Many people assume ricotta is a cheese, and in fact on the Web you will find recipes for home-made ricotta that start with whole milk, including one
that Grace Pilato kindly gave me permission to share. While good, they do not yield ricotta, however.
This is because ricotta is actually a cheese byproduct, made by reheating the whey that drains from the curds of freshly made cheese. The cheesemaker heats it to 70-75 degrees C (160-170 F) in a cauldron, and when tiny white flakes begin to rise to the surface raises the temperature to 80-85 C (175 - 185 F) to hasten their rise. Thus is made ricotta, which owes its name to its being ricotta,
or cooked again.
When the flakes stop rising the cheese maker sets the ricotta to drain in rush or plastic baskets for 12-14 hours, and it's ready.
One important thing to note is that the word Ricotta refers to a technique and says nothing about the whey used to make it. Most Italian ricotta is made from either ovine (sheep/goat) or cow's milk; ovine ricotta is more delicately flavored, but richer, while cow's milk ricotta is a little lighter. Buffalo milk ricotta is especially creamy, and can be used as a substitute for béchamel sauce.
You will find fresh ovine and cow's milk ricotta for sale in most Italian delicatessens (buffalo milk ricotta is more difficult to find). If it's really fresh it's very nice simply eaten with bread, a grind of pepper, and a pinch of salt
(or a dab of good, delicate honey if you prefer), and a light white wine. But it is also a very important ingredient, appearing in everything from antipasti through desserts. We'll begin with the former:
Arancini, fried rice balls , are classic Sicilian street food, and invariably filled. Here the filling is Ricotta based, with greens. Perfect if you're making arancini and have non-meat eaters in your party!
A quick, healthy pasta dish that will work well as a light meal, if served with a tossed salad. The recipe is from the Casentino mountains between Arezzo and Florence, and is very traditional.
This also contains potatoes (which the title overlooks) -- It's common practice to cook pasta and vegetables together in Italy, and here they are seasoned with a delicate ricotta sauce.
This isn't, strictly speaking, a ricotta recipe. But in some parts of the Gargano area in Puglia they like to season their orecchiette with meat ragu and a rich ricotta cream. So there is ricotta to enjoy!
One of the classic stuffed pastas, with a ricotta and greens filling. In Liguria they use wild greens, but they are excellent made with spinach too. And there's more: You can make them with the pasta shell, or simply make dumplings of the filling, which are called ravioli gnudi, naked ravioli, and are perhaps even tastier than ravioli with the pasta shells. Serve ravioli gnudi with tomato sauce and even those who hate spinach (as I did when I was little) will devour them, because they're so good.
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Ricotta is a common ingredient in stuffed pasta recipes, often in association with a green. Artusi remarks that Romagnans don't particularly care for greens, and gives this ricotta and Parmigiano cheese filling too.
The word gnocco means dumpling, and though potatoes are the most common base one can use other things. In Piacensa they use greens, ricotta, and Parmigiano.
Another recipe for ricotta gnocchi, with a delicate squash blossom sauce. It looks more difficult to make than it is, is elegant enough to serve company, and is very tasty.
Apulian stuffed pasta with a ricotta filling, traditionally served with a meat sauce.
Conchiglioni are large shell-shaped pasta, and ideally suited to being filled. In this case with peas and ricotta.