My friend Alana is making a name for herself leading us toward making things instead of buying them. In the spring her book on this topic will be out, and I can hardly wait. As a result of this focus of hers, she has brought joy to many, and I think also sees some people skulk away from her in the grocery store, shielding their cart from her gaze. When she makes lasagna, she makes the ricotta and the mozzarella and the noodles. She does this in the middle of a busy life, and she wants you to know that you can, too. On a smaller scale, I sometimes find myself reassuring people that they don’t have to justify their store-bought bread or cookies or whatever it is they buy, yet when I saw Alana on a day I was responsible for creating a lasagna myself, I avoided eye contact. All sub-ingredients had been purchased.
I confessed. She laughed. She said, I just want you to make things that make you happy! However you get there is OK with me! I am of like mind, you might say, and so together we have puzzled over mozzarella and ricotta and pressure-canned tomatoes and cheese crackers, up to our elbows in them and in long, theoretical emails and phone conversations that I hope no one taped to embarrass us with later. The idea is not, as I am often teased about personally, to make the maximum amount of trouble for oneself and avoid convenience at all costs. I do not thresh my own wheat, thank you very much, no matter what you have heard. The idea is to make it simple, to demystify our access to the pleasure and satisfaction that toddlers know lie in doing something ALL BY SELF, and also to make things that are good to eat.
There are skills you can master, like Italian meringue buttercream and an omelette, which will elicit big rowdy whoops of self-congratulation when you get the hang of them (I think--I am still working on both). But you will have to break a lot of eggs, and perhaps cry a little, and learn Life Lessons as you go (“do not start buttercream you are unsure of two hours before child’s birthday party,” e.g.). Godspeed to you if you aim for a skill like that. I applaud the effort and think you will enjoy the results, if not the Lessons.
Then there are things you can master that are not hard, just unfamiliar. The bang for the buck ratio works soundly in your favor and in approximately no time at all tail-wagging levels of pleased-with-yourself happiness are yours.
I would say without a doubt that making your own ricotta falls into this camp. You need milk and lemons, and a thermometer and some cheesecloth. You are rewarded with ricotta better than any you have ever purchased, and a gallon of whey that you can use to make soup that is transcendentally delicious, all for the investment of about 30 minutes. Also, it is fascinating. Furthermore, you can then go around saying you know how to make cheese, because you do.
If you would like to try it, head over to see Alana, and know that if you want to end up with about a pound of ricotta, enough to make lasagna ALL BY SELF, then use a gallon of milk and half a cup of lemon juice when you follow her instructions. Heating slowly as she recommends produces a superior texture, so don’t argue with her about the time factor. It still doesn’t take very long.
If you would not like to try it, at this moment, but do want to make a simple winter dessert, then with my blessing go buy some really good ricotta (hint: not in a plastic tub, which is where you and me both can find the kind we use to make a big lasagna for the sixth grade basketball dinner) and go to town this way:
baked pears with ricotta & lemon
serves 4, depending on greed levels and who is watching
4 pears, firm-ripe (Bartlett or Anjou are nice)
1 c excellent ricotta
2-4 T honey
2t lemon juice (a Meyer will reward you tremendously here)
finely grated zest of that lemon (as above)
butter to grease the baking dish
Generously butter an 8x8 or comparable oven-proof dish. Preheat the oven to 350. Peel the pears, core and quarter them, and put them in the dish. Sprinkle the lemon juice over them, and drizzle about a tablespoon of honey over them, too, and grate the lemon zest over all that. Gob the ricotta here and there on this mess, and drizzle the rest of the honey on top of it all. Bake about 15 minutes, until the pears soften, the cheese browns a little and the juices are bubbling. Try not to burn your mouth. Wag your tail.