Traditionally ricotta cheese is made from the whey of sheep’s milk cheese although it can be made of the leftover whey from the production of other cheeses as well using cows, goats or even buffalo milk as in the Campania and Puglia regions, where buffalo mozzarella is produced. The milk is heated until the curds and whey separate. The curds become the basis for a variety of cheeses. The released whey is reheated and transformed into a fresh, soft, moist cheese with a rich mouthfeel and milky flavor that is a favored ingredient in a variety of dishes, including desserts. Recooking the leftover liquids (whey) from the cheesemaking process gives ricotta its name; in Italian ricotta means “recooked”. Because it is made from whey, ricotta contains a lot of protein with essential amino acids and little fat.
The ricotta that is used most frequently—the carton you typically buy at almost every grocery store—is made from the milk of a cow. Cow’s milk ricotta is milder and has a more neutral taste than the other varieties. Ricotta di Pecora (sheep’s milk ricotta) has the characteristic sheep’s milk tang. The best tastes of the wild herbs and flowers the sheep graze on. Whip creamy fresh sheep’s milk ricotta with sea salt, black pepper, and herbs (fresh thyme and dried oregano), and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Spread on a toasted crostini and top with a fresh fig.
Authentic Italian style ricotta has a delicately sweet flavor and fluffy cloud-like texture. A good quality ricotta should be firm, not solid, moist with a texture of fine, delicate grains. There are some cheese-making factories that may include preservatives to maintain ricotta’s shelf life but ricotta is best fresh. If you’ve seen ricotta brands with an expiration date of over a month, that’s not good.
In Italy, ricotta is a whey cheese and is known as a latticino (dairy product) and because of this there is debate whether ricotta cheese is actually a “cheese.” Regardless of how you define it ricotta is a fabulous cheese whether you’re making a gooey lasagna, creamy cheesecake, cheese filled manicotti or a traditional Easter Pastiera, a Neapolitan Easter pie made with ricotta and rice.
- 4 cups whole milk
- 3/4 cup Arborio rice
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 1 lemon, zested
- 1 cups granulated sugar, divided
- unsalted butter, for pan
- 3 lbs fresh ricotta, drained through cheesecloth at least 2 hours
- 3 large eggs
- 3 large egg yolks, lightly beaten
- powdered sugar, for serving
- In a large sauce pan, bring the milk to a boil over medium high heat. Add the cinnamon, salt and vanilla extract. Stir in the rice. Reduce to a simmer, cover and cook until all the milk has been absorbed, about 30 minutes. Stir occasionally.
- Transfer to a large bowl and stir in the lemon zest and 1/2 cup sugar. Let cool completely, stirring occasionally.
- Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter and lightly flour an -8 inch springform pan.
- In a large bowl, combine the ricotta, whole eggs and egg yolks and remaining 1/2 cup sugar. Use a spatula to fold in the cooled rice mixture. Pour into the prepared pan. Place pan on a baking sheet in case of leakage while baking.
- Bake about 90 minutes, until golden. Cover with foil if starting to brown too much. Transfer pan to cooling rack.
- When the pastiera has cooled completely, run a knife around the edge to loosen the ring before removing it. Dust with powdered sugar before serving. Keep refrigerated.