COOKING LESSONS FROM ROME

RICOTTA PUDDING

The array of cheese in a good gastronomia here can be overwhelming, and if it's ricotta you're after, the choices are daunting. Among the fresh ricotta are some made from cow's milk; others from sheep's milk; a combination of cow's and sheep's milk; or pure water buffalo milk, the richest and creamiest of all. What's more, you can purchase infornata (baked ricotta), with a deep brown crust to eat with fruit for dessert, and ricotta salata, a drier, salted version of the cheese that's mostly served as a grated topping for pasta. For less adventurous diners, there's the familiar pasteurized ricotta packed in half-pound plastic containers just like we find in Boston.

Ricotta infornata

Of all of these, my favorite is the pure sheep's milk ricotta di pecora, which has an ever-so-mild sharpness to the smooth, milky flavor. Fresh ricotta is sold by weight, cut from 4 1/2- pound conical forms. You can buy as little as an etto (100 grams, or the equivalent of about three ounces). Since it must be consumed within a day, we usually hurry home to enjoy it at lunch or dinner on fresh bread or toast with a little olive oil drizzled over it. I know others here who prefer it with orange marmalade, honey, or maple syrup. It's that versatile -- and that good.

So it's not surprising that ricotta is an essential ingredient in traditional Roman cuisine. There are many savory pasta dishes made with the cheese: either filled pasta, mostly in the form of ravioli, or any number of other pasta dishes, such as the Umbrian sauce of ricotta and tomatoes.

If your preference is for sweets, ricotta confections are many and mouth-watering. The subtle sweetness in the flavor of the cheese is enhanced by the sugar in the pastry. Perhaps the most famous Roman ricotta dessert is the torta di ricotta, a chocolate- or citrus-flavored cheese cake with a pastry crust. I like it because it's not too sweet, but still satisfying. A good place to buy it, according to knowledgeable Romans, is from a forno (bakery) in the Jewish ghetto. Elsewhere in the city you'll find cannoli, the Sicilian dessert consisting of a crisp cylinder of fried dough filled with flavored, sweetened ricotta. Then there's the best ricotta dessert, the luscious budino di ricotta, a baked pudding that's souffle-light and deliciously creamy. Prepared with a combination of ricotta, sugar, egg yolks, a small amount of flour, and both orange and lemon rinds, the pudding has stiffly beaten whites folded in, so it rises and turns golden in the oven. It can be made ahead of time, served at room temperature, or even chilled until the next day. I particularly like it warm, soon after it's taken from the oven. In Boston it will be easier to choose the ricotta for this dessert; it's the freshest one you can find.


Budino di ricotta
(Baked ricotta pudding)

Serves 4

Butter (for the dish)

Sugar (for sprinkling)

8 ounces whole-milk ricotta cheese

2 eggs, separated

1/2 cup sugar

1 tablespoon flour

Grated rind of 1 lemon

Grated rind of 1 orange

1 tablespoon lemon or orange juice

1. Set the oven at 350 degrees. Butter a 1-quart glass or ceramic baking dish. Dust it with sugar; set aside.

2. In a bowl, combine the ricotta and egg yolks. Mix well until smooth. Stir in all but 2 tablespoons of the sugar and the flour. Mix until the ricotta is free of almost all lumps. Stir in the lemon and orange rinds, and the juice.

3. In an electric mixer or with a wire whisk, beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Gradually beat in the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar. Continue beating the whites until they form stiff peaks.

4. Gently fold the whites into the ricotta mixture. Pour the batter into the baking dish.

5. Bake the pudding on the middle shelf of the oven for 30 to 40 minutes or until the middle is firm when the baking dish is lightly shaken. Cool slightly before serving or cover, refrigerate, and serve chilled.