A byproduct of the cheese-making process, this versatile and diverse ingredient holds its own. While its comforting qualities are best experienced when warm and fresh, its variations abound.
by Erica de Mane
When I was a child, no treat I could imagine beat spooning up gobs of the ricotta filling destined for my mother’s lasagna. With its creamy and fluffy texture—sweet with nutmeg, salty from parmigiano cheese and spiked with parsley—it was the ultimate comfort food.
Ricotta is also an essential ingredient in many ravioli fillings and pastries like cannoli, sfogliatelle and pastiera, the southern Italian Easter cheesecake filled with sweet ricotta and wheat berries, and flavored with orange-flower water. One simple summertime pleasure is a bowl of ricotta topped with fresh strawberries or peaches, or an ultra-rich ricotta gelato with a hint of cinnamon—I first tasted it in Palermo and it remains one of my greatest taste memories.
Ricotta can act as a creamy buffer to many bold flavors. I love crostini spread with ricotta and then topped with garlicky roasted peppers or a strip of anchovy. A dollop spooned onto a bowl of spaghetti tossed with spicy tomato sauce will mellow and enrich the dish in a more interesting way than, say, a drizzle of heavy cream.
Ricotta is not, strictly speaking, a cheese. Rather, it’s a byproduct of cheese making, concocted from the leftover whey, sometimes with a little milk added. The whey is gently reheated until soft curds are formed from its residual proteins. The curds are then drained, and the delicious, white, fluffy stuff that’s left is ricotta (ricotta actually means “re-cooked”). Ricotta has the added bonus of being relatively low in fat, at only about 5 percent.
In the region of Campania, ricotta is often made from the whey of buffalo milk mozzarella, a wonderful version that retains the gentle tang of the mozzarella itself. I sometimes find this in cheese shops in the U.S., but since ricotta is a fresh, perishable product, I’m always a little wary about buying it. The whey from cow’s milk mozzarella—fior di latte—also makes very good ricotta, as does whey from sheep and goat cheeses. One of the more common varieties, ricotta gentile, also known as ricotta romana, is made from whey leftover from the production of pecorino romano. In Sicily you often find sheep’s milk ricotta, which makes the best cannoli on the island. It also tastes incredible tossed with pasta that’s been seasoned simply with an abundant helping of coarse black pepper.
If you want to give a dish of pasta or a salad an instant Sicilian touch, try grating on a little ricotta salata, a dried, salted ricotta that becomes firm with age. It’s tangy, salty and slightly sharp—perfect for ziti with an eggplant sauce, or a sausage ragù laced with a bit of dried chilies. It’s a nice change from mild parmigiano when you want a more rustic dish. Ricotta salata is fairly easy to find in cheese shops and supermarkets, but make sure the piece you buy is snowy white, not yellowed at the edges, which may mean the cheese has been poorly stored.
Other interesting ricotta variations I’ve sampled in my travels include ricotta infornata, a slow-baked ricotta that develops a golden brown crust and a crumbly center—it’s perfect drizzled with honey and served with figs or grapes. I’ve recently seen lemon-flavored baked ricotta imported from Campania in some U.S. cheese shops. There’s also a peculiar Puglian ricotta called ricotta forte, a very strong, well-aged creation that tastes something like a purée of gorgonzola.
Even though traditional ricotta is made by re-cooking whey, you can make a wonderful version at home using whole milk. I do it all the time, and it’s surprisingly easy. It involves adding an acid, like buttermilk or lemon, to whole milk, and gently heating it until it curdles. You don’t need any cheese-making equipment; just a big pot and a stove. The best thing about making your own ricotta is that you get to eat it while it’s still warm and moist, and it will stay sweet and fresh for about four days in the refrigerator.
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