Ricotta cheese most likely originated in Rome or greater Italy, where the people invented many entrees and desserts featuring the fresh, soft cheese. Similar to cottage cheese, ricotta has become popular worldwide with the ever-increasing affection for Italian food such as lasagna and manicotti. It also appears in tasty desserts such as cannoli.
Ricotta cheese is a creamy byproduct of the cheese manufacturing process and thus is technically not really a cheese. It is created from whey, a watery substance left over from the milk, which is drained off when provolone or mozzarella cheese is made. Because the product is cooked twice, once during the original process and then again to make the ricotta; the food was given its name from the Latin "recocta," meaning re-cooked.
Ricotta is generally believed to have originated with Jewish people in Rome or Sicily. Historians speculate that this type of cheese first appears in documents by the Greek author Athenaeus, who wrote a great deal about food in the second and third centuries B.C.E,
Cheese was historically a large export product for Sicily, along with grain. It was also a main part of their diet and was usually made from goat's or sheep's milk. Many desserts featuring ricotta originated in Sicily. Ricotta pancake cassola, for instance, is an ancient version of cheesecake.
Ricotta was also a traditional food for Sicilian Christians. The cassata cake, with ricotta cream filling, was considered a traditional Easter food. Another ricotta pastry, the Zeppole, was traditional fare for St. Joseph's Day.
There are actually many other types of ricotta than the one sold in round plastic containers at the grocery store. Ricotta affumicata, or smoked ricotta, is a hard cheese that can be grated over pasta or melted in a casserole. Ricotta infornata is created by baking creamy ricotta until it has a brown, toasty crust. Ricotta forte is a fermented and strong-smelling cheese produced in Puglia. These are just a few examples.
Ricotta is most often used in Italian cooking, typically as cheese filling for cooked pasta dishes such as lasagna, manicotti and ravioli. The cheese blends well with tomato sauces. It also makes great dips and spreads and dessert fillings for cannoli and blintzes. It is the main cheese used for cheesecake.
Recipes often advise that it's okay to substitute cottage cheese for ricotta and vice versa. Both are fresh cheese, or unripened, cooked at low temperatures so they remain soft, and they are both white and have a mild flavor. However, they have noticeably different textures. Cottage cheese is creamy with curds, while ricotta is a bit grainy and drier than cottage cheese. A dish made with cottage cheese will be soupier. This can cause problems in a recipe where texture is very important, such as for a cheesecake.
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