Making ricotta cheese, sort of

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Living in Mexico can be eye-opening — provided you keep your eyes and mind open. I was reminded of this when I  first made requesón cheese, the name for ricotta in Mexico. It’s sold at all the cremerias here, but it’s so easy to make, plus home-made ricotta is much smoother and cheaper than store-bought.

Rural living in Mexico has a lot of pluses, one being that we can buy raw milk, sometimes so fresh it is delivered warm from the cow. As much as I would like to drink raw milk, I always pasteurize it first. It still remains unhomogenized, with a thick layer of yellow cream on the top.

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The eye-opening part of making ricotta occurred when Ruby, our house cleaner, tasted my ricotta and politely declared it “requesón lite”. What? I had followed the recipe from America’s Test Kitchen to the T. She patiently explained that requesón is made from suaro, the whey collected from cheese making, not from whole milk.

This explains why American ricotta recipes start with whole milk. After all, how many of us have a small herd of dairy cattle, make vats of cheese every day, and then have 10 gallons of whey to use for making ricotta?  No, I didn’t think so.

Our favorite way to eat ricotta is spread on toasted seed bread, a so called “Life Changing Bread” from My New Roots.

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Unless you have your own herd of milk cows, here is how to make ricotta, even though Ruby probably thinks I’m cheating.


Ricotta/ Requesón

makes about 350 grams or 12 ounces

  • 2 quarts whole milk
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons/30 ml. white vinegar
  • 1/6 cup/ 40 ml. lemon juice
  1. In a heavy-bottomed pot, heat milk and salt over medium-high heat, stirring frequently to prevent scorching.
  2. When milk reaches 165 degrees F./ 74 C., remove milk immediately from heat and add vinegar and lemon juice, stirring gently. Extra cooking will result in curds too firm for ricotta.
  3. As soon as curds form and the whey becomes mostly clear and yellow, pour into the cheesecloth-lined colander. It will take between 5 seconds and 10 minutes for the curds to form. If curds do not form, gently stir in more vinegar, one tablespoon at a time.
  4. Allow to drain for only a few minutes, until you have a spreadable consistency. Upend the cheesecloth into a bowl and stir the ricotta with a fork, breaking up the curds until it is smooth. If you would like it more moist, stir in a few tablespoons of reserved whey. Refrigerate.

Notes

~ Have everything ready before the milk heats — vinegar and lemon juice measured, colander lined with cheesecloth and set over a large bowl.

~ If using commercial organic milk, don’t use milk labeled UHT (Ultra High Temperature). The curds will not form as readily or as well. Hopefully, non-UHT organic milk is available.

~ Don’t use Meyer Lemons, as they are not acidic enough. Even regular lemons can vary in their acidity, requiring more lemon juice. All vinegar, instead of any lemon juice, supposedly can make the milk curd sufficiently, but I haven’t tried it.

~ Don’t throw out the whey! It’s great in smoothies, soups (so I read), and for bread making. My chickens like it, too.

~ Make an easy and impressive Raspberry-Ricotta Cake with this recipe from Epicurious.

© 2009-2016 COOKING IN MEXICO ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Bread of the Dead

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Mexico has a special relationship with the dead that we northerners can find disconcerting. We understand Halloween and all that goes with it, including skeleton costumes, excess candy  and scary cemeteries. We don’t always understand how families in Mexico can celebrate Day of the Dead at cemetery graves decorated with candles and marigold flowers, and favorite food and drink of the deceased enjoyed by all, including the departed. Children run around and play among the gravestones, while their parents and grandparents share special dishes, laugh and chat. One may see images of La Catrina, the elegantly attired female skeleton who laughs at death, and sugar candy skulls decorate the alters. At this time of year, death seems front and center, not tucked away behind social mores.

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Pan de Muerto, or Bread of the Dead, is the most iconic food for Días de los Muertos. This lightly sweet, rich bread, similar to brioche, can trace its origins to Spanish bakers who immigrated to Mexico in the last century. This makes sense, given that Mexico does not have its own tradition of baking, but rather adopted desserts and recipes brought to the New World by Spanish nuns and later by immigrants.

