A Sweet Cheese To Make At Home: Ricotta

When I lived on my ranchito in Mexico, if I had to go to town (Dolores Hidalgo) I would try to get there early enough to find the ricotta man on his corner, selling his fresh ricotta of the day. It was so delicious, and so cheap! Considering that traditional Italian ricotta (which means "twice cooked") is made from the whey leftover from making other cheeses I can't believe how expensive it is at the supermarket. And the stuff they sell in this village is quite disgusting.

This old man's ricotta tasted just like the stuff I used to buy in Montreal, which has a large Italian community.

Many Mexicans make their own queso fresco -- the fresh white cheese they crumble over many dishes, and a few people make their own Oaxaca cheese too -- a stringy mozzarella-like cheese that melts beautifully. But not everyone makes ricotta with the whey. Maybe my ricotta man had Italian blood!

I threw an ice cream party last week, and had a quart of whole milk leftover, plus about half a cup of rich soy milk that I had extracted for making silken tofu, and I happened to have some citric acid in the pantry, so I decided to make ricotta cheese using the recipe in Ricki Carroll's Home Cheesemaking. (Actually, the recipe she gives here is a better one, and I will follow it next time. And by the way that's what's wrong with the book: I think it was published before they had all the recipes tested thoroughly, and I keep finding totally revised versions of them on their website.)

Ricotta is a very pleasant, sweet, small-curd cheese, and the homemade kind is better than most brands you can find at the supermarket, though not as good as the bulk ricotta found at real Italian stores.

After heating the milk and watching the curds form, the latter are ladled into a double layer of butter cloth (or several layers of cheesecloth), and hung up to drain.

This is the same contraption that I use for making jelly, no need for special equipment, just a stick and a way of suspending the ball of curds.

Here is the finished cheese, with 3 cups of whey which I will freeze to use in my next batch of bread.

The yield from one quart of milk was exactly half a pound (227 grams), which brings the cost to about $6 a lb, cheaper and a heck of a lot healthier than the supposedly healthy gourmet PC Blue Menu "Ricotta Whey Cheese" whose list of ingredients is quite a bit longer.

If I can resist the temptation of eating it as dessert, I plan to put it in some lasagna or use it for stuffing ravioli, some time this week. 

On the other hand, it's so quick and easy to make -- less than one hour from start to finish -- I should start stocking whole milk just so I can make the occasional batch, as an additional menu option.

In addition to lasagna and ravioli, ricotta is the cheese of choice for all sorts of Italian specialties. I remember very fondly a ricotta pie that we used to serve in my first restaurant, way back when. It was topped with pine nuts. Here's a very similar recipe, from Lidia's Italy.


"Tourtière" -- The Meat Pie From Quebec

Where I come from, each family has its own tourtière recipe, but my mother never passed her recipe on so I've had to experiment to find the one that corresponded to both my memories and my grown-up tastes.

At one point, I tried the Galloping Gourmet's* recipe. He substituted mashed potatoes for the breadcrumbs. Sounded like a good idea but you had to pick really starchy potatoes or you'd get a watery pie.

Finally, I adapted Jehane Benoit's recipe from her little-known The Canadiana Cookbook. It was published in 1970 and I opened my first restaurant in London, Ontario -- Auberge du Petit Prince -- in June 1972 and tourtière was an instant success there.

Fifteen years later, I opened a French restaurant in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and my tourtière was a hit there too. I attribute this to the fact that Mexicans love pork and that my recipe includes cinnamon, which is a favourite spice in Mexico, though as far as I know they don't use it in savoury dishes. On the other hand, maybe they just like good food!

The Pork Filling

For each pie:
1 lb ground pork (I buy shoulder and grind it myself)
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 ribs celery, with leaves if possible, finely chopped
1 small garlic clove, minced
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp summer savoury
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/2 cup water
1/4 to 1/2 cup breadcrumbs
Egg wash (1 egg, beaten with a teaspoon of water or milk)

Place all ingredients except the breadcrumbs in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook, uncovered, for 20 minutes, over medium heat.
Remove from heat and add a few spoonfuls of breadcrumbs.
Let stand for 10 minutes. If the fat is sufficiently absorbed by the breadcrumbs, do not add more. If not, continue adding breadcrumbs.
Cool and pour into a pastry-lined pan. Cover with top crust that has vent holes to allow steam to escape
Brush with egg wash.
Bake at 400 F (200 C) until golden brown. Serve hot, with red or green tomato chow chow (recipe below).

Cooked tourtières can be frozen 4-5 months, and reheated without thawing.

The Special Dough

For the crust, I remember being fascinated by the Galloping Gourmet's hot water pie crust, and I found the recipe in The Canadiana Cookbook too.

How could this weird recipe work when we are constantly reminded to handle the dough as little as possible? The secret is the combination of baking powder, vinegar and egg, which creates the flakiest, tenderest pie crust imaginable. It uses pork lard as a fat, and that is essential.

That became my crust of choice for all savoury pies.

4-1/2 to 5 cups all-purpose flour (increase by 1/2 cup if using cake and pastry flour)
4 tsp baking powder
2 tsp salt
1 lb pure lard
1 cup hot water
4 tsp lemon juice or vinegar
1 egg, well beaten

Combine flour, baking powder and salt in a large mixing bowl.
Measure 1-1/3 cups of the lard and cut into the flour until mealy.
Dissolve the remaining lard completely in the hot water.
Add the lemon juice or vinegar and the egg.
Mix these liquids into the flour mixture until dough leaves the sides of the bowl.
Turn on lightly floured board and knead about 1 minute or until all the flour is blended. (Really, you need to do this!)
Divide into 4 to 6 balls, flatten them and wrap them in plastic film, then refrigerate at least one hour, and up to 12 hours.

You will find this dough incredibly easy to roll.

The Chow Chow

For a long time I used my mother's recipe for a quick fruit ketchup. It contained 1 can of peaches, 1 can of pears, and probably 1 can of tomatoes. To this you added onions, celery, vinegar, sugar and pickling spice. The advantage was you could make it all year, unlike our grandmothers who would preserve dozens of bottles of the stuff in season, to last all year.

Now I just buy it at the store and it's pretty good (look for the Habitant brand) but here is my recipe for the real thing, translated from Les Conserves, by Soeur Berthe (Editions de l'Homme, 1974):


18 ripe tomatoes
6 apples
5 peaches
5 pears
2 large onions
3 stalks celery
2 tsp coarse salt
2 TB pickling spice
1 cup white vinegar
1 1/2 cups sugar

Peel tomatoes and peaches by blanching them in hot water and cooling them quickly in cold water, then chop them - not too fine.
Peel apples and pears and cut into cubes.
Slice onions thinly.
Chop the celery.
Put all the above into a large, non-reactive pot.
Add vinegar, salt and spices (wrapped in cheesecloth).
Bring to the boil and simmer one hour.
Add the sugar and continue cooking until sugar is dissolved and right consistency has been reached.
Remove the spices and pour into sterilized jars, following your preferred canning method.


Here is the recipe that appears in The Canadiana Cookbook, in the chapter on New Brunswick. I have not tested it:

1/2 peck green tomatoes
6 large onions
6 medium cucumbers
1 head celery
4 sour apples
2 red peppers
3 lbs brown sugar
3 TB pickling spices tied in a bag
Cider vinegar

Cut tomatoes fine. 
Add 1/2 cup salt and leave overnight. 
Next morning, drain and add other ingredients. 
Nearly cover with vinegar (about one quart). 
Boil gently 1 to 1-1/2 hours. 
Pour in sterilized jars and seal.

* Graham Kerr used that name for his TV cooking show in the 60s.