celebrating life: homemade ricotta cheese

I nearly died yesterday.

That sounds melodramatic, doesn’t it? I know. I think so too. And gosh, I hate drama. For the past 24 hours, I’ve struggled with what happened yesterday, and I’ve worried that I was being overemotional for no good reason, that I was being histrionic.

The answer is no. I could have died, but I didn’t.

Last night, to calm myself, I made homemade ricotta cheese. I felt the need to create something. I couldn’t create the words yet – the writer inside my head was mostly a crazed, screaming fool last night – so I stood at the stovetop and stirred milk and cream.

But I’ll get to the ricotta in a bit. Let me tell you what happened.

fresh homemade ricotta cheese | the merry gourmet

Yesterday morning, I met a woman from my work, Karen, at a local Starbucks. We had an appointment to visit a medical practice in a town about 40 minutes from here. I left my minivan in the parking lot and we climbed into her car, a company car. The morning’s appointment went well – I love getting to know the other physicians in our community – and we headed back before 11 o’clock. Clouds were gathering, and I told Karen I hoped we made it back before the rain let loose.

Karen drove, and we made small talk, chatting about work or our children, and eventually we reached the flat stretch of Interstate 75 that crosses Paynes Prairie. We were in the far left lane, the fast lane, but Karen was driving right at the speed limit – 70 mph. Ominous clouds the color of slate converged on the horizon, stretching to the right and left. A bolt of lightning punched downward, into the trees, ahead of us and to our left. We both cringed. The lightning bolt seemed to stay on the ground much longer than normal – 10 seconds? 20 seconds?

Half a minute later, another strike hit to our left, in the prairie itself, and a rumbling of thunder immediately followed. It still wasn’t raining, but the darkness ahead was closing in.

“Should we pull over?” Karen asked me. She gripped the steering wheel and leaned over it, as if to concentrate harder on the road ahead.

“No, just keep going,” I said. I just wanted to get through the storm, away from the lightning that seemed to all around us. I also wanted to be out of all of the traffic that had steadily picked up as we got closer to Gainesville. The three lanes of traffic were filled with cars, most of them speeding, and we were stuck in the far left.

fresh homemade ricotta cheese | the merry gourmet

The next bolt of lightning struck directly in front of us, perhaps just 3 feet away, sparks and flames leaping up from the pavement in front of the car, bright whiteness blinding us momentarily. The bolt looked at least a foot wide. We screamed, the lightning reached out toward our car, and then we were inside the bolt.

Karen never had time to brake, and in hindsight, that probably helped us survive. I grabbed her shoulder, both of us still screaming, but she kept her hands on the wheel, knuckles blanching white. The engine warning and indicator lights on the dashboard in front of Karen all came on, and then the car’s engine shut completely off.

My memories of the moments inside the car while it was engulfed lightning are hazy. I recall that it was loud and bright. It was so incredibly bright, with a whiteness that seemed to fill the car’s space. After the lightning bolt lifted, finally, and after what seemed like minutes, I saw ghosts of the jagged lightning strike wherever I looked, as my retinas attempted to recover from the flash.

Somehow Karen managed to maneuver the car – coasting, with no power – across three lanes of traffic and into a rest area on the northbound side of I-75. Somehow, we didn’t crash, didn’t cause a massive pileup like the one that happened last year in that same stretch of the interstate.

The car’s electrical system must have been fried immediately by the lightning; the engine never would turn back on. I later learned that the windshield was cracked, the paint of the car was speckled with scratches and chips, the hood was dented in a few places, and a smoky coating covered the exterior. There were burn marks on the car over the passenger side door, at the level of my head.

fresh homemade ricotta cheese | the merry gourmet

I did a lot of research yesterday afternoon and last night. I learned more than I wanted to know about lightning strikes, and about injuries – and deaths – related to lightning. I know we were protected from electrocution by the metal frame of the car – but not by the tires, that’s a myth – but I don’t know why we didn’t die on that interstate, driving 70 miles per hour in three lanes of traffic.

We were lucky, amazingly lucky.

As the kids and I settled in for the evening, before the storms came – the storms that knocked out our power right at bedtime – I made fresh ricotta. I packed it into an airtight container and set it in the refrigerator. The kids and I would eat crostini with fresh homemade ricotta, drizzled with honey, for breakfast the next day.

Later, when the power was out, I lay in bed in the quiet, warm stillness. I listened to the occasional growl of thunder and cringed at the sporadic flashes of lightning that brightened the bedroom. I thought of that ricotta on the second shelf of the refrigerator, and I hoped that the power would return soon so that it would not spoil. I thought of sharing that ricotta the next day, with my children, simply because I could. Because I had not died.

Yield: About 1-1/2 cups.

Homemade Ricotta Cheese

The basic formula for making ricotta cheese is this: milk plus heat plus acid. I used lemon juice, which gives the ricotta a distinctly lemony flavor. You could also use white vinegar for a more neutral flavor.


