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Glorious, decadent ricotta made in your own kitchen

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I found myself giggling as I stood at my stove. I was using the end of my candy thermometer to stir a mixture of milk and cream in my heavy, turquoise-colored saucepan. Its enamel-coated interior is stained with years of use. I was having flashbacks of my homemade yogurt-making days 35 years ago. It was a phase that coincided with my determination to feed my preschool-aged son as little processed sugar-laden food as possible. That phase ended when I discovered a decent plain yogurt at the store was delicious mixed with fresh fruit and was much more convenient.

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This time, though, I was making cheese - an occurrence instigated by a desire to eat glorious, decadent ricotta, adjectives not usually related to the carton of curds purchased from a grocery store.

I've never thought ricotta could be heavenly until I had an appetizer at 112 Eatery in Minneapolis. A mound of creamy, fresh ricotta drizzled with honey and sprinkled with bits of golden garlic was served with lightly toasted baguette slices. I jotted a couple of notes in my purse-sized Moleskine. I wanted to recreate the luscious treat in my own kitchen.

I've had "Homemade Cheese," by Janet Hurst on my bookshelf for several months. Hurst shares a recipe for whole-milk ricotta that originates from Italy. She explains that ricotta was once primarily made from sheep's milk. However, with industrialization of the process, cow's-milk ricotta has become the norm even in Italy's creameries.

The internet is full of information on how to make your own ricotta, a surprisingly simple method using milk and an acid. With tips and techniques gathered from "Homemade Cheese" and several internet sources, I discovered the only special tool required for ricotta-making is a candy/deep-fry thermometer. Other than that, it just takes a non-reactive saucepan, some cheesecloth from the grocery store, a colander and a glass bowl. And, some patience.

After heating whole milk and heavy cream to 190 degrees, freshly squeezed lemon juice (the acid) is added to begin the curdling process. When the warm mixture is poured into a cheesecloth-lined colander, the whey drains into the bowl, leaving the curds in the cheesecloth. It's hard to wait for an hour while the creamy ricotta develops.

Why make your own ricotta? It is creamy and delicate in your mouth. It has no gums or stabilizers in it. It's easy to do. It marries perfectly with honey and a bit of garlic to be smeared on bronzed bread. It is velvety when layered into lasagna. It is luxurious when sweetened and rolled up in crepes.

I'm hooked. It's not a phase, I'm sure. I've purchased several packages of cheesecloth. I think I may never buy ricotta again - even if it is more convenient.

Homemade Ricotta with Honey and Garlic

3 cups whole milk

1 cup heavy cream

1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt

3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 tablespoon olive oil

Honey, for drizzling

1 baguette, cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices

Pour the milk, cream and salt into a 3-quart nonreactive saucepan. Attach a candy or deep-fry thermometer. Heat the milk to 190 degrees, stirring it frequently to keep it from scorching on the bottom. Remove from heat and add the lemon juice, stirring it once or twice, gently and slowly. Small curds will begin to form. Let the pot sit undisturbed for 5 minutes.

Line a colander with a few layers of cheesecloth and place it over a large bowl. Pour the curds and whey into the lined colander. Allow to drain for 1 hour. Serve immediately or transfer the ricotta to an airtight container and refrigerate up to 2 days.

Place baguette slices on a baking sheet. Place under the broiler for a couple of minutes, just until golden. Remove from oven and allow to cool.

Heat olive oil in a small pan over medium heat. Add chopped garlic and sauté until golden. This will take just a few minutes. Transfer garlic from pan to a plate to cool.

Spoon fresh ricotta onto a serving plate. Drizzle with honey. Sprinkle with garlic. Serve with toasted baguette slices.

Tips from the cook

--Non-reactive cookware items are not made of metals such as aluminum and copper that react chemically with acidic foods, changing its color and taste. I like my enamel-coated cast iron cookware. Stainless steel and glass are also non-reactive.

--Pure sea salt is what works best in this recipe. Do not use iodized salt.

--I use organic whole milk and heavy cream.

--For best flavor, use locally produced honey.

--Rather than allowing the whey to go down the drain, I bottled it up and gave it to my friend with cats. In her book "Homemade Cheese," Janet Hurst writes that pigs and chickens love whey and that it's good for the garden, too.

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