Discover the delights, pleasures of cheese

Published 11:59 pm Friday, January 9, 2009

Ricotta cheese is a wonderful cheese to use. It is actually easy to make and you do not have to be a rocket scientist to do it. Ricotta enhances a wide variety of dishes from a savory sun-dried tomato relish spread for garlic toasts, to baked penne with tomato sauce and sausage.

I decided I wanted to make some fresh ricotta and found the ingredients easy to find and the process pretty simple. This version is fluffier, creamier and sweeter than the store bought variety.

Creamy Ricotta

2 quarts whole milk, preferably organic

1 cup heavy cream, preferably organic

3 tablespoons white vinegar

½ teaspoon kosher salt

In a medium pot, warm the milk and cream over moderately high heat until the surface becomes foamy and steamy and an instant-read thermometer inserted in the milk registers 185 degrees; don’t let the milk boil. Remove the pot from the heat. Add the vinegar and stir gently for 30 seconds; the mixture will curdle almost immediately. Add the salt and stir for 30 seconds longer. Cover the pot with a clean towel and let stand at room temperature for two hours.

Line a large colander with several layers of cheesecloth, allowing several inches of overhang. Set the colander in a large bowl. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the curds to the colander. Carefully gather the corners of the cheesecloth and close with a rubber band. Let the ricotta stand for 30 minutes, gently pressing and squeezing the cheesecloth occasionally to drain off the whey. Transfer the ricotta to a bowl and use at once, or cover and refrigerate.

The fresh ricotta can be refrigerated up to four days.

Now you are ready to make some great recipes.

Baked Penne with Sausage and Creamy Ricotta

This is a hearty pasta dish with chunks of Italian sausage and mixed with a quick infused tomato sauce.

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 garlic cloves, smashed

1 pound hot or sweet Italian fennel sausage, casings removed

1 28-ounce can tomato puree

1 ½ cups water

1 ½ teaspoon sugar

1 bay leaf

¼ teaspoon ground fennel seed

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 pound penne

3 cups Creamy Ricotta (see above recipe)

½ pound fresh mozzarella, cut into ½-inch cubes

¼ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In a large saucepan, heat one tablespoon of the olive oil. Add the garlic and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until lightly browned, about a minute. Add the sausage and cook, breaking up the meat until browned, about eight minutes. Add the tomato puree, water, sugar, bay leaf and fennel. Season with salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Simmer over low heat until thickened, about 30 minutes. Remove the garlic, mash it to a paste, and stir it back into the sauce; discard the bay leaf.

Meanwhile, cook the penne in a large pot of salted boiling water until al dente. Drain the pasta and return it to the pot. Stir in the remaining two tablespoons of the oil. Using a slotted spoon, add the cooked sausage to the pasta, then add one cup of the tomato sauce and toss it to coat the penne.

Spoon the pasta into a 9×13 inch baking dish. Pour the remaining tomato sauce over the pasta and dollop large spoonfuls of the Creamy Ricotta on top. Gently fold some of the ricotta into the pasta; don’t over mix – you should have pockets of ricotta. Scatter the mozzarella on top and sprinkle the Parmigiano-Reggiano. Bake the pasta for about 45 minutes, or until bubbling and golden on top. Let rest for 20 minutes before serving.

The baked penne can be refrigerated, covered overnight. Rewarm before serving.

More ways to use fresh ricotta:

Drizzle fresh ricotta with olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, and serve with slices of toasted sourdough bread.

Stir in a few dollops into warm polenta or risotto just before serving.

Add to soft scrambled eggs with chopped chives and chervil.

Smear on bread and then layer with prosciutto, arugula and sun-dried tomatoes.

Scatter dried cranberries, figs and toasted hazelnuts over fresh ricotta, top with orange blossom honey for a not-too-sweet dessert.

I used fresh ricotta in a pasta recipe with green tomatoes. I just stirred the chopped green tomatoes into the cooked pasta and then added the ricotta and it was delicious.

Ricotta is used in desserts and I could not sign off without giving at least one dessert recipe.

Ricotta Soufflés with Blackberry Compote

(Makes 6)

1 cup plus 6 tablespoons sugar, divided

1 tablespoon cornstarch

2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon all purpose flour

4 large egg yolks

1 ½ teaspoon finely grated lemon peel

1 cup whole milk

1 cup fresh ricotta cheese

2 cups frozen blackberries, (about ½ pound)

¼ cup sweet vermouth

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

6 large egg whites

Whisk ¾ cup sugar, cornstarch, and flour in large bowl. Add egg yolks and lemon peel; whisk to blend.

Bring milk just to simmer in small saucepan over medium-high heat. Gradually whisk hot milk into yolk mixture. Return to same saucepan and bring to boil over medium heat, whisking constantly. Boil 1 minute, whisking constantly (pastry cream will be thick).

Spread pastry cream out to 1/3-inch thickness on small rimmed baking sheet. Cover completely with plastic wrap. Cool to room temperature. Transfer pastry cream to medium bowl. Whisk in ricotta. Cover and chill until cold, about 1 hour.

Bring blackberries, vermouth, lemon juice, and ¼ sugar to boil in small saucepan, crushing some berries and stirring to dissolve sugar. Reduce heat to medium-low; simmer until mixture thickens and measures 1 cup, about 8 minutes. Transfer blackberry compote to small bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and chill.

Butter six ½-cup ramekins; coat with sugar, tapping out any excess. Using electric mixer, beat egg whites in large bowl until soft peaks form. Gradually beat in remaining 6 tablespoons sugar; continue beating until stiff but not dry. Fold egg whites into ricotta mixture. Spoon batter into ramekins; smooth tops. Run thumb ¼ inch deep around inside of each soufflé dish to wipe clean.

Can be made four hours ahead. Cover and chill.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake soufflés until puffed and golden at edges, about 28 minutes (about 32 minutes if chilled). Serve immediately with blackberry compote.

If you want more information on ricotta, the January 2009 issue of Bon Appétit is a good source.

The November 2008 of Food and Wine also has more recipes for ricotta.