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In the few weeks leading up to Day of the Dead, Pan de Muerto is in all the panaderías and grocery store bakeries, even at Costco, where they were handing out generous slices the other day. I won’t go so far as to say we can make a lunch of Costco’s samples, but Russell and I can come pretty close, and Pan de Muerto made a perfect dessert after other bits and bites were sampled last week.

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Orange blossom water and anise seed are the two signature flavors of Pan de Muerto. Surprisingly, I found a bottle of orange blossom water on my shelf, purchased on a trip to the U.S. for a now forgotten recipe. This distillation is made from the blossoms of bitter orange, and has a strong floral aroma that mellows as it bakes. If you don’t have orange blossom water, use grated orange zest instead for a citrusy aroma. In Mexico, orange blossom water is known as agua de naranjo or agua de azahar.

Green anise seed was new to me. I’m familiar with star anise used in Asian cooking, but did not know that green anise seed is from a totally different plant. This is the anise used for making absinthe, the green colored liqueur.

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If you are familiar with my baking by now, you know that I generally use 50% whole wheat flour. To my taste, this adds much to the flavor — a nuttiness and sweetness found only in fresh whole wheat flour. Use all white flour if you prefer, which is in step with most Mexican baked goods.

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My breads and cakes always have a charming (or embarrassing) homemade look, though this loaf pushed the envelope in the homemade category. When Russell saw my loaf come out of the oven, he kindly said it looked muy rústico. After his first bite, he said it reminded him of his Polish grandma’s babka.


Pan de Muerto — Day of the Dead Bread 

  • 1/2 cup (4 fl. oz./118 ml.) whole milk
  • 3 oz. (85 g.) unsalted butter
  • 2 large strips orange zest, minus white pith
  • 1 tablespoon orange blossom water (or 2 tablespoons grated orange zest)
  • 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1  1/4 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 2 cups (8.5 oz./228 g.) white all purpose flour
  • 2 cups (9 oz./250 g.) sifted whole wheat flour, bran reserved for another use
  • 1/4 cup (1.75 oz./50 g.) sugar
  • 2 teaspoons anise seed (known as anis in Mexico)
  • 1  1/2 teaspoon salt
  • oil for bowl and pan
  • Topping: 1 oz. (28 g.) melted butter and 1 -2 tablespoons sugar
  1. In a small saucepan, warm milk,  butter and orange zest until butter melts. Remove from heat and discard zest. Whisk in orange blossom water and beaten eggs.
  2. Blend yeast, flour, sugar, anise seeds and salt in a large bowl. Gradually add milk mixture, stirring with a large wooden spoon. When the dough becomes too stiff to stir, knead by hand for about 10 minutes until smooth. If too sticky to handle, add flour a tablespoon at a time. If too dry, add water or milk by the tablespoon.
  3. Turn into an oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and allow to rise until double in size. Punch down, cover, and refrigerate overnight.
  4. The next day, remove dough from refrigerator and bring to cool room temperature. Save aside a small amount of dough to form “bones” and “skull” (sometimes called a tear). Form ball of dough, slightly flattened. Roll 3 small balls of dough into ropes for the “bones”, and shape to form bony segments. Place “bones” across the loaf, with the “skull” or “tear” pressed into the center. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise until almost double in size.
  5. Bake in a pre-heated 350 F./180 C. oven for 30-40 minutes, covering with foil in 15 minutes if top browns too quickly. When done, a tap on the bottom of the loaf will make a hollow sound. Or bake until interior temperature measures 190 F/88 C.
  6. Brush with  melted butter and sprinkle with  sugar.  Serve warm.

Notes

~ For my readers in Mexico, I have found Espuma de Chapala to be the best whole wheat flour brand in the grocery stores here. It comes in a plastic-lined bag for freshness, and is high in protein, which corresponds to its gluten content, making it great for bread baking. It needs to be kept refrigerated to discourage rancidity, as do all whole grain flours.

~ I used my KitchenAid stand mixer to knead the dough for about 8 minutes. Use your hands, a KitchenAid mixer, or a large enough food processor for mixing and kneading, following dough instructions for mixer or processor.

