My mum grew up in a fairly non-traditional environment. Her dad was a cotton merchant and was required to be on location for work, hence the family moved a lot. For a Greek family, tradition is usually fostered by stability and deep attachment with your surroundings. Many villagers have a strong connection with their region because they lived there all their lives, as did their fathers and forefathers. Generations remain in the same place and specific ways of speaking and of course cooking become strongly ingrained.
Fifi (my mum) and her sister Rena never lived in the villages. Their family travelled from city to city, spending time in Egypt, France and sometimes Greece. Cooking influences ranged from middle eastern to French provincial, without a whole lot of Greek.
However, as I discovered the other night when my mum was telling me this story, there are certain Greek traits that will always remain, no matter how untraditional a family may be.
Marika, my mum's mother, enjoyed making her own ricotta cheese, but not without the help of the maid that was employed to help with the cooking and at times run errands for the family. The cheese kept longer if stored in brine, but it needed to be a special kind of brine. The special kind that was fetched from the ocean by the maid and brought back to the house in a bottle. Now that's a special kind of maid. But get this: During times when the family wasn't living anywhere near a beach, a friend or relative on the other side of the country would be asked to make the collection and post the bottle back in the mail!
This to me is very Greek. No matter what country you live in or how French your cuisine, if you're Greek you will do anything to make sure things are done right. This and stubbornness are strong Greek traits in our family, even if doing it right means doing it wrong. Of course we never admit to being wrong!
There are sooooo many uses in Greek vegetarian cooking for ricotta cheese. Sweet and savoury pies, pasta dishes, stuffed vegetables, custards, cakes and tarts, or just on toast with some Greek honey.
Most commercial ricotta is produced using the whey left over from the production of other cheeses which are likely to have been processed using animal rennet, so for many vegetarians store-bought ricotta is not an option.
Thankfully, one of the traditional ways to make ricotta uses a completely different method, free from any traces of animal rennet, and it's one of the easiest things to make at home. It also tastes amazing. And it's very hard to get this wrong!
The photo at the top of this post is of a spreadable, smoother version of ricotta cheese, whereas below is a picture of firm ricotta. Both are outlined in the recipe below.
Home-made Ricotta Cheese
Makes about 400 grams of ricotta
- 1.5 litres whole milk
- 1 cup whole cream
- 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- In a medium pot, heat the milk and cream until just beginning to simmer. You will need to stand by the stove to make sure the milk doesn't boil, and stir occasionally to prevent a skin from forming. This will take around ten minutes so you might want some hummus and dipping biscuits at hand.
- Once simmering, remove from heat and add the lemon juice. Stir very gently for around 30 seconds. The milk will immediately begin to curdle (see Picture 1 at end of instructions). Add the salt and stir gently for another 30 seconds.
- Cover the pot with a clean tea towel and let stand at room temperature for around 1 hour.
- Line a fine-mesh strainer with two or three layers of cheesecloth, allowing a few inches of overhang. Set the strainer over a bowl and pour the curds into the strainer (see Picture 2).
- (Omit this step if you are making a smooth ricotta.) Carefully gather the corners of the cheesecloth and tie with string or a rubber band to create a bag, leaving it to sit in the strainer over the bowl (see Picture 3). Transfer to the refrigerator.
- Let the ricotta sit in the strainer for anywhere between 10 minutes and 2 hours, depending on the desired consistency. The longer you leave it, the firmer the ricotta will become.
There is no need to tie up the bag for smooth ricotta as it only needs to strain for 10 minutes. After the 10 minutes, empty the curds from the cheese cloth into a separate bowl and whisk to the desired consistency. Enjoy it spread thickly over crusty bread with home-made fig paste (recipe coming soon!).
For a firm ricotta
Lift the bag from the strainer after 2 hours and gently press out any excess whey. I sit mine on a few sheets of paper towel and press. Remove the cheese from the cheesecloth and carefully use your hands to form a round shape.
Your ricotta can then be placed in an airtight container and refrigerated for up to one week, but I guarantee it will be gone before then. You won't be able to help but use it to make beautiful spanakopita (cheese and spinach pie), melitinia (sweet cheese pastries) or my take on ricotta yemista (stuffed vegetables) (recipes coming soon!)
Picture 1: The milk will immediately begin to curdle as soon as you add the lemon juice.
Picture 2: Set the strainer over a bowl lined with cheesecloth.
Picture 3: Tie with string or a rubber band to create a cheesecloth bag.