Of Myth And Milk

This is a story about goats, cheese, and a man named Lester.
The goats belonged to my parents. They cleared our plot of West Virginia land of wild rose bushes and produced thick milk that smelled like goat hair when it was warm, but tasted good when it was icy-cold and poured over a bowl of Frosted Mini Wheats. My mom also turned that milk into some good cheese. Lots of children know the rhyme about Little Miss Muffet who, until she was startled by a spider, sat happily on a tuffet eating her curds and whey. To this day, I’m still not sure what a tuffet is, but as a five-year-old, I could clearly imagine the pain of an abandoned bowl of cheese curds.
As for the “Lester” part of the story: He attended college with my parents. In those days, he played football for WVU. Lester’s later pastimes included crank-calling our house as Freddy Kruger and hogtying us kids just to see how long it would take us to wriggle free from the ropes. We begged him to do it.
Lester was also a myth-maker. One of his favorite tales featured me as a nearly-bald toddler hovering beside my mom while she milked the goats. Every now and then--so his story went--she would aim a teat in my direction and squirt a warm stream of milk directly into my open mouth. My responses to this tale ran from shocked glee (at the age of 6) to mild horror (at the age of 23 when Lester narrated it to my fiance).
Lester’s myth doesn’t get told much these days, but it echoes a far older and far grander one that I’ve told more than a few times to variously interested students. This myth also happens to be memorialized in bronze.
Classical myth has it that the founder of Rome and his twin brother—Romulus and Remus—were nursed by a she-wolf after being abandoned as infants. I’m pretty sure Lester never had the opportunity to visit this statue in Rome's Capitoline Museum, but I like to think that if he had, he would have laughed his Lester-laugh and found some nearby tourist to tell about the mythic past of a certain West Virginia family.
For better or worse, there’s no bronze statue commemorating this family myth. But when I’m stirring a pot of milk on the stove, I sometimes think I can see glimpses of it as the ricotta curds separate from the whey. Lacking the barn full of milk-heavy goats, I make do with the pasteurized stuff I can find at the grocery store. Pittsburgh’s Whole Foods stocks goat’s milk. It doesn’t smell like goat hair, but it makes a darn good ricotta cheese. Run-of-the-mill whole milk does too. Regardless of what animal provides the milk, your homemade ricotta will trump the stuff sold in your local grocery.

Ricotta hasn't been often counted among the sexier cheeses, but, at least according to this New York Times article, it's slowly becoming a "big cheese." That means it's no longer simply a ravioli filler or the mortar of lasagna layers. But I don't need swanky restaurant menus to convince me that fresh ricotta cheese deserves more. If you have any doubt, this recipe for crostini with ricotta and chorizo will set you straight. Seriously, this is one of the best things I've ever eaten.
Homemade Ricotta Cheese
Makes about 2 cups. Can be doubled.

Adapted from Julian Moskin's New York Times article (May 28th, 2008), which was adapted from Michael Chiarello’s Casual Cooking.

This process really couldn't be much easier. The hardest part is finding the cheesecloth. Just make sure not to substitute low fat or skim milk for the full-fat stuff. You’ll end up with something white and creamy, and it will taste pretty good, but it won’t be ricotta cheese.

2 quarts whole milk
2 cups buttermilk

1. Line a wide colander with cheesecloth, folded so that it is at least 4 layers thick. Place colander in sink.

2. Pour milk and buttermilk into a heavy-bottomed pot. Cook over high heat, stirring frequently. Scrape the bottom of the pot occasionally to prevent scorching. As the milk heats, curds will begin to rise and clump on surface. Once mixture is steaming hot, stop stirring.

3.When mixture reaches 175 to 180 degrees on a candy thermometer, curds and whey will separate. (Whey will look like cloudy gray water underneath a mass of thick white curds.) Immediately turn off heat and gently ladle curds into sieve.

4.When all curds are in sieve and dripping has slowed (about 5 minutes), gently gather edges of cloth and twist to bring curds together; do not squeeze. Let drain 15 minutes more. Discard the whey.

5. Untie cloth and pack ricotta into an airtight container. Refrigerate and use within one week.


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