~ Like other rich egg breads, this bread is best the day it is made. If it lasts longer, toasted slices are almost as good as freshly baked.

~ Thank you to Rachel Laudan for the information about Spanish bakers in Mexico If you are interested in reading more on the history of Pan de Muerto, I recommend her blog, A Historian’s Take on Food and Food Politics.

~ This recipe was primarily adapted from a recipe in Fine Cooking, by Fany Gerson. Other recipes to check are at Pati’s Mexican Table and The Mija Chronicles.

Where in the world is the shrimp cocktail sauce?

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The temperature is staying hot — too hot — here on the west coast of Mexico. Some days, I would rather not eat at all than have to cook. An easy — and cool — solution has been to prepare shrimp cocktail, cóctel de camarón, in the morning, and then assemble everything at dinner time with a minimum of time spent in the kitchen.

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This shrimp cocktail recipe is an adaptation of cóctel de camarón as it is served at Ocho Tostadas in Puerto Vallarta. Theirs is served hot with catsup, but we prefer it cold and catsup-less.  Maybe, without catsup, it isn’t a cocktail at all. Whatever it is, we love it, and it is perfect for warm weather. If you are already having chilly days, try the warm or hot version of cóctel de camarón. If we ever have a chilly day, I will also, but I may have to wait until January.

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It is not necessary to devein shrimp (see notes below). I’m telling you this now just to save you a lot of time and work. After years of working in a restaurant, where I had to devein twenty pounds of shrimp at a time, I am so happy to come to the conclusion that my time is better spent on other things,  like taste testing tostadas.

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The La Cruz fish market sells farmed estuary shrimp from San Blas, a coastal town north of us. Their trucks drive right by our front gate, but I find it more interesting to walk down to the fish market and check out the fishing boats and their catch.

Farmed shrimp sounds like a good idea, since shrimp from the ocean are dredged, a practice which damages the ocean floor and brings up lots of by-catch, fish brought up in the nets that are not intended for the market, and often tossed back into the ocean dead. As you most likely know, our choices in food purchases have consequences.
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A recipe is almost not needed. Cook as much shrimp as you want. Peel, then refrigerate in the broth. When cold, add chopped tomato, avocado, onion, cucumber and cilantro to shrimp and broth. Serve with wedges of lime, tostadas and bottled hot sauce. This is how Ocho Tostadas serves cóctel de camarón, but there is room for innovation if you are so inclined. Radish slices, torn baby lettuce, grated carrot, whatever is in your fridge and sounds good. Think of this as a shrimp salad swimming in flavorful broth. Here is a recipe if you like to have things spelled out like I do when making something for the first time.

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Cóctel de Camarón — Mexican Shrimp  Cocktail     Serves 2

  • 1 lb. (1/2 kilo) unpeeled, headless shrimp
  • 2 cups (1/2 liter) cold water
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 large cucumber, peeled and diced
  • 1/4 cup red onion, diced
  • 1 tomato, diced
  • 1 avocado, diced
  • chopped cilantro
  1. Bring salted water to a boil and add shrimp. Cover and simmer for about 3 minutes, or until done. Drain, reserving broth, and peel shrimp. Refrigerate shrimp in broth until cold.
  2. To serve, divide shrimp and broth between two bowls, and top with diced vegetables.
  3. Serve with lime wedges, bottled hot sauce and tostadas.

Notes

~ Cooking the shrimp unpeeled gives a more flavorful broth, plus the peels remove more easily from cooked shrimp.

~ To devein or not to devein, that is the question. I don’t. After a bit of research, I came to the conclusion that removing the vein from shrimp is purely for aesthetic reasons. Basically, we don’t want to look at the little black line and think about what it represents. Eating the vein is not unhealthy, it is not dangerous, and because of this, many cultures do not devein shrimp. It just isn’t necessary unless you have a lot of time on your hands and have a squeamish bent.

~ For an authentic Mexican cóctel de camarón, serve warm or hot with a generous squeeze of catsup.

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