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When life gives you milk…make cheesecake

ricotta cheesecake [1]

I recently inherited a gallon of organic milk and wanted to finish it before it went bad. Drinking it was out of the question. I dislike the taste of plain milk so much that I eat my cereal dry. And why would anyone want to ruin a perfectly good cookie by dunking it in milk?

Not one to waste anything (not even bread cubes [2]), I turned this milk into “ricotta cheese.” Real ricotta isn’t made from milk per se. It’s actually a by-product of other cheeses. Whenever you make cheese, you have the solids (curds) and leftover liquid (whey). The liquid is usually thrown out, but if you re-heat it, you have ricotta. Hence its name, which is Italian for “re-cooked.” You can make a good approximation at home though by heating milk with an acidic ingredient. And poof, that gallon of milk reduces down to a sizable four cups.

Fresh ricotta makes the supermarket tubs seem like spackle in comparison. It’s refreshingly tart, like sour cream. Rather than having a uniform grittiness, fresh ricotta has giant, billowy curds that you can eat while still warm.

Of course I had to make this cheese into dessert, so I used Lidia Bastianich’s torta di ricotta [3] recipe and added some mix-ins. For a dessert, this cheesecake has relatively little sugar and fat but lots of protein. It’s even Passover-friendly, if you use nuts for the “crust” and matzo meal for the flour. The texture is light and fluffy if you like that sort of thing, but I like my cheesecake creamy and dense. If I were to make this again, I would add the eggs whole, instead of whipping the whites separately.

Fresh Ricotta Cheesecake

This cheesecake is light and fresh, with its soufflé-like texture and bright, citrus-accented flavor. If you like your cheesecake dense, try blending whole eggs with the sugar.

Adapted from Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen [4] by Lidia Bastianich and The 1997 Joy of Cooking [5]

Start to finish: 3 days (includes making the cheese and chilling the cheesecake)
Active time: 2 hours

Softened butter and fine dry bread crumbs (wheat germ, crushed cereal, or finely ground nuts can be substituted) for the pan
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts (chopped almonds are a good substitute)
1 Tbsp diced candied lemon peel
1 Tbsp diced candied orange peel
2 Tbsp coarsely chopped dark chocolate
1 Tbsp flour
3 cups firm, homemade whole-milk ricotta cheese [6], recipe follows (If using store-bought cheese, place 3 1/2 cups ricotta in a cheesecloth-lined sieve and place the sieve over a bowl. Cover the ricotta with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours or up to one day.)
5 large cage-free eggs, separated
1 tsp vinegar or lemon juice
3/4 cup sugar
Pinch of salt (a heaping 1/4 tsp if using unsalted ricotta cheese)
Grated zest of 1 large lemon
Grated zest of 1 large orange
1/2 cup heavy cream or whole milk

Special equipment: food processor

Brush an 8-inch spring form pan with enough softened butter to coat lightly. Sprinkle the bread crumbs over the butter to coat generously. Shake out the excess crumbs. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

In a small bowl, combine the nuts, lemon peel, orange peel, chocolate and flour. Set aside.

In a food processor fitted with a metal blade, blend the egg yolks, sugar and salt until pale yellow. Add the drained ricotta, lemon and orange zest and process until smooth. Combine the cream or milk.

In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites and vinegar or lemon juice with a hand mixer until they form firm peaks when a beater is lifted from them.

Add the chocolate-nut mixture to the ricotta mixture and pulse in the food processor once or twice, just until combined.

Add about one fourth of the egg whites to the ricotta mixture and gently stir with a large rubber spatula. Pour the ricotta mixture over the rest of the egg whites (you’re really supposed to add the egg whites to the top of the ricotta, but who wants to dirty another bowl for mixing?) and gently fold the mixture, using a large rubber spatula to scrape from the bottom of the bowl up and over the top. Pour the cake mixture into the prepared pan and bake until the cake is golden brown on top and the edges are set but the center jiggles slightly when the pan is tapped, about 1 hour and 10 minutes.

Cool the cake completely before removing the sides of the pan. Serve the cake at room temperature or chilled for at least 6 hours.

Homemade Ricotta Cheese

Adapted from Michael Chiarello [7] and Italian Food Forever [8]

Start to finish: 1 hr and 10 minutes

Makes 4 cups

1 gallon whole milk
1/3 cup vinegar (I like the taste of cider vinegar)

Special equipment: cheesecloth, thermometer

Heat the milk in a large, heavy, non-reactive pot until it reaches 185 degrees F, or until the milk makes popping sounds and barely simmers. Be sure to stir the milk frequently with a rubber spatula and cover the whole pan bottom to prevent scorching. (Warning: the heating process can take 40 minutes if you start with cold milk from the fridge.) While the milk is heating, rinse a large piece of cheesecloth or muslin with cold water, then fold it so that it is 6 or more layers, and arrange it in the sieve or colander placed in the sink.

Remove from the milk from the heat and add the vinegar. Stir gently just to mix. The curds and whey will begin to form immediately. The whey looks like cloudy water underneath a mass of thick white curds on the surface.


Working from the side of the pot, gently ladle the whey into the prepared sieve. Go slowly so as not to break up the curds. Finally, ladle the curds into the sieve. Lift the sides of the cloth to help the liquid drain. Resist the temptation to press on the curds. When the draining slows, gather the edges of the cloth, tie them into a bag, and hang the bag from the faucet. Continue to drain until the dripping stops, about 15 minutes. If using the ricotta for cheesecake, drain until it is firm and crumbly, about 30 minutes. Store the ricotta in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.