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Originally published Sunday, May 31, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Taste

Homemade ricotta is as simple to make as it is versatile

Combining fresh milk, buttermilk and cream, make ricotta at home and enjoy it by itself, slathered on a pizza, stuffed into lasagna or served with fruit.

BEFORE WE begin, there are a few things I should clear up. I'm not one of those people who make everything by hand. I don't raise my own chickens, milk my own cows or bake my own bread from a sourdough starter passed down through five generations of my family.

Furthermore, I didn't grow up on a farm, I have no degree in chemistry and I've never worked in a professional kitchen. I'm just a regular, self-taught home cook who does something just a little bit differently from most Americans: When I need some ricotta cheese, I don't head to the store; instead I take out the milk, turn on the stove and make it myself.

To quote Barbara Kingsolver in her wonderful book "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle," "What kind of weirdo makes cheese?" What kind of weirdo, indeed.

I sometimes think people would regard me as less strange if I admitted to looming my own underwear. Making ricotta is just not something normal people do. Sure, those who have been to Italy might sympathize with my longing for the delicately milky cheese that has about as much in common with American supermarket ricotta as a fine mortadella has with deli-case bologna, but even those people assume I must suffer from some obsessive-compulsive disorder to undertake something so doubtlessly complicated.

Well, I'll let you in on a secret: Homemade ricotta doesn't require any fancy equipment or expensive ingredients; it doesn't even need your undivided attention for more than 20 minutes. In fact, it's so easy, and the result is so indescribably good, that I can't think of a single reason why everyone shouldn't be making their own.

Granted, purists would insist that what comes out of my kitchen is not technically ricotta. True ricotta is a byproduct of rennet-based cheesemaking, produced by reheating the leftover whey with an acid agent until the remaining proteins coagulate — hence the name ricotta, Italian for "recooked." Still, when it looks like ricotta, acts like ricotta and — particularly when made with some of our incredible Northwest dairy — tastes better than most of what passes for ricotta in this country, we're not going to quibble over semantics, are we?

It's true, though, that calling this cheese by its Italian name gives it an air of sophistication it doesn't really deserve. You see, ricotta is just a fancy name for what our great-grandmothers would have recognized as a kind of farmer's cheese — a category of simple, acid-set cheeses that used to be everyday fare before people began buying their dairy products instead of making them at home. Now we're more likely to buy our farmer's cheese with exotic names like paneer, queso blanco and quark. But whether they're soft or crumbly, aged or fresh, at heart all these cheeses reflect a basic technique home cooks have used for centuries to preserve an abundance of fresh milk.

What sets ricotta apart from many other types of farmer's cheeses — and what sets homemade ricotta apart from its chalky supermarket cousin — is its silken, creamy texture. Italians achieve this by making ricotta from sheep or water buffalo milk, both of which have a higher fat content than cow's milk. For those of us who don't have a handy supply of either, though, cow's milk mixed with some cream does beautifully. By far this ricotta's greatest attribute is its versatility. It goes with just about everything. I serve it stuffed into homemade spinach pasta, smeared on thin-crust pizzas with tangy tomato sauce and crumbled sausage, mixed with fresh herbs and garlic as a dip for crudités — even paired with fruit for dessert. More often than not, though, I find myself succumbing to its charms in the simplest form possible: scooped into a bowl and drizzled with a spoonful of honey, or better yet, leftover chocolate sauce. After all, the hard life of a cheesemaker deserves some reward.

Melissa Kronenthal is a Seattle freelance food photographer and writer. Check out her other work at www.melissakronenthal.com.

Homemade Ricotta

Makes about 2 ½ cups

The flavor of homemade ricotta depends on the flavor of the milk and cream that go into it, so use the best you can find. I love the dairy from Fresh Breeze Organic in Lynden.

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2 quarts whole milk (not ultrapasteurized, preferably organic)

2 cups buttermilk

1 cup heavy cream

½ teaspoon salt

1. Set a colander in the sink and line it with a triple layer of cheesecloth or a clean kitchen towel (not terry cloth) that you've rinsed and wrung out. Combine the milk, buttermilk, cream and salt in a large, heavy-bottomed pot and place over medium heat. Stirring frequently to prevent scorching, heat the milk to a gentle simmer. Watch it carefully; when it reaches 175 degrees, it will start to curdle. As soon as you see this, give the milk one last stir, scraping up any bits stuck to the bottom, and turn off the heat. Let the pot sit there, undisturbed, for 10 minutes. The soft white curds will separate from the yellowish whey and rise to form a raft on the surface.

2. Using a wire-mesh skimmer or large slotted spoon, gently lift off the curds into the colander, leaving as much of the whey behind as possible. Go slowly so as not to break up the curds too much. When you've transferred them all, pour off and discard the whey left in the pot, and salvage any curds that are stuck to the bottom. Let the cheese drain for about half an hour; when the draining slows, gather the edges of the cloth, tie them into a bag, and hang the bag from the faucet. Continue to drain until the ricotta is as thick as you like it, up to an hour longer.

3. Pack the ricotta into a covered container and store in the refrigerator. It's at its best during the first 3 to 4 days, but it will keep for about a week.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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