Those of you who read my last post know that I recently made ricotta cheese at home. What I’ve learned since then is that you need to adjust for homemade ricotta in recipes. It turns out that this is not as easy as one might think.
I thought that to use my cheese well, I would first have to compare it to the kind we usually buy, so I conducted a side-by-side taste test. When I tried mine, it tasted of sweet, clean grass-fed milk, if a little dry. By comparison, the commercial ricotta was grainier and sweeter, and didn’t stick together in clumps. The main difference between them was the texture; I wasn’t sure how that would affect the recipe we were planning on using it in.
Next morning I ate a little bit of my ricotta with honey as part of my breakfast—but as soon as I started trying to combine it with the honey, I knew I’d made a mistake. It wouldn’t mix. I whacked it around with the spoon and glumly watched it coalesce into a gluey lump. The texture rather reminded me of mortar.
I finally managed to get it passably mixed and tried a bit. After the first bite I wasn’t sure if I’d used too much honey or too little—it walked a fine line between being chokingly sweet and flavorless. On my mother’s suggestion I tried adding salt, which she said would make it sweeter, but when I tried again it became clear that that wasn’t the problem.
Based on what I’d seen so far, I began to suspect I’d drained it a little too long, which lost both the moisture and flavor from the whey. I’m not discouraged—next time I make ricotta I’ll simply drain it for a shorter time—but I’m not sure I’ll try again to mix it with honey.
We planned to use my ricotta in a pumpkin lasagna we were bringing to a family dinner on Christmas. When we made the lasagna, my mother and I tried combining my ricotta with some sage butter she had made. They didn’t want to mix. My mother suggested we add a little olive oil to soften the ricotta, after which it worked nicely (and, when I sampled it, was delicious).
The rest of the cheese went into a pumpkin-shallot-ricotta mixture. It mixed with the pumpkin nicely, unlike its fight with the sage butter, but when my father tasted it, he said it needed more salt.
He added a large pinch of salt and tasted again. Still it needed more. He sprinkled in several more liberal pinches of salt, crunching them between his fingertips, until he had about doubled the original amount in the recipe. We think this is probably because I didn’t sprinkle salt over my curds when they had drained.
When we took the lasagna to my grandparents’ house, it was perhaps a bit greasier than usual, which we think was because of the extra olive oil we used to compensate for the dryness of my ricotta.
Therefore, I’d say that what I’ve learned since my last post is that you should be sure to salt the cheese, and that you shouldn’t drain the cheese longer than the recipe says to, and if it’s a little dry for your taste you can add a little whey back in.
The lasagna was as delicious as ever and got eaten fast. It was also comparatively unaffected by the homemade ricotta, so I’m giving the recipe in case you’d like to try it. Have fun, and I hope you like it.
Confession time: this was never meant to be lasagna, it’s our interpretation of a ravioli recipe. My parents tried making pumpkin ravioli because we have an enormous surplus of pumpkin from our fall CSA, but the pasta was store-bought and didn’t bend enough for them to crimp the edges of the ravioli, so they made it into lasagna instead.
4 cups cooked pumpkin
2-3 shallots, finely diced
8 tbsp butter, divided
2 pounds ricotta (about 2¾ cups), divided in half
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper (or a little more if you like)
A pinch or two of nutmeg
Kosher salt to taste (you may need to add more of this if using homemade ricotta which you didn’t sprinkle salt on)
Freshly ground pepper to taste
2½ upsc finely grated pecorino cheese
1 batch of pasta dough rolled out to the second- or third-smallest setting on your pasta roller
12-14 sage leaves, minced
Preheat an oven to 350 degrees.
Melt 4 tablespoons of the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the shallot and cook until softened, but not browned—about 7 minutes. Add the pumpkin, ½ cup ricotta, cayenne, and nutmeg and heat through. Remove from the heat, season with salt and pepper to taste and set aside.
Heat the remaining butter in a small skillet. Add sage leaves, and heat but don’t allow to brown. Add the sage butter, salt, pepper, and 2 cups pecorino to the remaining ricotta. Mix well and set aside.
Assemble the lasagna: pumpkin mixture, then pasta, then cheese mixture (in that order because pumpkin doesn’t burn), repeating all layers three times. Conclude by topping the last pumpkin layer with the rest of the pecorino cheese.
Cover with foil and warm in the oven you preheated earlier for 30 minutes.
Photo by Wendy, Claire's mom.