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Monday, October 10, 2011

Spaghetti Sauce & Ricotta Cheese

   Monday is Number Two's twenty-first birthday. Number Two is a pasta hound, especially when smothered in tomato sauce. And he is a manicotti fan, in the first degree. My husband asked, "why don't you make the manicotti noodles, you already make the ricotta cheese. It will make it extra special."
   True, however, I have made manicotti noodles before and he (the husband) wasn't impressed. You see to make homemade manicotti noodles, you actually are making a crepe. I have made crepes many times, in my previous life, but hubby isn't a fan, so I have not forced them on him. I researched the internet for several hours and lo and behold, I can only find recipes for homemade manicotti noodles via the crepe method. 
   So I made a batch of crepe "manicotti" noodles, but instead of laying them flat to await the stuffing, I rolled them and put them in a sealed plastic bowl in the refrigerator, to await their filling. Hubby peaked in and said, "wow, you found how to make the tubes!" I smiled.
    I then set out to make a pot of homemade pasta sauce. No big deal, right? Well, it is for this household! I am ashamed to admit, that even with my heritage, I have only made about three pots of sauce (or gravy as some of my ethnic background call it) in my entire adult lifetime, the last one over fifteen years ago.  I can take any of the jarred sauces and make them better, but I have had trouble being satisfied with the sauces I have produced from scratch. Well, today, I felt the urge to give it the old college try. I had the entire day to play, the noodles are done, the ricotta takes only an hour, I can easily do that in the morning. The bread I am planning on making also is not a big project, thanks to a friend of mine who shared a very easy, almost no kneading bread recipe, that comes out PERFECT every time. Thanks, Donna!
   Out comes the big sauce pot and the food mill. I am going to grind down the tomatoes and make sure all the seeds are out, I do not like seeds or skins in my pasta sauce. I gathered the ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons good olive oil 
  • 1 large Vidalia onion, diced small
  • 3 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and smashed with the side of a large knife, then chopped up 
  • 2-28 oz. cans crushed tomatoes with basil 
  • 1-28oz. can whole peeled tomatoes in puree
  • 1-6 oz. can tomato paste
  • 1 tablespoon beef base
  • 2-1/2- 28 oz. cans water
  • 1/2 cup good red wine
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 tablespoons Italian seasoning or parsley, basil, oregano separately, to your own taste
  • up to 1/4 cup sugar (totally optional- dependent on the acidity of the tomatoes
  • approximately 1 tablespoon salt (to taste-bear in mind the beef base is loaded)
   Heat the olive oil to smoking. Toss in the onions, and stir so they don't burn, lower the heat a bit and stir the onions until they become translucent. This can take upwards of 8-10 minutes. You don't want them brown so keep them moving. Toss in the garlic and stir until you can smell the fragrance of the garlic. Spoon in the entire can of tomato paste and stir it around in the onions and garlic--there will be very little, if any free oil left by now. Add the beef base (if using) and stir it around also to coat the onions and garlic. Put the food mill over the pot and pour in one can of the crushed tomatoes. Grind the tomatoes down. Pour a can of water through the food mill at the end of the can, then add the other can, grind and send another can of water through. Add the can of whole tomatoes, break them up and then grind them through, followed by the half can of water. Remove the food mill. Toss in the 2 bay leaves,and the herbs. Bring up to a boil. Stir and reduce heat to a low simmer partially covered, and simmer for an hour. Taste, add sugar, if needed and salt, if needed. I cannot tell you exact measurements because it all depends on the acidity of the tomatoes, which varies by brand, and sometimes even by crop it came from. I think this is where I have had the problems, hesitant to add sugar to counter the acidity, but if doesn't taste good, you have to use what you can to fix it. Right?
   Continue to simmer partially covered--unless the sauce is too watery--then keep the cover off to evaporate the excess liquid and concentrate the flavors.
   I took a walk next door and found my husband and Number Two. I told them I needed them to come home for a few minutes when they could. Funny, Number Two asked if he was in trouble. I quickly told him he wasn't I just wanted to show him something and needed his opinion.
   This piqued his curiosity so he immediately set out for the house. In the back door we went, right into the kitchen, I pulled out two spoons and dipped in for a taste test for each of them. My husband asked, "You made sauce?!" I answered in the affirmative saying that I wanted to try to make the whole meal homemade. Okay, so he thought it needed a little more sugar, and said it was still tomato-ey, so it probably needed to keep cooking. I added the wine, which was a semi-sweet wine, and let it cook for about an hour before I added anymore sugar. In the end I did add another tablespoon, and after letting it simmer another hour---that's three total--I tasted it and was impressed by what I tasted and what I didn't taste. Holy cow...I liked it, a lot! Sauce done! 
   Onto the ricotta. Yes, as promised we will delve into the wonderful world of homemade ricotta. Oh, uh, well, a quasi-ricotta, as true ricotta is made from the leftover whey from making other cheeses, such as Parmesan. This "ricotta" is made from fresh milk, the fresher the better, salt, and either citric acid or white vinegar. That's it--the entire ingredient list. Two things about this ricotta: it tastes EXACTLY like the ricotta I remember as a child and it is a drier ricotta than the commercially produced stuff you are probably accustomed to. Bearing the latter in mind. Let's begin.
   You get the freshest milk--I only use whole milk--you can find. Dig in the back of the milk cabinet in the store and get the latest date you can find. DO NOT BOTHER TRYING TO USE ORGANIC MILK--it will not work and you are just wasting your money, time, effort, and energy. Organic milk is pasteurized at an extremely high temperature and that kills off the little "doobies" that are needed for the curds to form. Then you need either food grade citric acid, which I got from the New England Cheesemaking Company. I'll post the link for anyone who may want to get supplies from them. I also got a piece of butter muslin from them, which is like very, very fine cheesecloth, but the weave is much tighter. And you need table salt and a good instant read thermometer, or candy thermometer. The "trick" is getting the milk concoction to 195° F, just under boiling, without scorching the milk.It is not really a trick, you just have to be patient, you have to heat the milk very slowly, because just turning the heat up will result in scalded milk, and a waste of money and a pot that is not easy to clean. Ask me how I know.
  Okay. Here we go: you need an 8 quart stainless steel pot- please use stainless steel and not aluminum or (heaven forbid) cast iron for this application. Now this is going to sound strange (and I shake my head every time I do it, but I do it) run ice cold water in the pot and up the sides. Just chill the pot with very cold running water. For reasons that evade me, this somehow helps to prevent the milk fat from sticking to the pot. I don't understand it, because you are going to be heating it up again, but I have tried it without doing this step, and literally had to scrape milk fat from the pot bottom. When I do the chill pot step, the amount that sticks is far less and a lot easier to remove. 
   Mix 1-1/2 teaspoons of citric acid in 1 cup cool water (I use filtered water), set aside. Okay, Chill the pot, pour an entire gallon of cold, fresh milk in it, turn on the stove to low, low, low. Stir once. 
   In a few minutes, stir again. Add one (1) teaspoon of salt and the citric acid/water mixture. Stir for about a minute. Set your temperature gauge so it is in the middle of the pot (not sitting on the bottom). Don't leave, but don't stare into the pot--you know a watched pot--yada yada yada. Well, you don't want it to boil, but let me tell you, a pot on very very low takes forever to come up to temperature, also. Stir once in a while to make sure nothing is sticking to the bottom--that's where the scorching comes in.
   After 10 minutes or so you will start to see flaking and little curds starting to form. But that is just the beginning. All you are doing is babysitting the pot, running a flat wooden spoon across the bottom once in while, and waiting for the temperature to reach 195°F. It does take a while, and the less you stir, the nicer and fluffier the curds will be, however, you have to make sure it is not sticking, so you still do have to stir.

