A fresh approach to ricotta

July 13, 2015

Ricotta Cannoli dessert by Marlene Parrish.

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.


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.



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For fact-checkers, know that ricotta means "twice cooked" in Italian. There, it’s made from the whey left when making mozzarella. Since we’re making it from scratch, our recipe is kind of a "faux ricotta." Delicious, all the same. Use fresh milk, cream and freshly squeezed lemon juice. The recipe doubles easily, but best to make a smaller amount the first time. Find cheesecloth in most hardware and grocery stores; it is necessary to keep small curds from escaping through the holes in the colander.

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 and a half cups.

— Adapted from Fine Cooking


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This is a quick and easy weekday supper. Because I cook for two, I saute half the gnocchi and freeze the rest. You can also saute the gnocchi and serve them with a simple tomato sauce. If you make a batch of caramelized onions in advance, you can almost pretend they are pierogies, but with a subtle and more complex flavor.

For the gnocchi:

3/4 cup flour, plus additional for dusting

1/4 cup (3 ounces) parmesan cheese, freshly grated

Zest of 1 lemon, grated

1 cup (8 ounces) whole milk ricotta cheese, drained

1 large egg

Pinch salt

For the sauce:

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 shallot, thinly sliced (about 1/4 cup)

12 to 18 sage leaves

1 garlic clove, thinly sliced

Juice of 1 lemon

2 tablespoons water

1/3 cup (about 2 1/2 ounces) Parmesan cheese, freshly grated

2 tablespoons parsley leaves, chopped

Chopped hazelnuts, optional

Combine flour, parmesan cheese and lemon zest in bowl. In another bowl, mix ricotta cheese, egg and salt. Add to the flour mixture and stir until the dough just comes together. Do not overwork or the dough can toughen.

Scrape the dough onto a well-floured work surface. Divide the dough into 4 sections. Using your hands, lightly roll each piece into a 12-inch rope. Cut each rope into 1/2-inch pieces. Place pieces on 2 floured paper plates and refrigerate for 30 minutes or up to two hours to rest.

Heat butter over medium-high heat in a saute pan large enough to accommodate all gnocchi without crowding, but not so wide that the sauce evaporates. When butter foams, add gnocchi and cook, until light brown on all sides, about, 5-6 minutes. Use a spoon and a chopstick to flip the gnocchi.

When gnocchi are almost cooked, lower the heat to medium and add shallot and sage leaves; cook briefly, to release flavors, then add garlic, lemon juice and water. Cook briefly, allowing sauce to thicken a bit. Add parmesan cheese and chopped parsley. Toss to coat the gnocchi.

Spoon gnocchi and sauce into shallow bowls, top with a sprinkling of hazelnuts and serve right away.

Makes about 40 pieces.

— Chef Michael Symon


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If you are pressed for time or feeling lazy, mix in the eggs without separating them; the pancakes will be delicious, just not quite as fluffy. One half recipe serves two nicely when paired with a side of Canadian bacon, grilled right along with the 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

Blueberries, optional

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.

— "The Minimalist" by Mark Bittman


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If you buy the shells, you can have "homemade" cannoli any day you like. Drain the ricotta in a strainer set over a bowl for at least a half hour before making the filling. You can sweeten and spice to taste.

2 cups whole-milk ricotta, well-drained

3/4 cup confectioner’s sugar, or to taste

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

Zest of a small lemon

Pinch fine salt

1/4 cup heavy cream, whipped fairly stiff

Mini-chocolate chips, about 1/3 cup, divided

Powdered sugar for dusting

6 large or 12 small cannoli shells

For the filling: in a medium bowl, whisk the ricotta until smooth. Sift in the confectioner’s sugar and spices; add the lemon zest and salt. In a separate bowl, whip the cream until fairly stiff. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the cream into the ricotta mixture. Stir in half the chocolate chips. Refrigerate for at least 1/2 hour.

To fill the cannoli: just before serving, use a pastry (or plastic) bag without a tip to pipe the ricotta into the cannoli shells. Fill them from both ends so the cream runs through the whole shell. Dust with a sifting of powdered sugar and dip ends into remaining chocolate chips.

Makes 6 large or 12 small cannoli.

— Marlene Parrish


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This oven-to-table dish is pure comfort food, and you can make it ahead and bake just before serving. Serve with good bread and a salad.

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

Preheat the 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.

— Adapted from "Molto Italiano" by Mario Batali



By Marlene Parrish

— 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. Try a sweet spread: Stir a little orange zest into a portion of ricotta, barely dampen with a few drops of heavy cream and spread onto toasted raisin-walnut bread. You get the idea.

— On sundaes: Top a cold scoop of ricotta with slightly crushed ripe strawberries and a drizzle of honey. Blackberries and a sprinkle of brown sugar are almost as good. Or ricotta with any seasonal fruit and honey is good and simple.

— In pancakes: Pancakes can be so rich and fluffy when ricotta is added to beaten egg whites. Serve with good bacon for breakfast or supper.

— 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. All you need is a salad on the side.

— In eggplant Involtini: High protein and made without gluten, this casserole of roll-ups is easy to make and a winner with kids, too. Prep it ahead, and heat it up when the gang’s all here.

— On pizza: Use it as a base instead of tomato sauce; spread the cheese right on the round of raw pizza dough and add savory toppings. Or, instead of spreading, drop the ricotta by spoonfuls on the top of the pizza before baking.

— In cannoli: Ever wonder why almost all cannoli shells look alike? That’s because very few bakeries and home cooks make them from scratch. They are the devil to pull together; there’s the dough, the stretching, the rolling around metal forms, the hot oil, the frying, the mess. (I did it once, never again.) You can buy a large quantity of pre-made shells online, or buy just as many or few as you need from your bakery (who, I bet, bought them wholesale).

The filling, however, is a snap to make. Add sweetening and spices to well-drained ricotta, pipe the filling into the shell right before serving, dip the ends in mini-chocolate chips and that’s it. To pipe, put the filling into a plastic bag, squish the mass into a corner and snip off bit of the corner. I prefer to make the dessert using small cannoli shells. The big ones are overkill. Or over calorie, anyway.

Filling and shells never seem to come out even. Since cannoli is always about the crunch, you can lose the shape if you keep the texture. Sandwich the filling between two waffle or other cookies, or between pizzelles.



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