This is the last post in a four-part series of cheese posts. The first was about making mozzarella cheese, and the second was about Orb Weaver Farm in New Haven, and the third was about Twig Farm in West Cornwall.
Sometimes authenticity and simplicity just don't mix.
Real ricotta cheese is a byproduct of cheesemaking. Ricotta, in Italian, means re-cooked, which is what happens to the whey in order to make ricotta. In the traditional process, after the cheese curds have been scooped from the murky whey (to be used for mozzarella or any other type of rennet-based cheese), the whey is reheated to draw out the leftover solids, which are then drained to form a creamy, sweet cheese. The process takes time, patience and a whole lot of milk.
For me, that kind of ricotta is inseparable from memory. Growing up, the red, white and green ricotta containers were ubiquitous in my grandparents' big kitchen. They were the earliest signs of ravioli day, the only day when my grandfather was in charge of the kitchen.
My Irish grandmother learned Italian cooking years ago from her mother-in-law, and to this day that is what she cooks. But ravioli has always been Grandpa's arena. Enter the Suozzo kitchen on any holiday, and you'll find the pasta maker cranking, towels on the floor with rows and rows of pillowy ravioli, many hands spooning filling into strips of dough, and water bubbling in the big pasta pot.
It's not just any ravioli that we make. We make ravioli alla albanese — Albanian-style ravioli. We're from Barile, a town in the central-southern part of Italy, but the wave of Albanians who came down from the north to settle the region hundreds of years back brought their dialect and their culture — includng food — to the tiny hill town.
Ravioli alla albanese is unusual, nothing you'd find in most Italian restaurants. The filling (called gyuz) is ricotta, eggs, sugar, cinnamon and parsley, but the topping is tomato sauce and parmesan cheese. It's dessert and dinner in one, the sweet insides hidden by a salty exterior.
The deceptive nature of this ravioli is exactly why, come the holidays, the kids' table always got spaghetti and meatballs. It was a bit too unusual for most of us to appreciate. But these days, when most people in the country are sitting down to their holiday ham or turkey and cranberry sauce, most of the Suozzo kids are scarfing down their ravioli. As we've aged, we've all come to understand that when the ravioli hits your plate, there's nothing to do but eat it quickly so you can be first in line for seconds.
So, with an army of memories backing up my idea of "authentic" ricotta, I was reluctant to use any of the shortcuts that I found online — shortcuts that used vinegar or lemon juice to separate the curds, then drained them. I tried in vain to make ricotta the real way, ending up with a whey-filled coffee filter that just wouldn't drain the liquid off, and the realization that all of the solids that were in the whey would ultimately fill only about a teaspoon.
And hey, I just didn't have time to continually make mozzarella cheese so that I'd have enough whey to make ricotta. Not to mention the fact that every time I make mozzarella, I eat a good half of it right off the bat. The whole "best when fresh" thing? It gets me every time.
So for the sake of my stomach, I decided to make the sacrifice. Instead of going the lemon juice or vinegar route, I found a recipe using buttermilk. I combined the buttermilk and whole milk and heated them up. Sure enough, at around 175 degrees, the curds separated from the whey. They were less cohesive than mozzarella curds, but they began to hang together once I drained them in cheesecloth (er, an old t-shirt).
The result was a little drier and clumpier than the ricotta I'm used to — probably because I got distracted and let it drain a little too long. It tasted exactly like milk, with none of the intricacies of whey-based ricotta. But it was still fresh and creamy, and tasted quite good in a frittata with roasted red peppers. And it was really, really easy.
Ravioli alla albanese
(makes about 50)
•6 cups flour, sifted
•1 cup water
•3 lb ricotta
•1/2 cup sugar
Make dough either by hand or in a food processor. By hand, place flour on a flat surface. Make a well in the middle. Add eggs to the well and beat them. Gradually mix the flour into the eggs. Work with hands, adding small amounts of water at a time and continue kneading until the dough is soft and elastic. Cover and let rest for half an hour or so. Make the filling while you wait by combining all ingredients in a large bowl. The filling should be a bit sweet to the taste.
In a pasta machine, assuming you're using a crank type, knead a fist-sized piece of dough on the first setting, then fold the sheet of dough in half or into thirds and rerun on the first setting. Continue to do so until the dough is of even consistency and the edges are smooth (4-6 times). Then put the dough through the machine and progressively narrower settings being careful not to pull or stretch the sheet. Finally, run it through the next to last setting twice. The dough should be very thin at this point. It is ready for filling.
Lay the prepared pasta sheet on a clean, dry surface. Place heaping tablespoons of filling along the center (vertical) of the prepared pasta, spaced about 2-3 inches apart. If the dough is somewhat dry, dab water against its edges and in between the filling with your fingertips. Fold the upper edge of the dough towards the lower edge. Using your fingertips, seal the pocket by making indentations in the dough right around the filling. Cut between the ravioli and trim excess dough from sides and edges. Allow to dry on both sides for at least an hour per side. When the ravioli have dried, boil them gently for about 5 minutes, or until the edges are al dente. Remove to a colander or draining pan with a slotted spoon. Repeat with remaining ravioli. Serve with tomato sauce and meatballs.
Andrea does reporting and online media for the Addison Independent. You can find her on Twitter here or see other Table Talk entries here. Feel free to weigh in on this post or suggest future topics, either in the comments section below or at andreas [at] addisonindependent.com.