Did you know that soft, delicious ricotta cheese isn’t really a cheese at all? It’s actually a by-product of cheese-making. We’ve assembled some facts about the history of this extremely versatile “cheese,” along with a simple recipe for a ricotta tart that combined with any seasonal fruit makes for a treat of sweet perfection.
So, ricotta isn’t a cheese. It’s actually a creamy curd that has been cooked twice. The excess whey leftover when making cheese is skimmed off and then recooked, at which point the albumin in the whey solidifies and becomes the ricotta cheese we know and love. Of course, something this delicious has many potential origins, but it almost certainly evolved, as so many ancient foods did, out of necessity. It came from “peasant thrift, dairy farmyard recycling and domestic frugality.” There are a few things we know for certain about ricotta’s past.
- The Greek writer Athenaeus (170-230 CE) wrote of a soft Sicilian cheese that he ate at a banquet. Though we don’t know for certain that this was ricotta, the evidence points in that direction. If so, this may have been the first written record of the cheese.
- Ricotta may have been introduced to Sicily when it was an Islamic state called the Emirate of Sicily from 965-1072 CE. In fact, the Arabs brought many food preparation techniques to the Sicilians, including distillation and fermenting techniques.
- The ancient Greeks ate a cheese product called oxygala that is believed to be an ancient relative of ricotta. The Greek physician Galen even wrote about it in his De alimentorum facultatibus. However, Plutarch (Greek historian, 46-127 CE) and Polyaenus (Macedonian author, 2nd century CE) wrote that oxygala was originally a Persian food, lending credence to the theory that the Arabs were responsible for ricotta as well.
- The Tacuinum Sanitatis, the Latin translation of the Arab physician Ibn Butlan of Baghdad’s 11th century health handbook, holds the very first illustration of ricotta being made. It shows a family standing over a boiling cauldron in a walled courtyard of a simple cottage.
- Ricotta, along with its European cousins including “Anari from Cyprus, Lor from Turkey, Manouri from Greece, Brocciu from Corsica and Urda from Romania,” has long been considered a food of the poor and infirm. For thousands of years it was a symbol of hardship and making do with what was at hand.
Today, ricotta has thrown off the shackles of its lowly social position and finally come into its own. It is rarely the star ingredient, demanding attention and claiming the spotlight; instead, it quietly and confidently supports and enhances the ingredients around it. Sweet and savory recipes alike can benefit from ricotta and yet, the cheese that’s not really a cheese can also stand simply on its own as a light snack with a bit of salt and pepper or some honey.
Enjoy the recipe below and delight in the enduring flavor of this wonderfully versatile food. And don’t miss our Ancient Roman Cheesecake recipe with ricotta.
Simple Ricotta Tart
*Recipe courtesy of the New York Times.
Click here to see a video of this yummy tart being made.
For the Tart Dough:
- 1 ½ cups of all-purpose flour
- ½ cup of blanched sliced almonds
- ⅓ cup of confectioners’ sugar
- Grated zest of 1 lemon
- Pinch kosher salt
- ½ cup/1 stick of unsalted butter, cold and cubed
- 1 large egg, lightly beaten
- 1 tablespoon of poppy seeds
For the Filling:
- ¼ cup of mascarpone
- ¼ cup of sugar
- ⅛ teaspoon of cinnamon
- 1 ¾ cups of ricotta
- 1 large egg plus 1 large egg white
- 1 teaspoon of good strong honey, more for drizzling (optional)
- ⅛ teaspoon of kosher salt
- Make the tart shell: Place 1/4 cup of flour and the almonds in a food processor with the blade attachment. Process until almonds are finely ground, about 1 minute. Add remaining 1 1/4 cups of flour, the sugar, the lemon zest and the salt. Pulse to combine.
- Add butter and pulse until a coarse meal forms. Add egg and pulse just until a crumbly dough comes together. Add poppy seeds and pulse briefly to combine. Press dough into a disk, wrap in plastic and chill for at least 1 hour or overnight.
- When ready to bake the tart, roll the dough out between two sheets of plastic to a 3/8-inch thickness. Line a 9-inch tart pan with the dough and chill for 30 minutes.
- Heat oven to 325 degrees. Line the tart shell with foil and fill with baking weights. Bake for 20 minutes, then carefully remove the foil and baking weights. Continue baking, uncovered, for about 15 additional minutes or until tart is light golden in color.
- While the tart crust is baking, make the filling: In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine mascarpone, sugar and cinnamon. Using the paddle attachment, beat mixture until light and fluffy, about two minutes. Add ricotta, egg plus egg white, honey and salt, and mix to combine. Pour filling into baked tart shell and smooth the top (crust can still be hot when you add the filling).
- Bake tart for 20 to 30 minutes, or until filling is just set in the center (a little wobble is O.K.). Let cool at room temperature on a wire rack. If you like, drizzle with honey or arrange fruit on top just before serving. Tart is best served the same day as baking.
- Click here for delicious seasonal fruit ideas to add to your tart.
 De Soissons, S. (n.d.). Fifty shades of whey – the history and making of ricotta. Retrieved May 20, 2015.
 Did You Know: Food History – A History of Ricotta Cheese. (n.d.). Retrieved May 20, 2015, from http://www.cliffordawright.com/caw/food/entries/display.php/topic_id/12/id/87/
 De Soissons, S.
 Dalby, A. (2003). Food in the ancient world, from A to Z. London: Routledge.
 De Soissons, S.