Fresh ricotta cheese is like the man of my daydreams — suave, flexible, accommodating and rich.
No wonder I’m always on the lookout at farmers markets, restaurants and grocery stores. For ricotta, that is.
The whole-milk fresh cheese is wonderful in dishes savory or sweet, and it can be either a recipe ingredient or a stand-alone treat. You can buy it or make it yourself.
Most often I make it. Hands-on time in the kitchen is about 30 minutes. It requires not much more work than adding an acid to slightly salted, heated milk. The acid, which could be yogurt, buttermilk or lemon juice, causes curds to form and separates them from the whey, a semi-clear liquid.
Steps to follow
▪ Line a colander with three or four layers of cheesecloth. Shake drops of water onto the cloth until it is damp. Set the colander in, or over, a larger bowl.
Clip a candy thermometer on the side of a large pot; add milk and a little cream, and heat the mixture until the liquid reaches 185 degrees, about 20 minutes. (Some cooks maintain the heat, some stir longer, some vary technique in other ways, but the results remain the same.)
Remove from the heat, stir in a little salt and then slowly pour lemon juice over the surface of the milk. Barely stir the mixture (the best motion is a gentle lifting and folding) for a couple of minutes, to encourage curds to form. The separation of curds from whey is quite magical to witness.
▪ Now, do not dump, do not hurry, and do be gentle as you ladle the curds slowly and gently into the cheesecloth-lined colander. I prefer to dip in with a fine strainer about 5 inches across rather than use a ladle. When all the curds are transferred, fold the ends of the cheesecloth over the curds to loosely cover and set aside. That’s it.
▪ Let drain until you get a consistency you like. Thirty minutes makes a very soft cheese. An hour and a half yields a firmer, spreadable cheese. Four hours or longer produces a dense, dry cheese. Over time, you’ll figure exactly how long to take.
I usually drain mine for an hour, which gives me the option of further draining later, depending on the recipe. Transfer the curds to a container, cover and refrigerate up to a couple of weeks.
▪ The thin watery liquid in the pan is whey. Remember Little Miss Muffett who sat on a tuffet eating her curds and whey? It’s the same thing. Yes, there are healthful nutrients in whey, and although most recipes don’t advise keeping the liquid, I’m of the waste-not, want-not school.
To save, pour the whey into a rinsed milk container, label it and return to the refrigerator for later use. Try using whey instead of water in your next batch of bread or pizza dough; it gives the bread a sourdough tang. You also could add some to mashed potatoes, soups or a smoothie.
Other uses for ricotta
Spread it: Spoon out a portion of ricotta, grate a little shallot over it, add coarse salt and mix; drizzle with good olive oil and a grinding of pepper and smear the savory cheese onto toasted country-olive or sourdough bread for breakfast.
On sundaes: Top a cold scoop of ricotta with slightly crushed ripe strawberries and a drizzle of honey.
In gnocchi: Potato gnocchi can be heavy and dense. But gnocchi made with ricotta cheese and parmesan sauteed in brown butter with sage is light, and high in protein.
On pizza: Use it as a base instead of tomato sauce.
In cannoli: The filling is a snap to make. Add sweetening and spices to well-drained ricotta, pipe the filling into the shell right before serving, and dip the ends in mini-chocolate chips.
FRESH WHOLE-MILK RICOTTA CHEESE
2 quarts whole milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup fresh, strained lemon juice
Line a colander with 3 to 4 layers of lightly dampened cheesecloth, and set it in, or over, a larger bowl. Clip a candy thermometer to the side of a heavy-duty 7- to 8-quart pot. Pour the milk and cream into the pot and slowly warm the mixture over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the thermometer registers 185 degrees, about 20 minutes. Watch carefully, as milk likes to scorch.
Remove from the heat; add the salt and stir until it dissolves. Slowly pour the lemon juice over the surface of the milk. Once all of the juice has been added, stir gently, using a slow lifting motion, for 1 to 2 minutes to encourage curds to form. When you begin to see the curds form, slowest stirring is essential. Gently transfer the curds into the colander using a strainer or perforated ladle. Do not pour the mixture.
The draining time determines the ricotta’s firmness. Fold the ends of the cheesecloth over the curds to lightly cover, and allow to drain anywhere from 30 minutes (for soft curds) to 4 hours (for a rather firm, dry cheese). Transfer the fresh ricotta to a jar, cover and refrigerate. Makes about 2 1/2 cups.
Per 1/2 cup serving: 323 calories (60 percent from fat) 21.6g fat, (12.8g sat fat, 5.7g mono fat), 12.8g protein, 20.5g carbohydrates, 0g fiber, 570mg sodium
Source: Adapted from Fine Cooking.
RICH RICOTTA PANCAKES
1 cup ricotta cheese
1 cup sour cream or plain yogurt
3 eggs, separated
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
Handful blueberries, optional
Butter or neutral oil for the griddle
Beat together the ricotta, sour cream or yogurt and egg yolks. In another bowl, combine baking soda, flour, salt and sugar. In third bowl, beat egg whites until fairly stiff.
Heat a griddle or large skillet over medium-low heat while you finish the batter.
Stir flour mixture into ricotta mixture, blending well, but not beating. Stir in lemon juice and zest, then gently fold in the beaten egg whites; they should remain somewhat distinct in the batter.
Add about 1 tablespoon butter or oil to the griddle and coat the surface. When hot, add batter by either a 1/3 cup measure or large spoon. At this point, you can sprinkle blueberries over the pancakes. Cook until bubbles appear at the pancake edges and bottoms are lightly brown, then turn and cook on the second side. Serve right away with butter and maple syrup. Makes 4 servings.
Per serving: 381 calories (50 percent from fat) 21.3g fat, (11.8g sat fat, 6.0g mono fat), 15.9g protein, 31.2g carbohydrates, 1g fiber, 358mg sodium
Source: “The Minimalist” by Mark Bittman.
EGGPLANT INVOLTINI WITH RICOTTA AND SCALLIONS
2 medium eggplants, sliced lengthwise into 1/3-inch slices
Good olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup fresh ricotta, drained
1 large egg
2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese, plus more for topping
2 scallions, thinly sliced
1 small clove garlic, crushed
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 1/2 to 2 cups marinara sauce, homemade or Rao brand preferred
Whole Italian parsley leaves for garnish
Heat oven to 450 degrees. Place the eggplant slices on a baking sheet. Brush them with olive oil and lightly sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake about 15 minutes until soft and the edges are getting brown. Turn over and bake about 10 minutes longer, watching so that they don’t get too dark. Set aside.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the ricotta, egg, cheese, scallions, garlic, nutmeg, a bit of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Lay the eggplant slices out on a work surface and place a generous tablespoon of the ricotta filling at the base of each slice. Roll the eggplant up around the filling to form a neat roll and set seam side down on the work surface.
Lightly oil a baking dish just large enough to hold the roll-ups. Pour most of the marinara sauce into the dish. Nestle the rolls, seam side down, in the sauce. Spoon the remaining sauce down the middle of the roll-ups. Sprinkle with a little more parmesan cheese.
Bake until the ricotta cheese starts to melt out of the rolls and the sauce is bubbly, about 15 minutes. Drizzle with a little olive oil, top with parsley and serve. Makes about 4 servings.
Per serving: 270 calories (38 percent from fat) 11.8g fat, (6.1g sat fat, 2.9g mono fat), 14g protein, 29g carbohydrates, 10.2g fiber, 516mg sodium
Source: Adapted from “Molto Italiano” by Mario Batali.