One of the worst feelings from a cook’s standpoint is the realization that you’re missing an ingredient you were sure you had. It’s happened to us all – you go to prepare a mise en place and discover you left eggs off your shopping list, or could have sworn you had celery left over from making stock, but were mistaken. In our house, it’s usually lemons. My husband makes great iced tea, heavy on the lemons, and is notorious for using the last three or four lemons in the refrigerator in the process. At these times, I envy my brother and his wife, who live in Los Angeles and have a giant, ever-bearing lemon tree right outside the kitchen window. I can’t say I normally envy anyone who lives in Los Angeles, but I make exceptions.
Ricotta used to be the great missing ingredient. In June, when the courgette plants were putting out dozens of blossoms a week, we’d come home from work every day eager to stuff them with ricotta, only to remember that we had none. Summer peaches from the farmstand called for a squeeze of lemon, a shred of mint, and a spoonful of ricotta, except we almost always had to leave off the ricotta. In winter, gnocchi invariably were made with potato, not ricotta. One day, I realized that we were depriving ourselves unnecessarily. With a quart or two of milk from the 7-11 next door and a little vinegar, we could have fresh ricotta in less than half an hour.
Soft, mildly tangy, and sweet, true ricotta is one of the ultimate examples of frugal cuisine. During cheesemaking, an enzymatic or chemical coagulant such as rennet combines with casein and other milk proteins to form curds. The remaining liquid, called whey, is drained off, and the curds are pressed to make cheese or used immediately as fresh cheese. Although the curds contain most of the milk’s proteins and fats, some remain in the whey, and to extract these, Italian cheesemakers make ricotta. Ricotta means “re-cooked,” and ricotta represents the second use of the milk – a use for the whey that separates from the curds. Traditionally, the whey would be left to ferment and become acidic, and then heated. The acid and heat together cause the protein strands in the whey to unravel and link together, forming clumps or curds. Once again, the liquid is drained off, and the remaining soft white curd – ricotta – is used fresh or salted and pressed to make a firm cheese – ricotta salata – suitable for crumbling or grating.
Because whey contains relatively little milk protein, true ricotta-making is a low yield process. In the United States, most of the whey from the cheesemaking process is dehydrated and used in food processing to add certain milk proteins to baked goods and other products, in animal feed, and in dietary supplements. For this reason, consumer demand for ricotta far exceeds the amount of whey available for ricotta-making. Americans consume about 13 ounces of ricotta per capita per year, and although that might not seem like much, it’s about 250 million pounds for the United States as a whole. Production of this quantity of ricotta would require at least 2 billion gallons (about 8 billion liters) of whey. So supermarket-brand “ricotta” generally is made entirely from milk, or a combination of milk and whey, and is not as much a frugal product as it is a creamy, delicious one. Rather than acidifying the milk through fermentation, most ricotta is made with citric acid or distilled white vinegar, which – in addition to being much faster and safer than overnight fermentation – lends a clean-tasting mild sourness to the cheese. Milk plus vinegar? You can make it at home.
Ricotta offers some of the same qualities as the fresh cheeses it resembles, such as the Indian classic paneer, the Mexican queso fresco, and farmer’s cheese. Because acid-coagulated cheeses comprise firm clumps of tightly bound milk protein, they do not melt when heated but just dry out. Have you ever tried to melt paneer or ricotta? You can’t. They may shed water, leaving behind an even drier curd, but they won’t melt, so don’t try. When cooking with ricotta (as in a squash blossom filling, or a ricotta pie), keep it moist by combining the ricotta with beaten egg so the egg proteins bind with the liquid in the ricotta to form something almost akin to a custard that holds the ricotta in place. Or dollop it on top of pizza (see recipe below), and bake just long enough to warm it through. Take advantage of its mild richness in gnocchi or cavatelli (also see below). In summer, don’t bother cooking it at all – fresh ricotta makes the perfect addition to a salad of peaches, zucchini, raw beets, and other vegetables. Lemon or lime zest and a pinch of salt bring out its sweet qualities.
You can try making this with sheep’s milk, if you can find it. Citric acid is typical of Italian ricotta production, but can be slightly more difficult to find in the United States than vinegar. If you’d like to try the citric acid method, look in the kosher foods section of the supermarket for “sour salt.”
2 quarts (1.9 liters) milk, preferably not ultra-pasteurized
4 tbsp distilled white vinegar OR 1/2 tsp citric acid (sour salt)
½ tsp kosher salt
You also will need a thermometer accurate under 200F/93C; a colander; and butter muslin, cheesecloth, or paper towels.
Line your colander with paper towels, cheesecloth (a double or triple thickness), or butter muslin.
Combine the milk, salt, and vinegar or citric acid in a clean saucepot. Clip the thermometer on the side of the pot.
Heat slowly to at least 165F/74C but not more than 180F/82C. Don’t walk away – once milk starts to heat, it can become too hot quickly. Stir gently but often with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon to prevent milk solids from sticking to the bottom of the pan and burning.
As the temperature increases, curds will begin to form. At first these will seem just like grainy white bits, but eventually, as nearly all the protein clumps, the curds will separate from the whey, leaving behind a fairly clear, slightly greenish-yellow fluid. Don’t worry if you don’t notice curds below 165F – once it starts to curd, it curds quickly. During this time, as you wait for the milk to curdle, keep the temperature stable – don’t let it keep increasing above 180F. Reduce heat if necessary. Once the curds and whey have separated, turn off the heat, take the pan off the heat, and allow to sit for about 5-10 minutes to let the curds come together. Don’t stir too vigorously.
Using a skimmer or a slotted spoon, gently scoop off the curds. Spoon into the lined colander. Leave the whey behind. If you like, you can drink it (but it will be quite sour) – that greenish-yellow cast is the essential vitamin riboflavin. Don’t try to use it again to make true ricotta – it won’t work.
