Once upon a time, a miniature version of me hated cheese.
Right? I know. I don’t know. Somehow I went through an addled childhood as an outspoken enemy of cheese, picking shreds of it out of salads, scraping it off lasagna, and generally living a deprived existence. (And then one day I ate a Kraft single at a friend’s house, and the next thing I knew, half a pack of highly processed cheese was gone and a lifelong obsession with all things melt-able was born. Also, indigestion. Also, I was clearly an excellent house guest.)
Back in my inexplicable cheese-hating days, ricotta was Public Enemy No. 1. My only exposure to it was in school cafeteria lasagna, more or less, and the watery, gritty, faintly sour form it came in back then was anathema. Even after I grew into my cheese, ricotta was one that I could pretty much take or leave, haunted by that substance lurking between formless, soggy sheets of pasta on my lunch tray. It wasn’t until one day a few summers ago, mid-bite into a crostini at Frankie’s 457, that I changed my mind. Spread thick on a crusty, toasted baguette with a drizzle of honey, good ricotta is creamy, richly decadent but not overpowering, not in the least soggy or gritty or bland. And has me, a dozen-odd years later, eating it with a spoon straight out of the cheesecloth.
Maybe the most wonderful thing about ricotta, though, is how incredibly easy it is to make at home. All you need is a good-sized piece of cheesecloth, a fine mesh sieve, cream, milk, and an acid — either lemon juice or vinegar. On top of that, the formula is forgiving: increase the cream and decrease the milk if you want a richer ricotta, add a different kind of vinegar if you want to experiment with flavors. I used a seasoned rice vinegar for a subtle touch of umami and it worked wonderfully.
The tartines* here pay homage to the revelatory ones I had a Frankie’s 457, but with the added gem of a few slices of fresh fig on each. Figs are yet another thing I’ve grown to appreciate (which makes this whole post an exercise in how Young Cynthia was woefully food-blind). We were lucky enough to have a fig tree in our backyard when I was growing up, something I wholly ignored at the time — now I finally comprehend the look of glee I remember on my dad’s face as he burst into the house with a handful of ripe figs in the summer.
*I really have no reason for calling these tartines instead of crostinis. I just like the way “tartine” sounds.
- for the ricotta:
- 3 cups whole milk
- 1 cup cream
- 3 tbsp mild 4-5% vinegar or lemon juice (if using a stronger vinegar, decrease to 2 tbsp)
- salt to season (optional)
- for the tartines:
- half a loaf of crusty French baguette, sliced into 1/2-inch pieces (4-6 slices)
- 1 tbsp olive oil for toasting (optional)
- 1/4-1/2 cup fresh ricotta
- 4-6 figs, sliced
- 3-4 tbsp honey for drizzling
- Combine the milk and cream in a medium pot over high heat. Stirring often, heat the mixture just to a simmer (if you have a candy thermometer, about 180 degrees) then remove immediately from heat. Add the vinegar or lemon juice, give the mixture a few slow stirs, then cover with a dishcloth and set aside for 5-10 minutes to curdle.
- Line a fine-mesh sieve with two to three layers of cheesecloth, leaving enough cloth to hang over the rim of the sieve, and set it over a bowl or measuring cup large enough to catch several cups of whey. Slowly pour or scoop the curds into the cheesecloth. Let drain for 1-2 hours. For a firmer cheese, let drain longer or overnight in the refrigerator.
- When the ricotta has reached your desired consistency, transfer to a container and discard the cheesecloth. You can save the leftover whey for other uses (there are so many!) or simply discard. Serve the ricotta immediately or store in a sealable container for up to a week. Season with salt and pepper if desired.
- For the tartines, slice half a loaf of crusty baguette into 1/2-inch slices. If you like, drizzle a bit of olive oil over the slices, then broil or panfry the slices until golden and lightly toasted. Spread a generous amount of ricotta on each, layer with slices of fig, and drizzle honey over top. Serve immediately.
This will yield about 1 cup of ricotta, much more than you'd need for 4-6 tartines. Double the tartine recipe if you'd like, or reserve the ricotta for other purposes -- like ricotta pancakes!
I let the cheese drain for two hours and it was still quite soft; if you want a firmer cheese in less time, you can fold another cheesecloth or a few paper towels and place it gently over the cheese, then place a weight over it (canned foods, for instance) to press out additional moisture.
Also, as noted above, I substituted 2 tbsp of the vinegar for a Japanese seasoned rice vinegar (with 1 tbsp white vinegar) and thought the resulting taste was just barely noticeable, in a great, subtly savory way.
Finally, if you tend to have 2% or low-fat milk in the house, as I do, just increase the cream to 1 1/2 cups and decrease the milk to 2 1/2.