Before I get going on how delicious this recipe is, let me be clear: making ricotta cheese is so easy that a child could do it. Even the kid in the corner eating glue and making motorcycle noises will do. It’s that easy.
It always amazes me by how shocked people are when I make ricotta cheese. “YOU made ricotta cheese? From scratch? As in, you cooked it and everything? Isn’t that complicated?” Making ricotta cheese is a bit time consuming, but it’s far from complicated. People will be shocked by the sheer thought that you would voluntarily decide to make cheese from scratch (and succeed!), so you might as well capitalize on their astonishment by making this recipe to impress everyone at your next potluck.
Let’s break down the science of how ricotta cheese is made (with a technicality that I will describe afterward). Milk, which is the main ingredient in cheese, is made of a bunch of different molecules, most of which can be classified into two categories: curd proteins (a.k.a. caseins) and whey proteins. Caseins like to pack together in small groups (called micelles) to prevent curdling, which occurs when the caseins begin to clump together. The addition of an acid (such as lemon juice or vinegar) and the increase of heat promotes curd formation by making these micelles disassemble so that the caseins can clump together (while trapping moisture and fat, which makes it creamy). The whey proteins, which will not curdle, are strained out, leaving the curdled caseins, a.k.a. the cheese.
Now, a technicality: true, traditional ricotta cheese is made from leftover whey (the stuff that didn’t curdle and is strained out in the process). The word “ricotta” literally translates to “re-cooked” in Italian. This is done by taking leftover whey, adding milk to it, and repeating the process. Making ricotta from leftover whey is not commonly done anymore (even store-bought ricotta cheese isn’t made from leftover whey) for a couple reasons: 1) the yield is very low, and 2) few people have leftover whey in such quantities on hand. We are essentially making Italian queso fresco, and I personally see nothing wrong with that since I don’t have an Italian nonna to impress.
My favorite way to dress up this beautiful, soft cheese is to top with caramelized figs, drizzle with honey, and add some za’atar (found in ethnic Mediterranean stores or sometimes in the kosher food section of your grocery store). Serve as an appetizer with sliced Granny Smith apples for dipping and soak up the compliments.