To read this blog, you might think that ricotta cheese is the root of all desserts: Cannoli, rosette and of course ricotta pie all call for it. So when I saw a recipe for housemade ricotta in this month's Gourmet magazine, I knew I had to make it. It's surprisingly easy, and yields a fresh-tasting ricotta with a tight, dry curd and a milky, lightly lemony flavor. In fact, for the purposes of this dessert, I had to reincorporate some cream to loosen it up a bit. (Pic is a little sloppy -- I had already taken a bite, and it was late in the evening.)
This dessert was inspired by two things: In Bologna, we experienced a locally made cheese called squaquerone -- it was similar to ricotta, with a fresh, milky flavor and somewhat loose texture, somewhere between ricotta and cottage cheese. They serve it for dessert with fig preserves. The Apician spiced dates we had at Lupa in New York. These stewed dates with almond "pits" were served on a disk of mascarpone, and we just loved them. (Plus, I seem to have a thing about stuffing things inside dates.) I decided to merge the two desserts into one. The fig preserves were store-bought; Whole Foods carries a nice Croatian fig spread in a squat little jar. Recipes for ricotta and Apician dates after the jump.
* Note: there's another recipe for fresh ricotta at the always delightful Becks & Posh. Interestingly, this one does not call for any acid to get the curds going.
The prevailing flavor in this cheese is the milk itself, so use the best you can find. This time I used regular old Safeway milk. Next time I'm getting Straus Family or Stoneyfield Farm.
2 quarts whole milk
1 c. heavy cream
1/2 tsp salt
3 Tbsp lemon juice
Slowly bring milk, cream and salt to a full rolling boil in a large saucepan, stirring frequently to prevent scalding. Add the lemon juice, drop the heat to low, and stir constantly until it curdles, 2-3 minutes. The consistency will be very loose with a fine curd. Ladel the curds into a cheesecloth-lined strainer and drain for one hour. Will keep refrigerated for two days. Makes 2-3 cups.
Apician spiced dates
18 medjool dates, pitted
18 whole almonds, skins on, lightly toasted
500 ml light red wine, like pinot noir
1/2 c. honey
2 Tbsp black peppercorns
2 Tbsp whole cloves
2 bay leaves
2 Tbsp freshly grated orange or lemon zest, plus extra for garnish
2 cinnamon sticks
2 Tbsp whole allspice berries
Stuff one almond in the cavity of each date (if the dates are very large or the almonds very small, stuff two almonds in). In a wide saucepan or skillet, bring wine to a simmer. Add the dates and poach until skin blisters. Remove and peel away skins while still warm. Discard skins.
Add the remaining ingredients to the wine, and simmer until reduced by half, about 20 minutes. Strain wine and return to saucepan. Add the dates to the wine sauce and poach gently until warmed through, but not too hot. Place three dates alongside fresh ricotta or mascarpone cheese and drizzle a spoonful of the wine sauce over. Garnish with thinly sliced orange or lemon zest.