  So, we have reached 195°F. Remove the pot from the heat, DO NOT STIR. Let pot sit undisturbed for 15 minutes. You will see the curds rising to the top. fold your butter muslin (or double thickness of cheesecloth, dampened) and line a fine mesh strainer. You can choose to collect the whey or let it go down the drain--your choice. I do sometimes collect the whey and use it in place of water in my homemade bread--really good!


     After the 15 minutes are up either pour the whey and cheese curds through the butter muslin, or spoon the curds out with a slotted spoon, but that takes forever, so I cheat and pour it off, saving however much when I want to recycle. I understand you can use it in your garden, and I have read that you can cook vegetables in it, or use it for some of your soup liquid, but I have only used it for bread making, so I cannot attest to how the other things come out.
   I only drain the curds until the whey is a medium drip from the bottom of the muslin. Remember, this comes out drier than the store-bought cheese you may be accustomed to. But the taste is divine!
   Put the ricotta in a glass bowl and put it in the refrigerator to chill. Here's what it looks like just before I made the filling for the manicotti:

      See how fluffy the curds look? MMMMMM! I could eat it just like that!
   And here's the manicotti before it went into the oven:

   Okay, okay, you caught me! I didn't make homemade mozzarella this time. Hey, I made everything else from scratch, give me a break, won't you? We'll tackle mozzarella in the future, I promise! oh, and before I forget, here's the link to the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company where you can get all the things you need to make all kinds of cheese:Click here for the New England Cheese Making Supply Co
    Mangia!  Keep those cards and letters coming, I love hearing from you!