tiny kitchen science (part 1)
June 12, 2008

It could be because I've been reading Michael Pollan and I'm operating with a kind of hyperawareness that I don't know where my food comes from, or how much energy has been spent processing and packaging it. Or it might be that I'm simultaneously trying to wrap my head around the gluten chain of water-insoluble proteins tightening and relaxing in pâte feuilletée and crossing paths with more and more celiacs (and while I've seen some chefs boorishly dismiss gluten-free diets as yet another food fad, I'm inclined to think this warrants some food-science exploration). Or it could be that I'm just itching to try something new in the Tiny Kitchen laboratory.

Whatever the reason, I'm making ricotta gnocchi from scratch—or at least as "from scratch" as I can without milking a cow and harvesting wheat (but maybe someday). Luckily, my plan coincides with a New York Times article on ricotta that brings to my immediate consciousness something I've always suspected to be true: soft, mild cheeses, like ricotta, are just a few steps advanced from buttermilk, and therefore perfectly fit for Tiny Kitchen cheesemaking. I do a little research and decide I want to stick to my own recipe for buttermilk—lemon juice, milk and a little cream, because adding cream to anything makes it better—which lines up with Gourmet's take on ricotta (but I double the recipe and increase the proportion of salt and lemon juice).

So tonight I lug home a gallon of milk and some cream (not grass-fed or particularly pastoral, but at least it's local) from the grocery store after work. About the only preparation required is to wash the mound of dishes in the sink to make space for draining, and to dig out my giant, heavy-bottomed soup pot. I'm always a little suspicious when anything is this easy, but I get it on the fire and stir with one hand, while flipping the pages of Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking with the other to discover why ricotta is so easy when other cheeses require more supplies and aging. (Because ricotta—and several other fresh cheeses, such as some goat cheeses and queso blanco, require only acid to curdle and not rennet, the enzyme in a calf's stomach that takes apart the proteins and put them back together again; historically, cheese was made inside calves' stomachs.) Meanwhile, my milk has come to a boil, I add my lemon juice, and two minutes later I have curds and whey.

I'm suddenly awed—the way I was when my first batch of bread rose in the oven. "I know there's a God," a friend of mine said once, "because of spaghetti squash." I get that assurance from bread rising and milk curdling into something edible—and because human brains, over thousands of years, have begun to unlock this miraculous science. "Cheese is one of the greatest achievements of humankind," writes McGee. The first cheeses were likely made 5,000 years ago in Asia as a means of preserving milk and were probably a lot like brine-cured feta.

The painful part of this enterprise is that I'm not allowed to just eat it by the spoonful (or, better still, the handful). I taste it, of course, and it's heavenly—creamy, just the slightest bit tangy and salty, and just melt-away good. I have a pint of strawberries in the fridge, and it's killing me knowing how good they would taste with a nice scoop of ricotta and a drizzle of honey. But this batch has a future purpose. For now, I have to content myself with licking the cheesecloth.

To be continued.