“Nobody, that’s my name. Nobody — so my mother and father call me, all my friends.”
My love affair with ricotta started very late in my life, and for this I will never forgive myself. There are a few ingredients that I used to despise when I was a kid, and only as an “adult” (am I really an adult? oh, the horror) I started appreciating – well, ricotta is one of them – shame on me! I grew up surrounded by frolle, sfogliatelle, cannoli and cassate, and I never had them because I found them too rich. Only a couple of years before moving to the UK, I started enjoying these treats. Now sometimes I look at the fridge where I always have a little ricotta, on the “delicious ingredients” corner, and think how much drama I would bring as a kid every time there was ricotta in my dessert.
Truth is, not only ricotta is a delicious dairy product(it is not actually a cheese), but it has also thousands of years of history behind its creation and worldwide appreciation.
Ricotta literally means “re-cooked”, it is made with the hot whey of milk used for cheese making. The whey contains proteins that solidify under high heat. When the whey is heated again (and therefore re-cooked), the solid milk proteins are skimmed off to drain, making the ricotta we all know.
An Etruscan grave from the first millennium BC contained some cheese grating tools, proving that at those times a similar product was already being eaten by the aristocracy.
In ancient Egypt a product extremely similar to modern ricotta was very popular among the population, and has been introduced to the Greek merchants, who loved it and learnt how to make it. Ricotta was appreciated so much by the Greek population, that Homer references it in the Odyssey, when Odysseus meets Polyphemus. When Odysseus and his companions see the giant, he was working on some “curdled cheese” – so they start running away to get to the boat, but Odysseus stops to have some of the ricotta Polyphemus was making. I can’t judge him honestly, wise choice there.
There are other stories behind the creation of ricotta, for example in ancient Greece it was believed that Aristeo, son of Apollo, grew up among the nymphs, who taught him how to use milk, honey and olives. He discovered the process to make ricotta, and shared it with the mortals as a gift.
For several centuries, ricotta apparently disappears from the culinary tradition, and comes back only in the Middle Age, when Saint Francis starts teaching the farmers around Rome how to make it.
It is now a product used for savory and sweet recipes, especially in the south of Italy. Here is one of my favourite recipes, it is absolutely delicious and it is my redemption for all those years I refused to have ricotta desserts!
Lemon and ricotta crostata – 21cm tray diameter
Ingredients for the shell:
-Pinch of salt
For the filling:
-Semolina flour, 75g
-Grated lemon zest, 1
- Cut the cold butter in small dices
- Rub the flour and sugar against the butter, but just roughly, don’t let it melt with your body heat
- Add sugar and the egg, mix everything trying not to melt the butter too much
- When you have a smooth consistency, wrap the dough in cling film and leave it in the fridge for at least one hour
- In the meantime, prepare the filling: bring the water to boil and gradually add the semolina, whisking to avoid any lumps
6. Let it cool, and once cooled add the ricotta. Mix them with an electrical whisk
7. Add the sugar, the egg and the grated lemon zest
8. Preheat the oven to 180° fan assisted
9. Line your tray with grease-proof paper
10. Take the dough out of the fridge (keep the cling film), and flatten it with a rolling pin until it is 4-5mm wide
11. Put the dough on the lined tray – cut the excess, wrap it again in the cling film and put it in the fridge
12. Put the filling in the dough, spread it generously
13. Take the rest of the dough out of the fridge, flatten it again and cut as many stripes as you can
14. Place the stripes on top of the crostata, crossing each other
15. Cook for 25 minutes, it might need longer – it has to look golden