Is ricotta cheese the most versatile cheese? Goat may be its fiercest competitor, both able to be worked into dishes sweet and savory, used as a topping or a creamy casserole booster, delicious eaten off the back of a spoon.
I feel like I see ricotta everywhere these days. It may be one of those Baader-Meinhof things, where you notice something new and then start seeing it over and over. But I definitely encountered more ricotta toast in 2017 than ever before, and certainly more places that make their own from scratch. No longer confined to lasagna and the inside of ravioli, it pops up on restaurant menus as its own thing, in simple and artisanal dishes that allow its texture and flavor to shine. And move over, avocados, because that toast is my new preferred way to enjoy a thick slice of bread: toasted, slather of ricotta, some sort of fruit jam or preserve.
A couple of weeks ago, after months of drooling over it on Instagram, I tried the ricotta toast at Born and Bread Bakehouse in Lakeland, a baking business started by Jennifer Smurr that sells breads and pastries Saturday mornings out of its (currently expanding) retail space at 1113 S Florida Ave.
Born and Bread makes the ricotta in its kitchen, plus the crusty brioche bread on which the cheese is generously spread. It’s one of my favorite bites of the year so far. And while I’m still on the hunt for something like this in the Tampa Bay area (send me your ricotta recs!), I am fully and deeply invested in ricotta cheese wherever I can get my hands on it.
What exactly is ricotta? It’s the cheese most typically found inside ravioli, with that smooth, very white consistency that resembles a drier cottage cheese. It’s an Italian whey cheese that is pretty easy to make from scratch. Basically, you introduce an acid like vinegar or lemon juice to whole milk, let it sit while the acid encourages the milk to form curds, then strain the final product to your desired consistency.
Recently, I decided to go all in on a tub of ricotta cheese from Mazzaro’s Italian Market in St. Petersburg. They don’t make the cheese there, but they order it in and package it within a couple of days of it being made. It was the first time I had bought ricotta that fresh. Grocery store ricotta is good; the whole-milk version from the Mazzaro’s cheese room is on another level. I put it on everything: fruit, bagel, a dollop to garnish a bowl of cooked pasta. (Ever tried a spoonful of it in your pancake batter?)
At the end of the week, there was still some left in the container, and this muffin recipe was born. Adding ricotta to a standard muffin mix is a great way to make those muffins instantly moist. You can’t necessarily taste it, but the cheese makes the muffins somehow more dense and fluffier at the same time. Cut down on the amount of fat, like butter or oil, because the ricotta will take care of that.
And definitely get some fresh lemon up in there. Ricotta goes very well with fruity flavors, and especially with the sweet-tart taste of lemon juice and zest.
These muffins freeze and reheat well, too, and are good for breakfast, a snack, dessert — any time of day.
Lemon Ricotta Muffins
2 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup sugar, plus more for sprinkling
¼ cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest (from 2 lemons)
1 cup whole-milk ricotta cheese
1 large egg
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
½ teaspoon almond extract
? cup thinly sliced almonds, plus more for sprinkling
Cinnamon, for sprinkling
Line 12 muffin cups with paper liners. Heat oven to 350 degrees.
Whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl to blend. Using an electric mixer, beat sugar, butter and lemon zest in a large bowl until light and fluffy. Beat in the ricotta. Beat in the egg, lemon juice, almond extract and almonds. Add the dry ingredients and stir just until blended. (The batter will be thick and fluffy.)
Divide the batter among the prepared muffin cups. Sprinkle more almonds on top. Combine the cinnamon with some more sugar, then lightly sprinkle that on top. Bake until the muffins just become pale golden on top, about 20 minutes. Cool slightly. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Source: Adapted from Giada De Laurentiis