation process that goes into making cheese and then, subsequently, ricotta. It is the traditional way to utilize leftover whey, a byproduct of the cheesemaking process. Milk is made up of casein proteins and whey proteins. When milk is coagulated, the caseins bond together to make cheese, with whey as a byproduct. When whey is reheated, the whey proteins coagulate into soft, fluffy curds which are gently scooped out and drained, resulting in ricotta. Technically, ricotta is not a true cheese at all, because it's made from the remnant proteins in whey, not from the curds of milk.
If you want authentic ricotta, you need to go to a place like Di Palos and stand in line for 40 minutes. Commercial ricotta, by contrast, is made by curdling the milk with a souring agent and typically contains gums, fillers and stabilizers like carrageenan, which has been implicated in colon cancer. There are some good-quality brands available, such as Calabro, which is sold in cute overstuffed metal cans covered in plastic and sealed with a rubber band, but it isn't widely available and has a shorter shelf life. If a good source isn't easily available to you, you're left with one option: to make your own, which is actually quite easy. It won't technically be a true ricotta, because it won't be made with only whey, but it will come quite close in flavor and texture to true ricotta and will be better than anything you'll find at a grocery store. At my previous job as a pasta maker, I made up a fresh batch of ricotta every week for our ravioli filling.
Homemade Ricotta Recipe
Try this ricotta as a topping for avocado toast with a drizzle of olive oil, some lemon zest and fresh basil.
2 quarts of milk
1 cup heavy cream
½ teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons lemon juice or distilled white vinegar
Note: Source out milk and cream that aren't ultra-pasteurized. Ultra-pasteurization heats milk to significantly higher temperatures, altering its proteins such that they will no longer coagulate effectively.
Line a large colander or mesh strainer with a double thickness of damp cheesecloth, and set this over a bowl.
Combine the milk, cream and salt in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan, and slowly over medium heat until milk registers 175 to 185 degrees F. (You'll need a good thermometer. I use a Thermapen.)
Add the lemon juice or white vinegar. Stir gently until curds begin to form throughout the milk, about 2 minutes. Then keep the mixture between 175 and 185 degrees F for 20 minutes. Remove from heat, and let sit without stirring for 10 minutes.
Using a slotted spoon or small fine-mesh strainer, carefully lift out as much of the curds as you can, and let drain for 1 hour. What's left in the cloth is the ricotta, and the liquid that's left behind is whey. Don't pour the whey down the sink. It has many uses. Refrigerate until ready to use.
If not using right away, the drained ricotta can be covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated for up to 4 or 5 days.
Uses for the whey
The watery substance that is left over after milk is curdled is whey. It's the same liquid that pools on the top of your yogurt container. Whey is full of probiotics and contains beneficial proteins, vitamins, minerals and enzymes. It has many uses, so don't throw your whey away. It can be frozen in ice cube trays for future use.
Whey can be used to kickstart sauerkraut, kimchi and other fermented vegetables. Just don't serve these to people who are lactose-intolerant.
Use it in sourdough starter and pizza dough. The acidity of whey has a softening effect. You'll just need to reduce the salt in the recipe.
Store your mozzarella or feta cheese in a whey brine to keep the cheese fresh longer.
Make a whey marinade. The enzymes in whey help tenderize meat. Add minced garlic, salt, pepper and some rosemary to the whey and marinate your steaks, chicken, fish or pork chops.
Mix it into your dog's food. In Emilia-Romagna, the whey from the production of Parmigiano Reggiano is fed to the pigs that will become prosciutto.
Use it to water your acid-loving plants, such as azaleas, rhododendrons, hydrangea, dogwood, rhubarb, tomatoes and blueberries. It will lower the pH of the soil. Be sure to dilute it with a good amount of water; full strength will "burn" your plants. Dilute 1:1 with water and spray on your plants to help keep powdery mildew at bay.