Homemade Ricotta for Easter
So many traditional Southern Italian Easter dishes use ricotta as a foundation, and these are some of the glories of the Italian kitchen. Pastiera, the sweet ricotta pie studded with wheat berries and perfumed with orange flower water is in my opinion a work of genius. My mother’s family made something similar using rice instead of the wheat, creating a kind of crustless, firm pudding that was cut into squares. Pizza rustica, the savory version of ricotta cake, stuffed with little chunks of provolone and salami, and ravioloni filled with ricotta and finished with butter and fresh sage are two other dishes that showed up on our Easter table when I was a kid.
If you’ve never made your own home-made ricotta, Easter is a great time for you to start. There are few things, culinarily speaking, that are easier and that produce such huge rewards for the cook. Nothing you can buy is comparable to your own home-made, still warm ricotta, drizzled with olive oil and sea salt, or with honey and a sprinkling of nutmeg, or folded into a bowl of al dente spaghetti, or used to make any of the elegant Easter dishes, such as pastiera, that I mentioned earlier.
Even though traditional ricotta is made by recooking whey leftover from cheese making, you can make a wonderful version at home using whole milk. It involves adding an acid, like lemon, to whole milk, and gently heating it until it curdles. You don’t need any fancy equipment; just a big pot and a piece of cheesecloth or a fine mesh strainer, and possibly a kitchen thermometer as a security blanket, if it’s your first time.
In my book The Flavors of Southern Italy I give a sort of standard recipe for homemade ricotta using lemon juice. Almost everyone I know makes it this way. The results are good but occasionally can be a little drier than I like. In the several years since I wrote that recipe, I’ve continued to experiment with ricotta making and have decided that adding buttermilk instead of lemon as the curdling agent gives a moister result. I’ve even gone ahead and added a little heavy cream, so the ricotta is extra rich and soft.
Homemade Ricotta for Easter
(Makes about 4 cups)
1 gallon whole milk
1 pint heavy cream (optional but recommended)
1 quart buttermilk
Put all the ingredients in a large, nonreactive pot (stainless steel or enamel both work well), and place it on a medium flame. Let it heat, uncovered, stirring once or twice, until little bubbles form on the surface. This will take about 10 minutes or so. Then let it bubble, without stirring, for about 5 minutes. You’ll see curds start to form and will notice the liquidy whey just starting to separate from the solids. The temperature should get up to 170 degrees (a kitchen thermometer is helpful the first few times, until you get the feel of it). Turn off the heat, and let the pot sit there, undisturbed, for 10 minutes (don’t be tempted to stir; it’ll break up the curds while they’re forming). You’ll now notice the faintly greenish whey separating more cleanly from the white curds. Gently pour the mix into a strainer lined with cheesecloth (or into a fine mesh strainer), scraping the bottom of the pan to loosen any stuck-on ricotta. Let drain until all the whey runs off but the cheese is still moist.
I love eating it still warm, but the ricotta will keep in the refrigerator for several days.
(Erica De Mane is a writer and chef. Visit her website: EricaDemane.com)
Image: “The Last supper by Leonardo Da Vinci, 1497.