Imade myself a slice of thick toast, its crumb chewy, its crust as black as soot, then spread the surface with a snowy mound of ricotta and pieces of jelly-fleshed apricot. This treat never quite made it to the table and I ate it while standing at the kitchen counter. Then, a few minutes later, a second piece of bread, this time untoasted with a swirl of the ricotta, its crest pushed down into a hollow deep enough to hold a pool of olive oil. Unmediated, almost spontaneous. Eaten out of pure greed after coming home with a fresh loaf and white cheese as soft as cream.
Ricotta barely makes it as a cheese. Traditionally made from the whey left behind after the curds that will become cheese are removed and start their journey to the maturing room, this is the lightest, gentlest-tasting dairy product, next to milk. It has no body to speak of, and can be spread like whipped cream. I like it with strawberries. You can make ricotta al caffe, the famous desert with ricotta and espresso, or use it in a cheesecake to lighten the mixture of eggs, mascarpone or cream cheese.
I like it folded into whipped cream as a filling for a sponge cake to be eaten for lunch with raspberries, though it is probably best known as a stuffing, with tiny nibs of candied peel and shards of dark chocolate, in a crisp, cigar-shaped cannoli. If you dust the finished pastry with icing sugar rather than trying to sweeten the ricotta itself, the filling is less likely to weep.
For lunch the other day, I brought a dish of baked ricotta to the table, the cheese set into a firm soufflé with eggs and thyme. We piled it on to our plates with roasted tomatoes and spooned over the basil-scented juices. Slicing it like a cake I ate the leftovers the next day, with a dollop of tomato chutney.
Salted ricotta, where the fresh curds are drained, salted and pressed, has been the most useful addition to my fridge this summer. The piquant logs of cheese have been crumbled into bowls of raw, roughly chopped peas, or cooked and skinned broad beans, or broken into tiny, gravel-sized nuggets and tossed with basil leaves and olive oil as a dressing for green-shouldered tomatoes. Add a squeeze of lemon and you have a vibrant dressing for the heart of a lettuce or raw shredded cabbage, or you could fold it through chunks of chilled watermelon.
It is fair to say it works better as a seasoning than as a principal ingredient and yet many times this summer I found myself breaking off a chalky lump and wolfing it as I might a piece of feta. Another of my little standing-at-the-kitchen-counter pleasures.
Baked ricotta with thyme
This is one of those recipes that works both hot and cold, though isn’t at its best served straight from the fridge. Feel free to add a pinch of dried chilli flakes or a little dried mint. I haven’t added salt to the mix but you may wish to, depending on the age of your parmesan. The older, firmer cheeses may well be salty enough.
thyme leaves 1 tbsp
parmesan 95g, grated
Set the oven at 200C/gas mark 6. Transfer the ricotta to a mixing bowl and lightly mash it with a wooden spoon.
Break the eggs into a bowl, beat well with a fork, then fold into the ricotta with finely ground black pepper. Roughly chop the thyme leaves then mix with all but 2 tbsp of the parmesan.
Fold the thyme and parmesan into the ricotta then spoon into an oven dish. Smooth the surface then scatter the reserved grated cheese over the top.
Place the dish in the oven and bake for 30-35 minutes until the ricotta has risen and the crust is golden brown. Serve immediately with the tomatoes below.
Baked tomatoes with basil
Made with good, ripe tomatoes, fruity olive oil and big, peppery basil leaves, this dish can stand up as a light lunch, served with hunks of sourdough to soak up the juices. You could tuck a few olives among the cherry tomatoes and basil leaves, or a few fillets of anchovy.
tomatoes 4, large (total weight 800g)
cherry tomatoes 10
basil 12 large leaves
olive oil 8 tbsp
Slice the large tomatoes in half, then scoop out the cores and seeds. Place cut side up, in a baking dish. Cut the cherry tomatoes in half and push into the hollows with the basil leaves, and season with pepper and salt. Fill each tomato almost to the top with olive oil then bake for 35-40 minutes until on the verge of collapse. Serve with the baked ricotta, spooning tomato juices over as you go.
Peas, pea shoots, salted ricotta
Salted ricotta has slowly become one of my go-to ingredients. I appreciate its ability – even a couple of tablespoons grated over warm vegetables – to bring things to life.
shelled peas 250g
parsley a few sprigs
tomatoes 150g, small
pea shoots 25g
salted ricotta 4 tbsp
olive oil for dressing
Bring a saucepan of water to the boil, salt it lightly then add the peas and cook for 4 or 5 minutes. Drain, then plunge the peas into a large bowl of iced water.
Chop the larger parlsey leaves, keep the smaller ones whole and place in a serving bowl with the drained peas, followed by the washed and dried pea shoots.
Halve the tomatoes, crumble the ricotta and incorporate into the salad. Dress with a little olive oil, gently turning the ingredients until lightly coated.