Although classified as a cheese, ricotta is really a by-product of the cheesemaking process. Some solids remain in the whey after cheesemaking and to retrieve these the cheesemaker reheats the whey and scoops off the solids as they come to the surface. The curds are drained in baskets, then once they mould together, the mass is turned out and sold as a fresh cheese (ricotta means re-cooked in Italian).
Like quark, ricotta has a reasonably low fat content (around 20%) but it differs to it in flavour and texture. Ricotta tastes like fresh cow’s milk though it is neither rich or creamy, nor is it lemony like quark or yoghurt. The texture while not as smooth as quark, is made up of soft granules, and if the ricotta has been made correctly, these should not be gritty or grainy like cottage cheese.
Ricotta blends easily with other ingredients, though it will never be as smooth as quark, and because it is bland, it is good at absorbing other flavours. It can be eaten with little more than honey or sugar and served with fruit, brioche or pastries for a stylish breakfast or brunch. Mixed with cream it can be served with berries or layered in glasses with berries, chocolate and crumbled biscotti. Espresso, sugar and ricotta is another combination that works, or take it the savoury way, with balsamic and prosciutto. Ricotta can be used in cheesecakes, added to cakes and pastry, used in quiches, tarts, tortes and pies, but perhaps the most glorious use is in the Sicilian classic, canole: deep-fried pastry tubes filled with sweetened ricotta, nuggets of chocolates and glace fruits, the lot dusted with icing (confectioner’s) sugar. Ricotta is also good in stuffings for vegetables such as zucchini, and pastas like ravioli, and blobs of it can be dotted on top of a pasta dish to add nutrients and to cut the richness (mixing it in spoils the look of the dish).