4 cups whole milk
1-1/2 cups heavy cream
Generous 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice


Pour the milk and cream into a large nonreactive saucepan and stir in the salt. Heat the milk over high heat, stirring every few minutes to prevent scorching, until the milk reaches a temperature of 180-190 degrees. Remove from heat and slowly stir in lemon juice until you see curds forming. The curds may be small, but they'll be there. Let the saucepan sit undisturbed for 5 minutes or so.

Line a colander with three layers of cheesecloth and place over a large bowl (which will catch the liquid). Pour the contents of the saucepan slowly into the cheesecloth-lined colander and let this sit for at least 1 hour. After one hour, the ricotta will be soft and spreadable, and if you let it sit for longer, the ricotta will be more firm as more whey drains out of it. I like to let mine sit for about 2 hours.

Use the ricotta right away, or transfer to an airtight container and store in the refrigerator.

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48 Responses to “celebrating life: homemade ricotta cheese”

  1. 1
    Winnie — June 15, 2013 @ 1:37 pm

    I am crying. And just so glad you are alright.

  2. 2
    Ali | Gimme Some Oven — June 15, 2013 @ 1:47 pm

    Oh my GOODNESS. I had not heard about this, and have just been catching up on your Facebook posts and now this. I absolutely can’t imagine. What an incredible miracle that you two made it out ok.

    Wishing you lots of rest this weekend, and sweet moments to savor all the more with those you love.

    I am so, so glad that you are ok.

    • 2.1
      Merry-Jennifer — June 15, 2013 @ 7:30 pm

      Thank you so much, Ali. It put life in perspective in a very sudden way, that’s for sure.

  3. 3

    WOW!! I’m SO glad you were okay, that must have been terribly frightening. What a miraculous ending!

    • 3.1
      Merry-Jennifer — June 15, 2013 @ 7:30 pm

      It was so bizarre and scary and surreal. And thanks — I’m feeling very lucky today.

  4. 4
    Anna @ Garnish with Lemon — June 15, 2013 @ 2:01 pm

    What a frightening experience! And such a good reminder to count our blessings every single day. I’m so glad that everyone is home safe and sound.

  5. 5
    Macaroni Mama — June 15, 2013 @ 2:03 pm

    This brought tears to my eyes. Wonderfully written. I could see the flashes of lightning and the after flashes from your eyes.

  6. 6
    megan @ whatmegansmaking — June 15, 2013 @ 2:04 pm

    oh my gosh, what an amazing and terrible story. So so glad you are OK! I can’t even imagine.

    • 6.1
      Merry-Jennifer — June 15, 2013 @ 7:29 pm

      Thanks, Megan. It was definitely amazing and terrible, both at the same time.

  7. 7
    Joan@Chocolate and More — June 15, 2013 @ 2:14 pm

    I have goosebumps up and down my arms, I’m so glad you’re alright. God was watching over you, that’s for sure.

  8. 8
    Liz @ The Lemon Bowl — June 15, 2013 @ 2:34 pm

    Oh my God I can’t even believe this!!! Thank God you are ok. I love that you made ricotta. It is amazing how comforting and soothing food and cooking can be in times of near-tragedy.

    • 8.1
      Merry-Jennifer — June 15, 2013 @ 7:28 pm

      You’re so right, Liz. It really helped calm my nerves last night.

  9. 9
    Carol Sacks — June 15, 2013 @ 2:39 pm

    What a harrowing experience! I’m so glad you’re safe and back with your family. Take care.

    • 9.1
      Merry-Jennifer — June 15, 2013 @ 7:27 pm

      Thank you, Carol. I’m so glad it all turned out fine, except for the car.

  10. 10
    Michael Dietsch — June 15, 2013 @ 3:43 pm

    I have no words. Except that I’m very glad you’re okay.

  11. 11
    Cassie — June 15, 2013 @ 3:43 pm

    I am so happy to hear you are OK. What a frightening experience!

  12. 12

    Praise God from whom all blessings flow. You surely had angels surrounding & protecting you my friend. Hugs to you.

  13. 13

    What a horrific event, so sorry to hear that you went through that, Merry! What a blessing that you and Karen walked away from it. So glad to hear you’re OK.

  14. 14

    Oh Merry-Jennifer,

    That is so scary. I cannot even imagine hurtling down the road at 70 miles per hour and having that happen. I am so glad you’re okay!

    P.S. You are the third person I know who has experienced a lightning strike in very close proximity. You, my brother-in-law (struck while he was getting something from the trunk- thankfully not seriously), and my husband (ball lightning behind his head in our very own living room.) Eek.

    • 14.1
      Merry-Jennifer — June 15, 2013 @ 7:26 pm

      I have another friend whose mother this happened to. Crazy, right? And I know you completely know what I went through after your own near-death experience recently.

  15. 15
    jwlucasnc — June 15, 2013 @ 6:13 pm

    Good lord, how terrifying. So glad you both survived this ordeal without injury.

