Have you ever tried making cheese? If not, ricotta is a great place to start — it’s one of the simplest cheeses you can make at home and honestly tastes so much better from what you find in the supermarket. And all you need is some milk and an acid!
Although you can make ricotta on the stovetop, this time I used the Paderno 6-quart Programmable Slow Cooker. Using a slow cooker offers a couple advantages. First, it allows for a more gentle heating of the milk (which you can stretch to a few hours if you are busy with other things). Second, it helps maintain a constant temperature once the acid is added.
While most ricotta recipes instruct you to let the acidified milk sit for 5-10 minutes before straining, I learned from a Serious Eats article that the yield and taste of homemade ricotta is vastly improved if you keep the mixture at a higher temperature for 20 minutes. On the stovetop, this means constant heat adjustments and pan babysitting. But thanks to the heat retention of the enamel crock and the precise temperature settings of the slow cooker, this part of the ricotta-making process is simple. Just hit a button and let the slow cooker do the work for you!
My favorite way to enjoy fresh ricotta is on fresh bread; and for these toasts, I baked a loaf of sourdough bread in the Paderno Dutch Oven. Baking bread in a dutch oven is a simple way to mimic the steam ovens commercial bakeries use. The thick walls and tight cover of the dutch oven seal in moisture and heat, allowing the loaf rise to its potential and develop a shiny, crackly crust!
Sometimes I top ricotta toasts with a drizzle of honey or swirl of jam. But during the summer (aka tomato season) you can’t beat blistered cherry tomatoes and fresh basil. I could honestly eat this any meal of the day — simple perfection!
A few notes:
This ricotta recipe is easily doubled; just note that it may take a bit more time initially for the milk to reach temperature.
To bake a loaf of bread in a dutch oven, put the dutch oven (with the cover) in the oven while the oven is preheating. Turn your unbaked bread dough onto a piece of parchment and score as desired. Carefully remove the preheated dutch oven and take off the lid. Transfer the dough, still on the parchment, to the dutch oven and replace the lid. Return the dutch oven to the oven and bake for about 20 minutes (or roughly half the baking time); then remove the lid and continue baking the bread until finished.
Homemade ricotta and blistered cherry tomato toasts
For the homemade ricotta:
4 c whole milk (substitute up to 1/2 c heavy cream if desired)
1 Tbsp + 1 tsp (20 ml) distilled white vinegar
Pinch of fine sea salt (to taste)
For the blistered cherry tomatoes:
1 pint cherry tomatoes
1 Tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
4 thick slices sourdough or country-style bread, homemade or store-bought
Extra virgin olive oil
Flaky salt and freshly ground pepper
For the homemade ricotta: Pour the milk into the slow cooker. Heat, partially covered, until a digital thermometer reaches 185F. This can be done over a few hours on the low or medium setting, or in 30-60 minutes on the high setting. Stir occasionally to keep the milk from scorching on the sides.
Once the milk reaches 185F, turn off the slow cooker. Add the vinegar and gently stir for about 10 seconds to distribute. Turn the slow cooker back on to the low setting and maintain a temperature of 175-190F for twenty minutes without stirring. Meanwhile, line a strainer with cheesecloth and suspend over a large measuring glass or bowl.
After twenty minutes, use a slotted spoon to transfer the curds to the lined strainer. Allow to stand until the excess liquid has liquid has drained off, or until you reach desired texture (less time for a softer ricotta and more for drier). Add salt to the curds and gently stir to distribute. Use immediately or store refrigerated in an airtight container for up to three days.
For the blistered cherry tomatoes: In a medium skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the tomatoes and saute until blistered, about two minutes. Transfer to a bowl and season to taste.
Assemble the toasts: toast bread if desired. Spread on ricotta and top with blistered tomatoes. Finish with a drizzle of olive oil, flaky salt and a few turns of freshly ground pepper, and fresh basil leaves.
To me, the unofficial start of summer is the arrival of fresh strawberries. To be honest, I’m not much of a summer person — I don’t like hot weather and the mosquitoes that come with it. But I love summer produce, and our family definitely looks forward to berry picking every year.
For the past several years, I’ve made a fraisier to celebrate fresh strawberries. A fraisier is a traditional French strawberries and cream cake, and to me it’s the best way to enjoy candy-sweet, ripe strawberries (after eating them straight off the plant).
With these fraisiers I tend to be a bit casual — I usually make them a little differently every time. Sometimes I use a Japanese genoise as the cake; I’ve also made a matcha sponge version that was delicious. Sometimes I make a gelee layer for the top. I’ve also learned a few things over the years — like the need for gelatin to set the cream, and to keep the cake layers on the thin side to let the strawberries really shine through.
