If you have ever visited a supermarket or deli while on holiday in Italy, you will be well aware of the nation’s love affair with ricotta.
Half a dozen styles might be on sale, all slightly varying in strength of flavour from sweet to sharp, and just as crucially differing in texture, from smooth, creamy and dense to crumbly, even chalky. Being high in protein yet light makes ricotta perfect for summer dining.
A starting point in learning more about ricotta is crowning hot swirls of spaghetti in a spicy tomato sauce, laced with peppery basil, with the cool creaminess of ricotta, an easy dish still bursting with contrasts of temperature and texture.
Puglia is famous for drying ricotta in the oven to crumble over a dish of baked cherry tomatoes and peppers – also wonderful with anchovies. Laced with pepper, parmesan, spinach and capers, ricotta is famous as a meat replacement in dense and satisfying cannelloni or lasagne. I have been known to feature these on the menu on occasion.
Ricotta also loves summer fruits, which is why my mind turns to it now. Slivers of pickled peaches can be tossed into a salad with some scoops of chilled ricotta. Alternatively, keep those peaches fresh and juicy as they are: married with strawberries, they come to life in a ricotta cheesecake. Or replace the mundane digestive with punchy amaretti biscuits for texture and irresistible crunch, creating a distinctive summer dessert.
4-6 heads of little gem lettuce, depending on size
4 small heads of chicory
2 ripe peaches
8 slices of parma ham or a cured meat of your choice
1. Cut off the root at the base of each head of little gem and prise the leaves open and apart to give individual leaves, then do the same with the chicory. Trim or discard any brown or damaged leaves then mix the leaves together and set aside.
A summer salad of ricotta, peaches and parma ham
2. Slice into the peaches until you hit the stone. Cut around the stone and twist both halves of the peach, pulling them away from the stone. Slice the peach pieces into thin slivers then set aside in a small dish.
3. To serve: arrange the slices of ham in waves around the outside of four plates. Using two teaspoons, place three or four scoops of ricotta on each plate then place a mound of the mixed leaves in the middle. Add a few more scoops of ricotta to each plate then drizzle olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice over the leaves. Add a light sprinkling of sea salt and fresh ground black pepper then serve at once.
Ricotta and amaretti cheesecake
For the base
50-60g melted butter
1 sachet of gelatin powder (11g)
2 large egg yolks
60g caster sugar
275ml double cream
1. Set the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Crush the amaretti by placing them in a polythene bag then rolling them with a rolling pin. Tip them into a bowl and stir the butter into them, then press the mixture evenly and firmly on to the base of a lightly greased cake tin. Place the tin in the oven for 20 minutes then remove and leave to cool.
2. Zest the lemons using a microplane or a fine grater and set aside, then juice the lemons and measure 150ml of the juice. Place the juice in a small bowl, reserving the remainder, and sprinkle the gelatin over the surface. Heat a small saucepan containing about an inch or so of water then remove from the heat. Set the bowl of lemon juice in the hot water so it warms the juice and leave until the gelatin has dissolved. You may need to stir once or twice. If necessary, reheat the water in the pan. When transparent, the gelatin is ready.
3. Place the egg yolks, sugar and ricotta into a food processor or liquidiser and blend on a high speed for about one minute. Add the lemon zest, the reserved lemon juice and the juice containing the gelatine, pouring it through a strainer. Blend everything again until absolutely smooth. Meanwhile, in a separate large bowl, whisk the double cream until soft peaks form, then pour this into the rest of the cheese mixture and blend again, this time for just a few seconds.
4. Pour the cream mixture over the amaretti base, smooth the surface with a palette knife and refrigerate for a minimum of 3 hours, or until set, depending on how full or efficient your fridge is. To serve, carefully remove the cheesecake from the tin on to a serving plate. If you wish, sprinkle the cake with more crushed amaretti or grated chocolate; alternatively, serve it with some poached cherries.
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