Baked Ricotta Cheese - A Masterpiece!

A few weeks ago, I wandered into Pulino's Bar and Pizzeria in order to sample their fare (obviously). Although I was not blown away by their pizza, I was overwhelmed by a simple appetizer we ordered: Baked Ricotta (pictured above).

Served in a tiny cast-iron pot and accented with olive oil, sea salt and grapes (yes - grapes! Those are not olives), this small canister of piping hot cheese was a masterpiece in simplicity: salty, sweet and fantastic for dipping (please note the chunks of crusty bread in the background for said purpose).

I kept dipping...that I might detect the various nuances of flavor so that I could, of course, recreate this in my own kitchen (the infamous and often flammable Laboratorio Semi-Moderno).

As the New Year approaches, you may be called upon to appetize or hors d'oeuvre-ize people at a party. I would recommend you make this. Let's get to it.

As you may know, I have already mastered homemade ricotta cheese. It's quite simple. Here are the instructions to make your own ricotta. Following this, we will delve into how to bake your own ricotta.

What You Need:

makes about 1 cup ricotta cheese

1 quart whole milk (reduced fat just doesn't work as well)

Juice from 1 lemon, squeezed directly into the milk

2 tablespoons heavy cream

Sea Salt

Equipment:

Small pot

Candy thermometer (something that reads at least up to 180 degrees)

Cheesecloth or a fine mesh strainer

Colander

Slotted spoon

What To Do:

Cut enough cheesecloth to cover the bottom of your colander. 4-ply the cheesecloth to make sure no actual cheese escapes - just water!

Pour the whole milk and lemon juice into a small pot outfitted with a thermometer. Heat this over medium-low heat and babysit it. The babysitting involves you watching like a hawk and stirring occasionally so it doesn't boil over.

The thermometer will start to creep toward 160 degrees. This is the action zone. Your milk will start to separate and curdle. Stop stirring and let the milk completely separate and curdle. Remove from the heat.

Using a slotted spoon, scoop out the curdled portion and place it on the cheesecloth that is sitting in the colander. Let it drain for about 5 minutes.

After draining, I transfer it to small bowl. Add in your 2 Tbsp of heavy cream and sea salt. Give it a good whipping with a wisk. I actually used this handy-dandy, old-school device that I found lurking in the back of one of Marmo's utensil drawers:

And now for the baking:

What You Need:

Your freshly made ricotta cheese

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

a handful of red grapes, washed and halved

Equipment: a small cast iron pot, like a Le Crueset or a small baking dish with a lid.

What To Do:

Heat up your oven to 350 degrees.

Put your freshly made ricotta in the baking dish, top with the 2 tablespoons of olive oil and throw the grapes on top.

Cover this contraption with the lid.

Bake it in the oven for about 20-25 minutes, keeping an eye on it. The grapes should start to split and roast, while the cheese will bubble and brown in spots. Like so:

Don't dry it out - it will look withered and sad.

No one wants withered and sad ricotta. Especially at a New Year's Eve party.

Bring along some sliced crusty bread and extra olive oil for dipped and have yourself a party! Inviting other people is optional.