Friday, April 29, 2011

My Love-Hate Relationship with Technology (and Low-Tech Ricotta Cheesecake).

I spent nearly all of the past week technology free. Since my little Boy-O was on Spring break, we left early Saturday morning for the Farm with a car packed with cultures, various foodstuffs, my Husband, and my electronic scale. I love every occasion I can spend with my Parents, especially in the country at the place that is most deeply home to me.

I was born in the Great Northwoods of Wisconsin, and I daresay it took a long time for me to feel like I could be from somewhere else. Moving to southwestern Wisconsin when I was in 5th grade was probably the reason that I felt such devotion to the place of piney wilderness, a ruralness of sandy loam and lots of lakes. Living that nearby to the mighty Mississippi was of no real appeal to me until years later a friend of mine decided to build a raft from 50 gallon drums and drift southbound. In 6th grade when we settled out of the city, the bucolic hills surrounding my Parents 10 acre farm didn't really begin to sink in until I became a horse owner around age 15, those hills of the driftless region becoming part of my blood as I ran my quarter horse, King, scaring my liver half out of my body. The farm-lined hills slowly, patiently, wormed their way into my heart, never caring that it took decades for me to fully appreciate them. Now when I drive the back roads they feel good, I don't know their proper names, but I remember them and they remember me.

Now when I think of home, the pine trees and fern lined forts of my birthplace are a thing of distant memory and the rolling hills of the Farm are firmly embedded in my body. My first breaths outside of the car instantly calm my city-worn nerves... and I wonder if my city born and bred Husband could ever change that much for me - that I might be able to live there once again...

It's no secret that I can't travel lightly. My car travels with not only human life, but with sourdough and yogurt culture that can't be left unattended for a week (or maybe it could, but I just choose to Mother it a bit more than I should). Filling up the extra back seat spaces were a gallon of cranberry flavored kombucha for my Mom and a from scratch Italian-style ricotta cheesecake I knew my Dad would love, that cheesecake proving to me after Easter Sunday dinner that it could very well be my new favorite dessert.

It seems every time I read a new cookbook, the desire to see what the author is all about overwhelms me. David Lebovitz's book Ready for Dessert was a recent read, and it seems that I am infinitely inspired by it. Like Dorie's Baking Book (probably still my favorite comprehensive baking book), everything I've made so far seems to turn out no matter what tweaking I do - the marks of very good recipes in my opinion. I scaled down a ricotta cheesecake that David pared with a truly lovely rhubarb sauce: a sauce that was light as Spring and as softly sweet, a hint of Cointreau's alcoholic orange that I added last second. I'm making more sauce this week with some frozen rhubarb I should use up before the new season brings a bumper crop. It was also great on yogurt, and the pearly pink liquid that I drained from it so it could be thicker was perfect for swigging as is.

When I decided to make the cheesecake, I figured why not go all out and make the ricotta, too. I haven't made it in a very long time, and never have made it with my favorite cream-line whole milk from Crystal Ball Farms. A gallon of milk yielded me a scant pound and a half of gorgeous curds, that set up surprisingly overnight in the fridge. The next day, I mixed my cake David Lebovitz style, barely sweetened and luxuriously nestled, into a vintage 8 inch springform pan that my Mother-in-Law gave me.

To make the ricotta, I followed the instructions in Home Cheese Making by Ricki Carroll. Simply mix a gallon of whole milk with 1 teaspoon of citric acid in a large, non-reactive pot, and heat milk until 185-195 degrees (Fahrenheit), stirring often to prevent scorching. When the curds and whey begin to separate, turn off the heat, and allow to sit undisturbed for 10 minutes. Drain the curds in a piece of fine cheesecloth, butter muslin, or like me in unbleached muslin from the fabric store. (Reserve that whey for bread making and other mischief.) Drain for 20-30 minutes, until desired consistency. Transfer the cheese to a storage vessel and into the fridge, where it will keep for 1-2 weeks.

Forgive me the way that I post this recipe in both metric and conventional measure. Since I used roughly 3/4 of the original recipe, it was easier to figure the sugar and cream in metrics. I like this site for conversions, if you need to approximate.

Italian-Style Ricotta Cheesecake (adapted for size from David Lebovitz)
  • 1 recipe whole milk ricotta, about 1 1/2 pounds (see paragraph above)
  • 97 g. sugar
  • 80 ml. heavy cream
  • 4 eggs
  • 3/4 t. vanilla extract
  • pinch of salt if desired, and you know it is desirable
  • 2-3 t. grated orange peel
  • 3/4 T. flour
Preheat oven to 350.

Butter an 8 inch springform pan well, and sprinkle with cookie crumbs or graham cracker crumbs, or just leave it plain. I used a couple of crushed Maria cookies.

In a stand mixer or with a hand mixer, blend the ricotta with the sugar until creamy. Add the heavy cream, the eggs one at a time (beating a minute after each addition), the vanilla, the salt and finally the orange peel and bit of flour.

Spread the batter evenly into the springform pan, and bake for about an hour, slightly less, until the center barely jiggles when tapped. I baked mine slightly too long, but it was still delicious.

Cool completely before unmolding, and run a thin knife around the edge of the springform pan before trying to release.

Baked just a little too long, it rose and fell. You'd never know from the texture, however...

I baked this specimen on Friday late afternoon, and it was just fine when served on Sunday afternoon. It remained fine for leftover dessert cravings later in the week. My Mom thought it could use a bit more sweetener, but she confesses to having the Mendez sweet tooth. My Dad and I thought it was perfect. We served it with my rhubarb sauce and some sliced and sugared frozen strawberries from my Mom's freezer.

When I was in about the 10th grade, my Parents decided to disconnect the television antenna. Rurally, that meant that I could no longer get my weekly fix of Northern Exposure and my nightly fix of David Letterman. I didn't realize at the time what an amazing service they did me: causing me to use my imagination and to flex my reading muscles instead of depending on television's hollow appeal. It was actually years after I lived on my own until I started re-introducing t.v. back into my life, and even still I don't watch a whole lot. That's why I make ricotta cheese around 9 o'clock on a Thursday night I suppose. If you ask me, it's far better use of my time. The farm still has no antenna and no computer or Internet, my cell phone operates on the "E" instead of 3G, making any web-browsing painfully slow and patience testing. After the last week spent with very little technology, I realize again that it has no mastery over me - I like it fine, but I can very easily live without it.

I had a great week, technology-free. I chatted for hours with my best friend, my Mom. I met up with my old boss the Goddess of Pie, and was inspired by seeing so many great handmade pieces of art. (Especially when I was reacquainted with Susan Johnson. I actually told her that I wanted to be her when I was younger, and that I still do. I'm pretty sure she thought I was crazy. She is an amazing weaver, yes, we have weavers where I am from...) I talked so much in an afternoon I felt like I'd lost my voice. I went to bed early, and got up at the crack of dawn. We flew kites as a family on the windy Saturday afternoon in the field, and I freaked out when two hours later I found a deer tick crawling on my arm. I took tons of iPhone pictures that I didn't even bother uploading yet to see how they looked on the "big" screen of my netbook. Best of all, I spent Easter thinking about what Easter truly means, while sitting around the afternoon table with my family. All of it, proof that I haven't lost all of the country in me, that in a moment, I could leave all the technology behind and survive quite well.

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