Ah, springtime! Warmer winds carrying the aroma of flowering lilacs and a songbird’s melody awaken my nostalgia—Italian Easter delicacies come to mind. My maternal grandfather was a butcher by trade and owned a mom-and-pop butcher and grocery store in Dobbs Ferry. Everyone in town stopped by his shop for a chat and a pork chop. He did the same during the Easter holiday, visiting with the artisans of the Arthur Avenue Retail Market in the Bronx to pick up cured meats and specialty cheeses; homemade whole milk ricotta was on the top of the list.
The name “ricotta” translates to “recooked.” It is made with the whey leftover from other cheesemaking, which is then recooked with an acid until the proteins left in the whey come together and form fine curds. Traditional recipes that featured this sweet and creamy cheese at our Easter dinner table were handmade ravioli or lasagna, pizza rustica, torta di grano and my grandfather’s infamous ricotta cheesecake. Other seasonal holiday dishes were lamb with roasted new potatoes, asparagus with Parmesan and lemon, and mushrooms stuffed with fresh herbs, bread crumbs and pecorino Romano. My grandparents had two kitchens: an everyday kitchen upstairs and an industrial kitchen in the basement outfitted with a meat slicer and grinder, a hand-cranked pasta maker, utility sink, cooktop and oven, refrigerator and freezer, knives of all shapes and sizes and plenty of space to make a homemade feast.
To make the ricotta cheesecake, my grandfather would carefully separate the eggs one by one, and then gently fold the whipped egg whites into the lemon and orange zest infused ricotta; I was mesmerized. The final result was a light cheesecake with the most incredible custard-like consistency on the bottom—sensational.
“Low-fat” was never part of my grandfather’s vocabulary; his freezers were stocked with lard and whole butter. During the ’90s when low-fat was considered a healthy trend, I tried his recipe using fat-free ricotta. When my grandfather tasted it, his face cringed. He asked, “What is this?” I nervously and sort of proudly replied, “ricotta cheesecake made with fat-free ricotta.” He said grumbling, “This is terrible and not real.”
Let’s just say that was the last time I ever did that: What was I thinking?
Sure, I believe in eating a healthy diet, but choosing manipulated foods, made with mystery ingredients that you cannot even pronounce and the body doesn’t know how to digest? Never.
Since then I have tried my hand at making whole milk ricotta using raw spring milk from Chris Wines’s Jersey cows of Ty Llwyd Farm in Riverhead. He bought the cows from Art Ludlow, owner, dairy farmer and cheesemaker for Mecox Bay Dairy. Ludlow can tell you the seasonal taste differences in his artisanal cheese. I can tell you that Chris Wines’s cows are entirely pasture fed and their spring milk is much sweeter and more yellow due to the cows’ diet of new grass. Making ricotta cheese is not very difficult, and the final product is addictive and memorable.
I wish my grandfather were alive today to taste the ricotta I made. He would be so proud to know that my freezer is filled with duck fat and I’m keeping it real.