For my 2019 fraisier, I used some fresh basil from our garden to infuse the cream. And because the spring here was quite cool and strawberries didn’t show up until practically July, I added in a few blueberries to make this a fourth of July appropriate cake. (You could definitely just use all strawberries too, though.) The sponge is a lemon-scented chiffon, which is light and fluffy and pretty simple to whip up. The result: summer in every bite.
A few notes:
For easiest assembly, I recommend a 6×3 cake ring and acetate strips. You could also use a springform pan and plastic wrap, but you’ll get the cleanest results from the ring and acetate. (I use these same tools to make Momofuku-style cakes.)
You can make the basil pastry cream base up to 5 days in advance, but wait to add the gelatin and whipped cream until you are ready to assemble the cake.
For the cake, I used a half recipe of this lime chiffon cake and baked it in a 6×3 cake pan (total baking time was about 35 minutes). Don’t use a shorter pan; it will overflow. You could probably also bake this in a quarter sheet pan and cut out two 6″ rounds, but you would need to adjust the baking time.
Berry Basil Fraisier
Makes one 6-inch cake
Half a recipe of this chiffon cake, baked in a 6×3 cake pan (I subbed lemon zest and juice for lime)
1 recipe basil cream diplomat (recipe below)
~1 c chopped strawberries, mixed with a spoonful of strawberry puree or jam; plus about 10-12 strawberries, halved (try to choose ones that are the same height, or trim to match) and 10-12 blueberries
More berries and basil leaves, to decorate
For the basil cream diplomat:
1 c whole milk
50g sugar (1/4 c), divided
20g cornstarch or custard powder
2 large egg yolks
Pinch of salt
3-4 sprigs of fresh basil
14g (1 Tbsp) unsalted butter
1/2 – 3/4 tsp gelatin*
1/2 tbsp cold
1/2 – 1 c heavy whipping cream*
*Use 1/2 c for a thicker filling and up to 1 c for a lighter filling (I usually use 1/2-3/4 c). If you use more than 1/2 heavy cream, use 3/4 tsp gelatin.
To make the basil cream diplomat: Bring the milk and basil sprigs to a simmer in a medium saucepan over medium low heat. Simmer for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, then remove from heat and cover. Allow basil to steep for about 45 minutes.
Strain the milk (add more to reach 1 cup if necessary) and return to the saucepan along with 40g sugar and a pinch of salt. Place a strainer over a heat-safe jug or container.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the remaining 10 g sugar and the cornstarch. Pour in a tablespoon or so of the milk mixture and whisk until smooth. Add the egg yolks and whisk until smooth.
Heat the milk over medium heat until steaming. Remove from heat. Pour the milk in a slow, steady stream into the egg yolk mixture, whisking constantly. Scrape the custard mixture back into the saucepan and return to medium heat. Cook, whisking constantly, until the mixture thickens and large bubbles appear on the surface. Once the bubbles appear, continue whisking on the heat for two minutes.
Strain the pastry cream into the prepared jug or container. Whisk in the butter until combined. Place a piece of plastic wrap over the top and allow to cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until cold (at least 2 hours).
When you are ready to assemble the cake, finish preparing the cream diplomat. In a small bowl, sprinkle the gelatin evenly over the cold water and allow to sit for about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, put two inches of water into a small sauce pan and bring to a simmer over a medium heat. Measure 1/4 cup (60g) of the chilled pastry cream into a small stainless steel bowl that will sit across the saucepan with the simmering water, without touching the water.
Heat the cream until it is 120F. Add the gelatin and whisk until smooth. Remove from the water bath, and whisk the remaining cold pastry cream in to incorporate in two batches.
Whip the heavy cream until it holds medium-stiff peaks. Immediately fold the whipped cream into the pastry cream with a rubber spatula. Transfer to a piping bag and refrigerate while you continue assembling the cake.
To assemble the berry basil fraisier: Line a 6×3 cake ring (or same-sized springform pan) with acetate (or plastic wrap) and place on a cake board or plate. Trim the cake into layers ~3/4 inch thick (you should get three; you’ll need two for the cake. The rest is a baker’s treat!).
Place one layer of the cake in the bottom of the ring and brush generously with simple syrup. Place the halved strawberries, cut side out and pointed end up, around the edge of the pan. Add blueberries between the strawberries if desired. Pipe the cream diplomat between the fruits and a layer across the top of the cake. Use a offset palette knife to smooth. Fill the center with the chopped berries + jam, then cover with another layer of cream. Place the second layer of cake on top and press down to level. Soak with simple syrup, then spread a thin layer of cream across the top. Refrigerate until set, about 4 hours or up to three days.
Just before serving remove the cake ring and acetate. Arrange the cut fruit and basil on top as desired. (If you are doing this beforehand, brush a little warmed and thinned apricot jam on the fruit to preserve their color.) Enjoy!