Let’s talk about Maine-made ricotta, simply because we can.

You likely know that this fresh and light, spongy yet creamy dairy product has deep, deep Italian roots. Archeologists found evidence of ricotta being made in Pompeii when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD.

A lesser-known fact, though, is that the word “ricotta” literally means “recooked” because, traditionally, a cheesemaker takes warm whey left over from the beginning stages of aged cheese production and cooks it again to make ricotta. So the cheesemaker starts with a vat of fresh cow, goat, sheep or water buffalo milk and adds rennet, an enzyme that acts on the casein proteins to separate them from the whey, and cooks it the first time. The cheesemaker removes the resulting curds from the vat, puts them into molds, and then salts, presses and ages them in temperature-controlled rooms to produce cheeses like grana Padano (cow), caprine (goat), pecorino (sheep) and mozzarella (water buffalo).

At this stage of the process, because they’re water-soluble, there are albumin proteins still suspended in the once-cooked whey. If you heat a second time and the acidity is right, these albumin proteins can be coaxed out of the whey. They form tiny, secondary curds that get scooped out of the now very watery whey (still nutritious, this typically gets mixed with water to feed livestock) and put into baskets to drain under their own weight to become ricotta.

This waste-not-want-not method of cheese production yields about 1 pound of ricotta from every 4 gallons of whey. Sometimes a cheesemaker will add a titch more whole milk to the whey to increase the yield of finished ricotta. That is the process by which Jean Koons of Kennebec Cheesery makes goat’s milk ricotta in her solar-powered cheese room in Sidney. Given the lingering pandemic, Koons is making less cheese overall and therefore less ricotta as a byproduct. Most of her ricotta gets sold at the farmers markets she attends in Belgrade Lakes (Sunday mornings), Portland (Wednesday and Saturday mornings) and Waterville (Thursday afternoons). When it is available, it costs $6 for 4 ounces.

But like Italian cheesemakers before them have done to meet demand for versatile creamy ricotta that is eaten for breakfast with fruit, stirred into pasta at lunch, and baked into decadent dinner desserts, several Maine cheesemakers also make whole milk ricotta. You get 1 pound of ricotta from 2 gallons of whole milk treated to a splash of vinegar and a 190-degree bath.

Allison Lakin of Lakin’s Gorges Cheese has been making award-winning whole milk ricotta for over 12 years. She makes upward of 3,000 pounds annually of what she calls “Basket Ricotta” because she hand-ladles the curds into basket molds that slowly drain the whey from the cheese so that it sets into a firm but blendable texture. Lakin sells her ricotta directly from her East Forty Farm and Dairy in Waldoboro for $8 for 12 ounces and distributes it weekly to restaurants and specialty shops all over the state.

“I don’t think you can get more effective expression of terroir than to taste a fresh cheese that’s been made from milk of the area,” said Lakin. At this time of year, she suggests whipping it with a bit of local yogurt and fresh tender herbs (basil, dill, cilantro and/or parsley) to serve with crudite to show off freshly picked summer vegetables. A common ratio for a whipped ricotta dip is 4 ounces ricotta to 2 ounces of yogurt to a handful of fresh herbs. Throw it all in a food processor with a glug of good olive oil, a bit of grated garlic, and salt and pepper to taste.

Amy Rowbottom, who operates Crooked Face Creamery out of a custom-built cheese-making facility in an old Somerset County Jail in Skowhegan, bet her business on whole milk ricotta. She makes hard cheeses, too, including gouda, raclette, cheddar and Havarti. But it’s her whole milk ricotta products – because she can quickly get the milk delivered from Springdale Farm in Waldo pumped into her vats and transformed into fresh cheese – that keeps her cashflow steady and her business economically sustainable. At her shop, she sells a 12-ounce tub of plain whole milk ricotta for $10.99. But it is her flavored, 7-ounce, $8.99 rounds that are more widely distributed in about 20 independent grocery stores and co-ops throughout Central Maine and Greater Portland.

Although she said picking a favorite one is like picking a favorite child, Rowbottom says the Applewood Smoked will always have a special place in her heart for because that was the product that got her noticed as an artisanal cheesemaker, and her new favorite is the Cilantro Scallion. She slathers it on bagels for breakfast because starting the day with a great local cheese is always a good way to go.

Kennebec Cheesery’s recipe for a sweet cheesecake combines ricotta, chevre and yogurt. The cake is pictured with high-bush blueberries from Fairwinds Farm in Topsham. Photo by Christine Burns Rudalevige

Kennebec Cheesery Ricotta Cheesecake

Cheesemaker Jean Koons adapted this recipe from one printed in the New York Times to fit the plethora of Maine-made dairy products available to her. Eat it plain or serve it with Maine blueberries.

Makes an 8-inch cheesecake

8 ounces ricotta
8 ounces plain chevre
8 ounces plain yogurt
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
3 eggs
1 teaspoon (or more) lemon juice

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Grease sides and line the base of an 8-inch springform pan with parchment paper.

Place all ingredients in food processor and process until the mixture is smooth. Pour mixture into prepared pan. Bake until the cake is set and the top is golden, 55-60 minutes. Cool in the pan on a wire rack. Serve at room temperature or chilled.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, recipe developer, tester and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport Press based on these columns. She can be contacted at: [email protected]


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