THE GIFT OF EXPERIENCE
There are only so many things we need in our homes and in our lives, and the holidays seem to be another time we accumulate more stuff. Despite good intentions, lots of love, and well thought out gifts, I often come home and need to do some re-organizing and purging. Which is why I was so excited when my partner got cheese making classes for Christmas. I love gifts that are about memorable experiences, especially when it involves visiting one of my favorite local farms. I immediately invited myself along to take the second ticket.
Soul Food Farm is nestled on 55 acres in a beautiful valley in the agriculture part of Vacaville, CA. You head off the highway when it's still rolling hills and oak trees, before you hit the suburban downtown and infamous outlet mall. The farms grows olives and lavender, sells their eggs, and presses their own olive oil. It's peaceful and beautiful, and becoming increasingly a place for community and connection. Farm owner Alexis opens the space and her light-filled kitchen to workshops and retreats, highlighting people committed to sustainable agriculture and slow living.
We spent a quiet Sunday in Janaury on the farm learning to make fresh and fast cheeses (paneer, ricotta and mozzarella) along with farmhouse cheddar, an aged cheese that take a few months to finish. Our instructor Brita Wynn walked us through the process, talking about the important of raw milk in cheesemaking and all the many uses for the excess whey. She believes that by connecting to traditional food preservation techniques we are connecting to ourselves and our past. I agree!
Ricotta is a fast and easy cheese to make, and so far superior to what you find in most grocery stores. Despite my strong Italian heritage, I never like ricotta in the past, finding it gritty and tasteless. Then, I made my own. Ricotta is smooth and slightly sweet from the heavy cream and you can even eat it when it's still warm. I love to mix olive oil, salt and pepper into it, then smear it across toast. It's also great mixed into hot pasta, layered onto lasagna, or turned into a dip for raw vegetables like radishes and carrots. Enjoy!
Fresh Ricotta Cheese
3 cups of whole milk (raw if you like it and can get it)
1 cup of heavy cream
1/2 tsp. coarse sea salt
3 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
Place milk, cream and sea salt into a heavy, non reactive saucepan over medium low heat. Stir frequently to prevent the milk from scorching on the bottom of the pan. Attach a candy thermometer or insert an instant-read thermometer (digital is ideal) and keep good watch You want the milk and cream to reach 190 degrees but not more.
When you've reached the proper temperature, remove the pan from head and add the lemon juice, stirring slowly just a couple times. Then, leave the pot undisturbed for 5 minutes. At this point, just like the children's song, the curds and whey will separate with the fatty bonds of milk sticking together and floating to the top.
Line a colander with a few layers of cheese cloth and place over a large bowl. With a slotted spoon, gently remove the curds from the pot and place in the cheese cloth. Once you've gotten most of the curds out, very gently pour the rest of the curds and whey over the colander. You want to handle the ricotta gently so the curds stay soft and fluffy. Drain the curds for 1-2 hours; it will become firmer and firmer as you let it drain. Place the ricotta in an air tight container and into the fridge. It will last up to two weeks, but is best eaten fresh.