Fresh -- and refreshing -- ricotta cheese
When people ask me for some of my favorite fresh ideas for quick and easy light summer desserts, they might be surprised at first when I suggest that they make their own cheese. After all, at first thought, cheese is anything but light, and certainly not something you can prepare in next to no time.
That's when I add that the cheese I'm talking about is Italy's popular ricotta. It's name translating as "recooked," this soft, creamy-tasting cheese is traditionally made from the whey that's left over from the production of other cheeses. But you can also easily prepare a version of it by heating together some milk and a little cream along with some yogurt, the acidity of which will coagulate the dairy solids that, once excess liquid is drained off, form the fluffy, satisfying curds for which ricotta is prized.
I often like to eat chilled fresh ricotta for a simple summertime dessert. All you need to do is sweeten it a bit to your own taste, using a light sprinkling of sugar, a drizzle of honey, or even a touch of your artificial sweetener of choice. Then, I'll scatter a few berries or other fresh fruit on top and around the ricotta and, in moments, I'm ready to put on the table a beautiful, delicious, and satisfying end to a light, refreshing warm-weather lunch or dinner.
But that's just the beginning of what you can do with your own homemade ricotta (or, for that matter, with a good-quality ricotta you buy at a well-stocked supermarket or Italian deli).
So many classic Italian dishes include ricotta. You can combine it with beaten egg, seasonings, and other ingredients, such as chopped cooked mushrooms or spinach, to make a filling for fresh pasta like ravioli, the large pasta tubes called cannelloni, or as a layer in lasagna. Use a dollop to lighten or moisten meatloaf mixtures or burgers. Toss some ricotta with freshly cooked pasta, still dripping slightly after draining, and add some Parmesan, salt, and pepper. Or puree it in a food processor to make a dip or spread seasoned with fresh herbs or spices.
Naturally, as my simple instructions above for lightly sweetened ricotta with summer fruit suggest, it also makes a wonderful dessert ingredient, including its role as an essential part of the filled pastries called cannoli and in Italian cheesecakes. But I especially like adding ricotta to the light gelatin-thickened Italian treat called panna cotta (literally, "cooked cream"). As the second recipe I share with you shows, it helps create a dessert that tastes rich and satisfying even as it leaves you feeling light and refreshed.
Have fun making your own fresh ricotta and enjoying it in so many ways!
FRESH RICOTTA CHEESE
Makes about 1-1/2 cups
6 cups whole milk