Homemade ricotta can be perfect for Shavuos


The holiday of Shavout falls this year on Friday, May 29, exactly 7 weeks (49 days) from the second night of Passover. In addition to commemorating the day the Jews received the Torah on Mount Sinai, Shavout celebrates the first fruit and grain harvest of the growing season in Israel.

It is traditional to include some of these fruits and grains in the Shavout meal, and it is customary to serve a dairy meal. In thinking of different variations on traditional dishes for the holiday, I recalled a lovely baked ricotta that my husband, Mike, and I enjoyed at a family-run trattoria located in an alley off of Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere, a charming old neighborhood in Rome.

That ricotta cheese was served as a spread for a crusty loaf of bread. The soft, creamy cheese was delicately spiced with fresh rosemary and flecks of roasted garlic. Topped with coarsely ground black pepper, the fresh taste of the cheese with its subtle milky flavor made that culinary experience so memorable.

Ricotta, which means “re-cooked” in Italian, originated in Sicily. It is one of those foods where fresh makes all the difference.

Interestingly, ricotta is not actually a cheese. Traditionally it is made from whey, a by-product of cheese-making. Food historians surmise that Sicilian dairy farmers, not wanting to waste any part of the fresh milk, took the whey and cooked it with citric acid to create cheese curds. The curds were strained to remove some of their moisture, which left the soft creamy cheese-like product known as ricotta.

And, as I explain below, this simple product, despite its humble origins and the ease with which you can create a fresh batch in your own kitchen, can be a versatile and delicious component of many dishes year round and especially on Shavout. Because our milk comes pasteurized, we are able to make fresh ricotta in our own kitchens using a simple 3-step process. The recipe below takes less than less than 30 minutes of active preparation.

As with most anything homemade, the key to superior ricotta depends on the quality of the ingredients. Very fresh whole milk and cream, preferably organic, will create the best ricotta. And, because there are no preservatives in the recipe, homemade ricotta should be used within 2-3 days for maximum flavor.

For those who aren’t in the mood to create their own ricotta, kosher fresh ricotta can be purchased at select Schnucks markets under the Mozzarella Fresca brand or hand-dipped on the Hill at Viviano’s and DiGregorio’s Italian markets, and at both Whole Foods locations in Brentwood and Chesterfield. Fresh ricotta may be used the same way you would use the preserved product.

To create a luscious filling for blintzes or kreplach for your Shavout meal, combine 3/4 of a cup of ricotta with an equal amount of cream cheese, a teaspoon or two of sugar, a pinch of salt, an egg, and some grated lemon or orange zest.

To make an ordinary kugel extraordinary, add 2 1/2 cups of fresh ricotta and a 1/2 cup sour cream to an 8-ounce bag of cooked wide egg noodles along with your melted butter, eggs, sugar, salt, golden raisins, and cinnamon to taste. Bake as you would a standard kugel.

Of course, fresh ricotta can also be used to make lasagna, cheesecake, and to fill cannoli. But that’s just the beginning. Mixed in a food processor with some gorgonzola cheese, garlic, chopped parsley and salt and pepper, fresh ricotta serves as the base of a tasty puree to dollop on boiled or baked potatoes or on a crusty slice of bread.

By pairing ricotta with some of the glorious fresh fruits and vegetables now available at local farmer’s markets you can create delicious meals in almost no time at all. Consider topping your pizza dough with spoonfuls of lightly salted ricotta, caramelized Vidalia onions, fresh thyme, fine sea salt, and a grind or two of fresh black pepper.

For a main course, boil some pasta, drain it, and immediately toss it with fresh ricotta and a couple of big handfuls of fresh spinach or arugula. Sprinkle the pasta with freshly grated Parmesan and season it with salt and fresh ground black pepper. Along with a salad and a good loaf of bread, you will have a magnificent meal.

For dessert, halve some peaches, brush them with melted butter, and sprinkle them lightly with brown sugar. Set the peaches, cut side up, under the broiler or on the grill and cook until just caramelized, 5-8 minutes. Place the peaches in a dessert bowl and top with some fresh ricotta that has been mixed with good honey. Garnish with toasted, chopped walnuts or pistachios and, voila, you have an elegant dessert.

Fresh ricotta is a great way to enhance your Shavout meal, and it can be a delicious addition to your cooking repertoire year-round. With some culinary creativity and a passion for good, fresh food, the possibilities are endless. Hag Sameach.

Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five and grandmother of one. A cooking instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is currently working on a project to preserve the stories and recipes of heritage cooks. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at [email protected]

Fresh Ricotta Cheese

2 quarts whole milk

1 cup heavy cream

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Cheesecloth (Available at most

grocery stores.)

Line a colander with a double layer of cheesecloth and place it in the sink.

Place the milk, cream, and salt in a six-quart pot. Bring to a boil over moderate heat, stirring to avoid from scorching the pot. Once the mixture has come to a boil, add lemon juice, reduce heat, and simmer for two to three minutes, or until mixture curdles.

Slowly pour the curdled mixture into the prepared colander and allow it to drain in the sink for one hour.

The ricotta may be used immediately or placed in a plastic or glass container, covered, and refrigerated for later use.

Blueberry Ricotta

Coffee Cake

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2 cup oat bran

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons packed light brown sugar, divided

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup fresh ricotta cheese

1/2 cup plain, fat-free yogurt

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1/2 stick unsalted butter, melted

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest

1/2 cup fresh blueberries

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter an 8×8-inch baking pan.

In a large bowl, whisk together flour, oat bran,

1/2 -cup brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the cheese, yogurt, eggs, melted butter, vanilla and lemon zest. Stir in blueberries. Using a wooden spoon, gently fold this mixture into sifted dry ingredients.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and sprinkle with remaining 2 tablespoons brown sugar.

Bake for about 40 minutes, or until just firm to the touch.

Place on a cooling rack and let cool for at least 20 minutes before slicing.

Makes 6 servings.

Recipe adapted from Wisconsin Cheese: A Cookbook and Guide To The Cheeses of Wisconsin by Martin Hintz and Pam Percy.