  16. 16
    Paula — June 15, 2013 @ 6:53 pm

    I was amazed and relieved yesterday when I saw your Instagram and your tweet about this, that you were alright. Reading about this event is chilling and I can only imagine what you and Karen experienced.

    God obviously has a lot more plans for both of you right here 🙂 Take good care.

    • 16.1
      Merry-Jennifer — June 15, 2013 @ 7:25 pm

      Thank you, Paula. I think you’re right – there is something more I’m meant to do here.

  17. 17
    Wendy Read — June 15, 2013 @ 9:08 pm

    Thank God you are alright. So very scary for you both! Hope you are doing so more healing things this weekend.

  18. 18
    DessertForTwo — June 15, 2013 @ 9:19 pm

    MJ! My gosh! I read this with my jaw on the floor. I’m so glad you’re okay! Wow! Praise the Lord!

  19. 19
    Kathy — June 15, 2013 @ 11:08 pm

    I just read this aloud to my husband, we are just in awe. So very, very thankful that you were able to walk away from this. xoxo

  20. 20
    Caroline — June 15, 2013 @ 11:09 pm

    What a story. I’m so glad you were okay! I can’t imagine how terrifying that must be.

  21. 21
    Denise @ Creative Kitchen — June 16, 2013 @ 9:33 am

    Oh my!! Wow!!!! What a story to start up with in my reader. I’m so glad you’re okay!! Life is a blessing, and reminders like this sure put it into perspective. As a fellow Floridian, I read your story outloud to my hubby and teen….we are just floored! Crazy….I’ve heard lightening stories before but never in a car.

    One time headed back from Tampa along a stretch of the turnpike there were lightening bolts all around us like that. It was a stretch with all those tall electrical towers lining the road. I guess I should have been relieved that those would keep the lightening from us, but it was so close and all around us that it was very scary!

    I’ll be praying that you feel God’s peace during this time of post trauma, reflection and processing. HUGS!! Denise

    PS….to be a little funny (maybe you’ll develop a super power now! which one would you want. 😉

  22. 22
    Kim Foster — June 16, 2013 @ 11:11 am

    Holy crap, MJ! This is incredble.

    I’m so happy you are okay. It could’ve been, well, I don’t even want to think about it. I’m glad it was nothing more than a scary, harrowing experience.

    But now that you’re okay, I have to say it, this is going to be a great cocktail party story, for the rest of your life!!!!

    Eat the ricotta, hug your kids. So happy you are okay, honey.


  23. 23

    I cannot imagine how you must have felt after that, I hope that you and you friend feel better now. That must have been terrifying.
    Your cheese looks lovely however and the pictures are beautiful

  24. 24

    MJ – SO SO SO scary! I saw your tweets after the fact and wondered whether you would write about it. It must have helped to write it out. So glad you are ok. Many many hugs. XOX just because.

  25. 25
    Kathryn — June 17, 2013 @ 4:47 am

    So, so, so scary.

  26. 26
    Di — June 17, 2013 @ 10:59 am

    The ricotta distraction seemed to be the right perscription for you. Your written recollections provide your reader with an illuminating (no pun intended) account of your ordeal that is real and immediate and frightening. This terrifying episode in your and your colleague’s life was delivered here eloquently and honestly. I am happy you survived this brush with death and chose to share it. I hope the trauma is physically and emotionally minimal, Merry Jennifer. I am also looking forward to trying your ricotta recipe!

  27. 27
    Miranda — June 17, 2013 @ 1:38 pm

    omg – this beautifully crafted – terrifying tale is so well told i could barely read it at a first pass – with my hair standing on end the whole way … the second time i read it i wanted to cry – there’s something so heartfelt about it – so sweet about the simple pleasures of life healing the traumatic – i don’t even like ricotta cheese but i’m going to make some to celebrate you ✿♪♫•*¨*•.¸¸.•*¨*•♫♪✿

  28. 28
    Denise — June 17, 2013 @ 4:41 pm

    OMG this is so scary. I was reading your FB post to Lenny, and the first thing he said was that shouldn’t have happened in a car. Completely crazy … So happy you are okay!!!!!

  29. 29

    I read your tweets the other day, and saw your updates on Facebook. Still, as I read this post, I have chills. I cannot tell you how glad I am that you are OK… I will give you an extra big hug at BSP in a few weeks!!

    And, I just adore homemade ricotta. I am thinking that I need to make a batch ASAP.

  30. 30
    Nutmeg Nanny — June 26, 2013 @ 10:57 pm

    Oh wow, I am so glad you are okay, what an incredibly frightening story!

  31. 31
    Jan Beaumont — June 28, 2013 @ 8:24 am

    How well you described your experience. I was mesmerized and as I read I felt as if I was the one in the car. What a truly awful and frightening thing to happen. And thank goodness for the presence of mind Karen showed. I am so glad your were safe in the end. And to think I read this because some time ago I saved a recipe for home made ricotta cheese! I searched for it tonight and read not just the recipe but your story. Thank you so much – every time I make ricotta cheese, or even see it in a supermarket, I will think of you xx

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