Freshly made ricotta by yours truly (and a little help from my friends!).
Freshly made ricotta by yours truly (and a few friends!)

I’m not the greatest in the kitchen.

I’m fairly average in my ability to feed myself and there is one a phrase I absolutely dread when it comes to cooking: “making it from scratch.”

I have friends who are those types – they can make pasta from scratch without having to look at a recipe. Friends who have never made a cake out of a box or used Pilsbury pre-made cookie dough. I am not one of those people. Call it a blend of a lack of cooking confidence and laziness.

And cheesemaking? Ha, right. That is something for patient, slow food types to make – not this amateur.

So, when I was invited to participate in a cheesemaking class with acclaimed cheesemaker Sheana Davis, of the Epicurean Connection, I reluctantly said yes and decided to be a good sport.

I thought it would basically be an excuse to drink wine and eat lots of cheese, with a bunch of rich tourists, while Davis expounded about cheesemaking and made us feel confident enough that we too could be cheesemakers when we grow up.

Well, it was more than that (and the tourists were super cool).

I left the class feeling inspired, and you will too, no matter what your level of kitchen-functionality may be. It’s a must experience when in California Wine Country.

The Ricotta Eaters, Vincenzo Campi, 1580. In the collection of the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, France

Gotta love Ricotta

Ricotta is old school.

Ricotta has been produced in Italy for centuries – Ancient Greece and Rome, in fact. It was first created in Sicily and, according to Silvana de Soissons, is believed to be of Italian-Islamic heritage.

Sicily was under Islamic rule from AD 965-1072 and the influence of Middle Eastern cuisine is still seen today in the way that ricotta is served, often topped with fresh flowers, rosewater, and nuts, for example.

It is iconic with peasant life in the world of food history. The curds produce an excellent, easy to eat cheese, and the whey creates a stock for hearty soups.

And as a terribly unskilled home cook, it’s super easy and inexpensive to make.

Cheesemaker Sheana Davis has been making fresh cheeses since the late 2000s. Her award winning fresh cheese, Delice de la Vallee, is sold at the French Laundry. She knows what she’s doing, that is for sure.

Davis has been teaching cheesemaking classes for years, to tourists, chefs, and families on SNAP.

Every participant gets a fancy cheese ladle and cheesecloth to take home.
Every participant gets a fancy cheese ladle and cheesecloth to take home

Class time

Davis’ classes take place throughout Northern California. I got lucky when I attended – it was two blocks away from my house at the General’s Daughter in Sonoma.

Original scientific illustrations of California wildflowers decorate the walls at the General's Daughter
Original scientific illustrations of California wildflowers decorate the walls at the General’s Daughter in Sonoma, California

The General’s Daughter is a special event venue owned by Ramekins Culinary School. It’s a historic 1864 Victorian home that was once the home of Natalia Vallejo and her husband, Atilla Haraszthy.

Bubbles? Yes, please!
My cheesemaking skills improved immensely with the assistance of bubbles

Upon being greeted by Davis, a bottle of JCB N°69 Crémant de Bourgogne was popped open to celebrate the educational occasion. It’s a light, lovely sparkling rosé that is a frequent guest in my fridge.

Local cheeses were also served during the class, including the iconic Vella Cheese Mezzo Secco and a soon-to-be-released, truffled goat cheese made by Davis. Both cheeses were delicious, and paired great with the bubbles.

A simple set up - Davis uses a Le Creuset Stockpot for making ricotta
A simple set up – Davis uses a Le Creuset Stockpot for making ricotta

As we nibbled cheese and sipped our bubbles, Davis launched into the process of making ricotta, which took approximately 75 minutes. Each guest is provided a recipe for the ricotta, to follow along, and a recipe for Whey & Potato Soup.

The ingredients and processes were shockingly easy. Davis uses locally produced, organic Straus Family Creamery milk and cream for the base, and a mere bit of Kosher salt and distilled white vinegar. That is all one needs to make a beautiful, fresh ricotta.

Davis explains why she uses fine, 200 thread cheesecloth, while the cheese drains.
Davis explains why she uses fine, 200 thread cheesecloth, while the cheese drains

Davis explained the science behind the process, showing us step by step why she uses a Le Creuset Stockpot, how to calibrate a thermometer, what to do if you burn the milk, why the curd separates from the milk…you get the picture. It’s fascinating and will make you look absolutely brilliant when you’re impressing your friends with your cheesemaking skills at home.

But it’s not dull stuff. Davis is a spitfire, full of energy, bravado and a wicked sense of humor, bringing the entire group into the conversation and helping to keep everyone energized while patiently waiting for milk to heat up.

Stir stir stir the milk!
Stir, stir, stir the milk!

After the milk and cream heated to 200 degrees, Davis turned off the heat and stirred the milk quickly, adding the salt and vinegar – similar to the process of making risotto.

To make ricotta cheese, you must separate the curds (the chunky bits) from the whey (the watery part).
To make ricotta cheese, you must separate the curds (the chunky bits) from the whey (the watery part).

Magically, curds started floating to the top of the pot. I had a mini “kid with a science kit seeing the foam topple over the top of the volcano for the first time” moment – it was so cool to see this process in person.

Davis started separating the curds from the whey by gently ladling off the curds into cheese cloth set over a colander. Davis let us have our own hand at separating the curds from the whey.

You can see how clearly excited (and dorky) I got whilst separating the curds from the whey. (I also love any excuse to use the word “whilst.”)

After separating as much curd from the whey as possible, we let the cheese (the food formally known as curd) drain.

Davis explained how we could use the whey (as the peasants did) to make soup, such as the Whey & Potato Soup recipe she provided, and the many ways we could mold and display our finished cheese (mini muffin ricotta bites? YUM!).

Low and behold…after about 30 minutes the cheese was completely drained and we had BEAUTIFUL, fluffy, tasty, ricotta.

We enjoyed the fruits (or cheeses) of our labor, with a glass of Elizabeth Spencer 2015 Mendocino Chenin Blanc, and Davis wrapped up pieces of ricotta for us each to take home.

Final thoughts

This was great fun. As a total amateur in the kitchen, I left Davis’ class feeling confident in my ability to make fresh ricotta cheese and inspired to share my experience with others (hence the blog, duh).

For a solo explorer, it’s a great opportunity to mix and mingle with other food geeks. Davis makes you feel included, by assigning tasks to guests and asking guests to ask questions, no matter how silly they may sound. The small group setting makes it even more comfortable, rather than an intimidating large class.

It’s also great for couples and a nice twist on a team-building workshop.

It’s a classy, fun, funky (cheese is smelly after all), and enjoyable, hands-on experience that is one of a kind in Wine Country.

Take note

Every guest get gets a ladle, cheesecloth, recipe, and a slice of fresh ricotta to take home. Wine is served, but the event is all ages.

If you’re lactose intolerant then this isn’t for you – unless you pack a box of lactaid pills.

Take action

Sheana Davis teaches her cheesemaking classes throughout Northern California regularly and is also available nationally. Classes are $75 per person, reservation required.

Visit theepicureanconnection.com or email Davis at sheana@vom.com to learn more.

Have you ever made your own cheese?

Share your experience below!

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