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Making cheese at home

Ricotta, cottage cheese, paneer - what else?

This was just going to be about ricotta because Rachel Roddy was waxing lyrical about it in her introduction to this week's Guardian Feast newsletter and also there were some very delicious things she suggested we could do with it. I had the feeling that I had 'done' ricotta before but nevertheless I was tempted. However, when I started looking at her links on how to make it, I found myself wondering whether what they were saying was right, because you see I had seen real, and I mean real, ricotta being made in Italy in Parmesan country, as the by-product of Parmigiana Reggiano. And I'm sure I've talked about this before. Below are pictures of the wonderful husband and wife team labouring away at this - twice a day, every day of the year.

We bought some and made lasagne with it that very day. Truly one of the most memorable foodie experiences of my life - the visit to the cheese factory that is, not the lasagne which was good but not earth shattering. The making of it was a process which Rachel Roddy described so well, although as she was near Rome the main cheese being made was Pecorino, not Parmesan:

"I’m interested in what is left behind in the vats once the curds have been lifted away: litres of thin, cloudy, depleted whey. While it looks like old washing-up water, this whey is rich with proteins and acidified. It is ri-cotta, re-cooked (though reheated may be a better description), with a bit more rennet, milk and salt, which causes the protein to flocculate, or form a fine curd. From the hopeless whey appear clouds of soft cheese, which take the name of the process that produced them. Resembling a mix of scrambled egg whites and blancmange, the warm ricotta is lifted into baskets and can be eaten straight away, or pasteurised if it needs to shipped elsewhere." Rachel Roddy

I doubt that ours was pasteurized. No doubt however that this was the real thing. So can you make it at home?

Well this is where I started to veer from my original intent because the first thing I did was to look at the two recipes she recommended - one from Anna Jones and the other from Honey & Co. Both recipes were pretty simple, basically almost boiling some milk, adding some acid, stirring then straining - and voilà your cheese. Anna Jones used just milk and vinegar and a little salt, Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich added some cream and yoghurt and used lemons rather than vinegar. But the process was the same. As to lemon juice or vinegar Anna Jones said:

"I’ve tried lemon juice, but vinegar somehow produces more ricotta. The quantity of vinegar is key, too little and the curds won’t form properly; too much and the end result will taste like a chip shop. Because this recipe is so simple there is nowhere to hide, so use the best milk that you can afford."

At this point I suddenly remember Madhur Jaffrey saying the same thing about making paneer and also vague memories of recipes for cottage cheese which were almost identical to the two recipes above. So this is when I started wondering whether all three were the same thing, and anyway were any of them the real thing?

Because don't you need whey to make ricotta? And where do you get whey? Or rennet come to that. I also noted that the Honey & Co. pair called their version curd cheese because it was made from milk - and cream and yoghurt and so they admitted it wasn't really ricotta. So indeed, why not just call it curd cheese? Although I think curd cheese is another soft cheese product - well this is what Delia calls curd cheese, which looks somewhat creamier than what we expect of ricotta. Maybe it's what we call cream cheese.

So at this point I decided that unless you have access to whey then you can't make ricotta, and because I was now wondering what the difference was between ricotta and cottage cheese, I changed tack. And then again remembered paneer.

So let's start with paneer which is rather more solid than either ricotta or cottage cheese, although this, I thought could just be because you let it drip for longer - like labneh - the longer you leave your yoghurt to drip the more solid it becomes. And indeed that is the case. The version shown at right is from Nagi Maehashi of Recipe Tin Eats and I chose this one to be the representative recipe because of the step-by-step instructions. And indeed the method and ingredients are more or less exactly the same as for Anna Jones' recipe for ricotta. The difference being that once you have dripped off the whey, you squeeze more liquid out of your cheesecloth wrapped cheese and then weight it down for a few hours, which of course will make it more solid. The cheese can then be cut into slices and fried like haloumi and then just eaten.

Or added to curries, the most well-known of which is Saag (or Palak) Paneer. Nagi Maehashi links to her recipe for this, or you can find many more on the net.

You can also try making a spiced up version of Home-made Paneer by Madhur Jaffrey who has a slightly different way of pressing the cheese to Nagi Maehashi, but the basic method is the same.

However, in one way, the main reason I am featuring Nagi Maehashi's recipe for Paneer is because of this picture:

What you see here is the straining process. Now that looks to be a fair amount of whey that you are left with, so why can't you just cook that up with some more lemon juice or vinegar to make real ricotta? Well in fact you can and there are recipes on the net. Some seem to think that just reheating it will make the curds form, some add some lemon juice or vinegar, all add some salt, and some add some milk. All say to use your leftover whey as soon as possible however, and of course your yield will be quite low. So have a play around one day.

Nagi Maehashi just throws her whey out but even if you are not planning on ricotta don't do that. It can be used in all sorts of ways - stock, baking, brining - a bit like buttermilk.

Which brings me to cottage cheese. Well maybe because here I become a bit confused. And should I bother anyway? After all Rachel Cooke of The Guardian says "it is joyless and cold: neutrality on a plate." and Mary-Ellen McTague makes it sound daunting:

"Sometimes, whether due to bacterial spoilage, or a mistake with the temperature, or the alignment of the goddam planets, cheese occasionally just doesn't work out. Take it from me, if it smells horrible by the time you've finished, skip the taste test and discard it. When it does work out, however, it is so very satisfying and you will be feeling delighted with yourself for days." Mary-Ellen McTague

I found several websites that made it all sound terribly difficult, talking about real buttermilk - not what you got from the supermarket, rennet and also mesophillic cultures, which is enough to put anyone off. Shouldn't it be the simplest one of all? After all the name itself implies that it's what every peasant housewife made back in the day when:

"In the old days, cottage cheese was made by leaving a container of milk on the counter to curdle or clabber through fermentation." Housewife How-Tos

Which, I have to say, does not sound at all tempting. Maybe Rachel Cooke is right. Eventually however, having discarded David Lebovitz and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and lots of other less well-known names I found the recipe for the bowl above on a website called Housewife How-Tos (who provided the quote above.) And lo and behold once again the method is virtually the same except here there is no leaving it to drip for a while. The curds are simply gathered together in the cheesecloth and gently squeezed before turning into a bowl.

Which leaves me with the idea that if you are going to make these soft and fresh cheeses at home, there might be small variations in what you start with but really you just boil up some milk add some acid to make it curdle, add some salt - to taste, and then leave it to lose the liquid within for varying lengths of time. So next time you have some milk that needs using up have a go though check how much acid. This seems to be rather key.

Somebody said of cottage cheese -'or fromage frais'. Well there's also fromage blanc, cream cheese, quark, haloumi ... and did you know you are only a step or two away from making mozzarella too?

What to do with it when you've got it? Well all sorts of things, but you could start with Ottolenghi's Ricotta and oregano meatballs which is just one recipe I came across whilst writing this. There are literally thousands of others.

Or you could just buy some ricotta from the supermarket - not the stuff in the plastic container - the stuff from the deli - full fat. It will do - unless you are a real gourmet.

Apparently there is a real craze in the UK for cottage cheese. Sales are up by 40%.



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May 27
Rated 3 out of 5 stars.

Words about cheese I have never heard before: Paneer, Whey. I guess if there is a will, then a way is just around the corner. I do regret though not getting up at 7.30am to see the Italian husband and wife Parmesan makers

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