Ricotta is not cheese; it is a by-product of the cheese making process and is as important to many regional Italian dishes as olive oil and tomatoes.
Ricotta is made from the whey of cow or sheep milk.
Think of whey as the leftovers from the cheese making process.
Re-cooking the milky whey with more milk produces ricotta, a word that means to be re-cooked.
When fresh, ricotta is delicate, mild in flavor and very perishable.
This is a very different product than pasteurized, commercially produced ricotta cheese, which for the most part is bland and can keep for a week under refrigeration.
I have yet to find a good brand and if you make your own, you will never even think of using the commercial type again.
Fresh ricotta is used in fillings for such classics as lasagne, ravioli, cannoli and cheesecake.
Salt it and let it age and it becomes ricotta salata, a hard and grate-able cheese perfect with tomato and eggplant based dishes.
Sicily makes classic ricotta salata from sheep’s milk. It is used to grate over a sublime country dish of tomatoes, basil, olive oil and eggplant and known as pasta alla Norma in honor of the Sicilian composer Vincenzo Bellini who wrote the opera, Norma.
There is also ricotta affumicata, a smoked ricotta from Puglia and Calabria that is good with tomatoes, eggplant and zucchini.
It is so easy to make your own ricotta cheese and there are several ways to do it.
Buy some rennet, which isan extract found in the stomach of cows, goats, and sheep.
The extract contains enzymes which when added to milk, will cause the milk to coagulate, forming the curds and whey.
Orjust use a simple acid like fresh squeezed lemon juice or white distilled vinegar. I prefer to use lemon juice.
Makes about 3 cups
2 quarts whole milk
1-cup heavy cream
¼ cup fresh lemon juice (Meyer lemons if possible) (need 2-3)
½ teaspoon salt
Rinse a large stainless steel soup pot in cold water.
Pour the milk into the pot. Add the cream and salt. Slowly bring the mixture to 200F on a candy thermometer. Do not let milk boil. Slowly stir in the lemon juice. At this point, do not stir anymore. Maintain the temperature and allow the curds to form.
Have ready a large fine mesh colander lined with several layers of damp cheesecloth over a large bowl.
Scoop the curds as they form with a slotted spoon into the cheesecloth-lined colander and allow the cheese to drain for at least 2 hours. Transfer the cheese to a container and refrigerate for up to three days.