Love it or hate it, ricotta just may be the most versatile cheese found in pizzerias today. Not only is it used in pasta dishes, but it can also be found atop pizzas and in rich, delightful sauces and desserts.
It’s important to understand what ricotta comes from and how it’s made. Ricotta is Italian for "recooked" — it is made by "cooking" whey. It makes delicious lasagna, ravioli stuffing, gnocchi, cannoli, cheese-stuffed shells and even a great treat that both of my grandmothers used to make me called cheese blintzes (cheese-filled crepes). Naturally, I’d be a fool if I didn’t mention how great pizza is with dollops of ricotta baked on it.
Many of us who have been blessed to learn how to make our own homemade fresh mozzarella at the International Pizza Expo have learned that fresh milk has an enzyme added to it to separate the curds and whey. It’s that curd that we can buy to then make our own mozzarella. So, what about the whey? Well, it is then cooked to make ricotta.
Like types and styles of pizza crust and sauce, there are many different kinds of ricotta. There’s whole milk and part skim, with an obvious difference in the fat content. But there are also different textures you can find in ricotta cheese. Many ricottas can be a little bit grainy, and they are suitable for making lasagna, ravioli, manicotti or stuffed shells. Personally, I prefer a whipped, smooth ricotta cheese. It’s more versatile and has a much better mouth feel.
In order to use your ricotta cheese for both pasta dishes and desserts, it makes more sense to buy just one type. Ask your vendor to provide you with samples of the various ricottas they carry so that you can try them out for yourself.
For lasagna, manicotti, stuffed shells and ravioli, I like to season my ricotta with salt, pepper, garlic, and Italian seasonings. I call my lasagna “Four-Cheese Lasagna” and find it much easier to assemble with all the cheeses in the filling instead of layering each cheese as I’m making the lasagna. For that reason, I add Parmesan, diced or shredded mozzarella and provolone cheeses to my ricotta filling. I find it important to add a few eggs to this mixture to bind it together once it’s cooked.
There is superfine ricotta cheese available with very low moisture designed for use in desserts. This cheese is designed to hold powdered or confectionary sugar well without getting too moist and loose. Mixing three pounds of this ricotta with one pound of powdered sugar and a couple of tablespoons of Almond Extract makes a perfect cannoli filling. With a pastry bag, I fill my cannoli shells and then dip the ends in mini chocolate chips.
I even attempted Tiramisu with this smooth ricotta as a replacement for the traditional Mascarpone cheese — and it came out perfect. I like to make a big batch and freeze it. First, I whip four quarts of heavy cream. When it’s almost whipped all the way, I add two pounds of powdered sugar and three small boxes of instant white chocolate pudding powder mix (which acts as a stabilizer).
Next, I fold in six pounds of smooth ricotta. This completes my cream filling. Once that is ready, I brew a double-strength pot of coffee and sweeten it with 3 pounds of sugar. I line two full two-inch hotel pans with plastic wrap and assemble the tiramisu.
I start by lining each pan with ladyfinger cookies. I drizzle the sweet coffee mixture over the cookies. Next, I layer in some of the cream. I repeat the process until I have three layers of soaked cookies with three layers of the cream. This will fill two hotel pans. Then I freeze it all.
In order to get a clean cut on the tiramisu, pop it out of the pan while it’s still frozen and cut each yield into 28 squares. Wrap each piece individually and keep them frozen. Pull a few out per shift. Thaw them in the refrigerator. Serve each piece with a sprinkling of cocoa on top.
A Unique Twist
Gnocchi is a little dumpling that is usually made with potato. I find it so much easier to make with ricotta cheese, which yields a light dumpling. Simply add a few ingredients together to make a soft gnocchi dough. Here’s a recipe that’s quick and easy.
1 pound ricotta cheese
½ cup grated parmesan cheese
¾ cup flour
1 teaspoon salt
Mix the ingredients together to form a soft dough. If it’s too sticky, add a little more flour — a little at a time — until you can roll the dough out on the counter.
Roll it out into a rope form and cut even pieces. You can press them with your thumb, roll them over the back of a fork with your finger or roll them over a gnocchi board that puts lines on them. Boil them in salted water for about 4 to 5 minutes. Drain them and immediately toss them in your favorite sauce and serve.
There are virtually hundreds of sauce options. Garlic butter would be great, but if you really wanted to stick with a ricotta theme, you could mix some ricotta with marinara to make a tomato cream sauce. You can even make an untraditional Alfredo sauce by draining the gnocchi, tossing it with some melted garlic butter, a cup of ricotta, ½ cup of parmesan and ½ cup of cream.
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