Category: Basic Recipes and Sauces
Difficulty: Easy but long cooking time
Ricotta is known as an albumin or serum cheese, a cheese made as a by-product of provolone cheese from the recooked whey, hence the name, ricotta, “re-cooked.”
Ricotta cheese, which is generally recognized as having been invented in Sicily, is known in the language of the island by another name: zammatàru, a word in Sicilian meaning “dairy farmer.” This word is derived from the Arabic zacāma, meaning “cow,” leading to the supposition that ricotta might have its origins in the Arab-Sicilian era.
The Greek antiquarian who wrote volumes on food, Athenaeus (c. A.D. 170-230 ), talks about “tender cheese” at a banquet. We don’t know if this is ricotta, but he also mentions a cheese from Sicily that was well known. Two of the earliest mentions or depictions of ricotta are related to Sicily. Professor Santi Correnti, chairman of the history department of the University of Catania and a preeminent historian of Sicily, told me that during the reign of the Sicilian king Frederick II, in the early thirteenth century, the king and his hunting party came across the hut of a dairy farmer making ricotta and, being ravenous, asked for some. Frederick pulled out his bread loaf, poured the hot ricotta and whey on top and advised his retinue that Cu’ non mancia ccu’ so’ cucchiaru lassa tutto ‘o zammataru (Those who don’t eat with a spoon will leave all their ricotta behind). The first depiction of the making of ricotta is an illustration in the medical treatise known as the Tacuinum sanitatis (medieval health handbook), the Latin translation of Ibn Butlān’s eleventh century Taqwīm al-sihha.
The first time you make your own ricotta you will feel an enormous sense of accomplishment and question whether you will ever buy store-made ricotta again. Ricotta in Sicily is very often made from sheep's milk. You can replace some of the whole cow's milk with goat milk if desired. Technically this recipe is not real ricotta, which is a by-product of cheese making using rennet, but the taste is identical. To make the Corsican brocciu, replace the whole cow’s milk with whole goat or ewe’s milk and replace the 2 cups of goat’s milk with goat’s or cow’s buttermilk.
[photo: Clifford A. Wright
Yield: Makes about 1 pound ricotta cheese
Preparation Time: 3 hours
4 quarts whole cow’s milk
24 drops liquid vegetable rennet (available at specialty markets, internet sources, and many Whole Foods supermarkets)
1. Pour the milk into a large nonreactive saucepan or stew pot and then add the liquid rennet. Turn the heat to very low and bring to 150 degrees F and up to 194 degrees but not more using a candy/deep fry thermometer (also called a quick-read thermometer), making sure it does not touch the bottom or sides of the saucepan or pot. This will take about 2 hours.
2. Line a strainer or small colander with cheesecloth. When curds form on the surface of the liquid, remove them with a skimmer or slotted spoon and transfer to the strainer.
3. Leave the curds to drain for 1 hour, then transfer them to a container and refrigerate. Fresh homemade ricotta will stay fresh for about 4 days in the refrigerator.