SONOMA PANTRY CHEESEMAKING

Easier than making fresh pasta, or even a loaf of bread from scratch, artisanal cheesemaking can and should be attempted at home. In under 90 minutes start to finish, you may add your name to the growing number of cheesemakers in America. On a recent trip to Sonoma, culinary educator, chef, and charming cheesemaker, Sheana Davis, shared her recipe and technique for making Crème de Ricotta in the home kitchen. This fresh, fluffy, and exhilaratingly versatile cheese will coax out the cheesemaker in every cheese lover. Surprisingly, no special equipment is needed, no foreign ingredients, and most often everything needed to make this cheese is already in the pantry.

Sonoma Pantry Cheesemaking

With a fluffy ricotta like consistency, this cheese lends itself to variation. Step 6 of the recipe directs chefs to add optional ingredients. A combination of sea salt and fresh rosemary is nice. So is lemon zest and black pepper. Or perhaps even some grated pear and chopped pistachios—just avoid wet or overly moist ingredients. Use the imagination to create your own personal pantry cheese. Even a bit of jam or marmalade, honey, or maple syrup may be drizzled on to the cheese for a change of pace, or for when a bit of sweetness is called for when cheese service replaces dessert after dinner. 

A refreshingly laid back California personality, Chef Sheana reminds cheesemakers to scoop the cheese curds patiently over a bit of time. However, if in a hurry she promises the only compromise will be a lower yield—as much as a third less cheese than if the cheesemaker takes his or her own sweet time ladling off the curds to insure that every last creamy morsel ends up draining in the cloth. 

Perhaps the greatest surprise is learning that this cheese may be frozen and used over a period of months. Thawed and allowed to come to room temperature before serving, or sautéed in a bit of olive oil, the Crème de Ricotta becomes a pantry staple to offer last minute guests, or a conversation starting, made in advance, no stress appetizers with a “wow” factor of 10 for larger gatherings. BTW, this may just be the most awesome lasagna cheese ever—simply line a lasagna pan with plastic wrap and let the plastic hang over, pour the cheese onto the plastic wrap and let set in the refrigerator. When set, lift the edges of the plastic wrap to remove the cheese, add sauce to the pan, then noodles, and then gently turn this cheese layer over onto the pasta noodles, dot with fresh oregano, black pepper, and perhaps some roasted garlic and repeat. Yummy.

Sonoma Pantry Cheesemaking
Sonoma Pantry Cheesemaking

Another way to enjoy this recipe is to take a slight u-turn at step 5 of the directions. Before proceeding, dip individual spoons into the latte-like foam whey, line each foam dipped spoon up on a baking tray and refrigerate to be used as an amuse bouche. Just before serving, add a bit of this or that—sprinkle with tomato powder, a tiny bit of fresh lobster or crab meat, a tiny zest of lemon and some flaked salt. Or, try adding 3 fresh individual peas, a micro mint leaf, and some orange zest. The possibilities are limitless! Cheese foam will impress guests every time and is one more option to add variety to the table when making a 2 to 3 pound mound of cheese.

Oh, and by the way, don’t throw out the whey! Visit theepicureanconnection.com for Sheana’s Whey & Potato Soup—filled with potatoes, crumbled bacon, and grated cheddar. If visiting Sonoma, do take one of her classes at RAMEKINS, it is part of a whole body and soul vineyard excursion that will leave you believing that wine & cheese may just be a complete and perfect meal. Alas, her cheese is only sold outside of California to cheese shops and restaurants in the Big Apple. If wandering the cheese shops of Brooklyn and Manhattan and stumble upon Sheana’s award winning signature milk and goat Délice de la Vallée buy one to share and one to savor in a moment of complete unabashed selfish cheese loving greed.

Nota bene: When the milk is heated and it resembles cappuccino foam, remove from heat to prevent the milk from boiling over the pot. Use a spatula rather than a wooden or metal spoon to stir the curds—no worries if the milk scalds on the bottom of the pan—just do not scrape it into the whey mixture. Large 200 count flour sack clothes may be found at Williams Sonoma. It is important to heed the need for "unhomogenized" milk. The homogenization process creates an emulsion and equally distributes the fat molecules making it more difficult to separate the curds from the whey in the cheese-making process and influencing the yield on the finished cheese. Different fresh milks have different tastes, some sweeter and some more acidic. Pasteurized (no UHT or Ultra High Temperature Pasteurized), or fresh from the udder milk fine. Experiment to find the milk with the flavor you like best. 

 

Directions

1. Assemble a heavy bottomed pot, a whisk, a spatula, a slotted spoon, a 36” square 200 thread count cotton flour sack, a colander, a large bowl in which to sit the colander, a cheese ladle, and a thermometer.

2. Pour the milk and the cream into a large heavy bottomed pan and heat over a low flame until the temperature reaches 200 degrees F. on a thermometer. Stir and whisk frequently to prevent scalding and scorching on the bottom of the pan. This step  takes about 30 minutes.

3. Remove the heat from the burner, while quickly stirring in a clockwise direction, sprinkle the whey with the salt and pour in the vinegar clockwise to create a whirlpool effect. Stir once more in clockwise direction and cover. The  mixture will begin to coagulate immediately and white curds will begin to float in the whey. Rest covered for 10 minutes.

4. Line the colander with the flour sack.

5. Remove the lid from the pot and gently ladle the curds on to the cloth, scooping from center of the pot and distributing to the sides of the cloth (try to avoid plopping all in the center or the draining will take longer). Allow to drain for 30 minutes to 1 hour.

6. When this layer appears drained,  add optional ingredients around the top of the curds. Then repeat with a second layer and a third until all the curds have been removed and are on the cheesecloth draining. More curds will develop as time passes. An optional additional tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice may be added if the pot is still full of unseparated milk.

7. Allow to the curds to drain for 30 minutes, depending on the desired consistency. To maintain a light and fluffy consistency try to avoid squeezing the whey from the cheese—let this happen slowly and organically and the results are superior.

8. The cheese is ready to be served warm, molded, or put in the refrigerator for up to 7 days. The longer the cheese sits, the firmer it will become. At this point, the curd may be transferred to molds with a spoon or ice cream scoop. Within one hour the cheese will be completely set. Alternatively, leave the cheese in the cloth and just before serving, unwrap in front of guest and turn the rustic wheel out onto a board set with a variety of breads, marmalades, or crackers. 

9. If molding, the cheese may be put in silicone mats, muffin tins, small glass jars, or even a plastic wrap lined tea cake pan (let the plastic drape over the sides for easy removal)—any size or shape acceptable. The cheese may be frozen at this point. If using silicon molds, ramekins, or muffin tins, freeze the cheese in the molds first, release and store in airtight freezer containers for up 6 months.

Yields 2 to 3 pounds cheese

Ingredients

  • 1 gallon whole unhomogenized organic milk (homogenized milk will result in a lower yield, but does work).

  • 4 cups organic heavy cream (unhomogenized works best)

  • 2 cups white distilled vinegar (no substitutions)

  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt

  • Optional:  a combination of chopped nuts, dried or grated fruit, capers, roasted peppers, citrus zest, black pepper, chopped rosemary or thyme leaves, etc.