Leave the ricotta to drain. You should have about 2 cups (just under a pound). After about 20-30 minutes, the curds will be thick but soft and creamy. If you want to use the ricotta for a baked good, or in gnocchi, let it drain overnight. In such cases, I recommend changing the lining in the colander and, for the driest possible ricotta, weighting the towel- or cheesecloth-wrapped ricotta with a heavy can to press down on the solids.
Note: If you have access to true whey from cheesemaking, you can use it to make ricotta by this method. Expect a far lower yield (generally about 1/2 cup of cheese per gallon of whey).
Cavatelli or gnocchi
As with any other gnocchi, the key to light ricotta dumplings is to work in as little flour as possible. To accomplish this, the ricotta should be barely moist and a little crumbly by the time you incorporate the other ingredients, or you will wind up using a lot of flour. Eggs bind together the ricotta and flour. Precise measurements will get you in trouble here – you should rely on feel and appearance to guide you.
“00” flour is low protein and, accordingly, develops less gluten upon kneading. If you can find it, use it. Otherwise, all-purpose flour is fine.
16 ounces ricotta (about 2 1/2 cups)
1 tbsp kosher or sea salt
1 egg and 1 egg yolk, lightly beaten
roughly 1 c “00” flour, or all-purpose, more or less
Combine the ricotta and salt and place in a cheesecloth-lined strainer. Twist the cheesecloth to cover the ricotta. Place a weight such as a heavy can, on top and refrigerate, covered, for up to two days. Discard the liquid.
Set water to boil.
Turn the ricotta into a clean bowl and add the olive oil and eggs. Combine well. Spread the flour in an even pile on a clean wooden board and place the ricotta mixture in the center of the flour. Pile half the flour from the sides onto the top of the ricotta and, using a bench scraper, cut the flour in (as one would for biscuits), scraping from beneath the ricotta and bringing it to the top, and repeating. The dough will come together but will be sticky. Sprinkle in a little more flour and knead lightly.
When you reach the point that the dough holds together and is no longer sticky or tacky, divide it into four pieces and roll each out into a long log about 3/4″ in diameter. The more quickly you roll and the less pressure you apply, the easier this will be. Using the bench scraper, cut each roll into 1/2″ pieces.
To form cavatelli, roll each gnoccho toward you on a lightly floured cutting board with your index and middle fingertips, pressing down lightly as you roll. Alternatively, roll using the tines of a fork, pressing down slightly as you reach the tip of the tines.
Cook the gnocchi or cavatelli immediately in simmering salted water. Once they float, remove with a slotted spoon. Sauce as desired – tomato sauce with cheese, meat ragù, and sage brown butter are among the many excellent choices. To freeze uncooked excess gnocchi, spread in a single layer on a sheet pan (preferably lined with a silpat). Freeze until solid and then scoop into a plastic bag.
For sage brown butter:
1/2 c plus several additional tablespoons unsalted butter
24 sage leaves
juice of 1/4 lemon
Heat 1/2 c unsalted butter in a small saucepan; when foamy, add sage leaves and fry until crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon and continue cooking butter until nutty and deep golden brown; add a squeeze of lemon and pinch of sea salt. Drizzle the brown butter over the gnocchi and garnish with fried sage and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Optional: To brown the gnocchi, place a skillet over medium heat and add a small knob of butter; when brown and bubbling, add gnocchi to the pan and fry, turning once when golden.
Flatbread, ricotta, red onion confit
Makes 2 14-inch flatbreads:
Basic dough for flatbread [adapted from Rose Levy Berenbaum, The Bread Bible]
1/2 lb all-purpose flour
1 tsp instant yeast
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp kosher salt
2/3 c water 90F
1 tbsp olive oil
cornmeal, as needed
Combine all the dry ingredients except the salt in a bowl, whisking well. Add the salt and whisk well. Form a well and add the water. Stir until just combined – the dough will be ragged and floury. Form a rough ball.
Place the olive oil in a larger bowl. Add the dough and coat well. Cover tightly and rise for about 90 mins in a proofing box or from 8-48 hours in the refrigerator. If refrigerated, remove the dough and rest for an hour at room temperature before proceeding.
600F oven or as close as possible. Preheat with a pizza stone or unglazed terracotta tiles.
Punch down the dough and divide into six balls. Stretch each ball into a flat disk. Allow to rest, covered, for about 30 minutes.
Sprinkle pizza peel with cornmeal and place crust on peel. Load onto baking stone or tiles. Parbake the crust in the heated oven for about 3-4 minutes until just firm but not golden. Remove and cool slightly. Top as follows.
For the topping:
1/4 lb pancetta or unsmoked bacon, thinly sliced [the photo below depicts house-made unsmoked bacon]
1/4 lb fresh ricotta
1 lb red onions (2 large), peeled and sliced thinly pole to pole
salt and pepper
handful flat leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
Place a large saute pan over medium heat. When hot, add the pancetta or bacon slices and cook until completely cooked through but not deeply browned. Remove to a rack or paper towels to drain. Note: you can make this a vegetarian flatbread by leaving off the bacon/pancetta; just increase the amount of olive oil in the next step.
Add 1 tbsp olive oil if necessary and the onions to the pan. Season lightly with salt. Reduce the heat slightly and stir the onions to coat well with oil. Allow to cook undisturbed until onions begin to color, about 20 minutes. Stir the onions and continue cooking until onions are deep golden brown. Set aside.
Brush the parbaked crust with olive oil and season with pepper. Arrange an thin layer of onions over all. Distribute pancetta slices and dollops of ricotta cheese over onions. Bake for 5 minutes until crust is golden.
Garnish with chopped parsley and sea salt. Slice and serve.