In the Italian culinary universe, there is a rule that dates to ancient times: Don’t waste food by discarding what may have another use.

This practice leads me to keep scraps of vegetables in water, stored in the fridge until I have enough to make a broth that I can then use immediately or freeze.

I’ve learned how to take unused sprihgs of rosemary I have culled from the garden and braid them for an attractive garnish.

A prime example of Italian “waste not, want not” is the simple ricotta cheese. In the days of ancient Rome, there was a law for the approved farming of sheep. Sheep’s milk had multiple uses so as not to waste a drop. The milk was used in religious rites, a simple beverage, to produce pecorino cheese and for the making of ricotta.

Instead of discarding the whey, which is simply the watery liquid remaining after cheese is made, the Italians found a use for this modest by-product. Attributed to what was probably an accidental discovery, the simple ricotta has played an integral part in Italian cooking for centuries.

When the whey is permitted to ferment for 24 hours at a lukewarm temperature, food chemistry kicks in and the acidity level rises slightly.

Once the fermentation is completed, the whey product is cooked to almost boiling. The residual proteins consolidate and become creamy curds. A few more simple steps and we have the finished product.

The word “ricotta” simply means “recooked.”

In truth, this semi-soft, slightly sweet white cheese, similar in texture to cottage cheese, isn’t really a cheese. Technically, in Italian, it’s a latticino, which translates to “dairy by-product.”

It’s worth knowing that ricotta can be made from cow, sheep, goat and even water bufola milks. The livestock and agricultural region of Italy determines what milk is used to prepare ricotta for that specific region.

Highly versatile, ricotta can be used for savory entrees, like lasagna or manicotti and also for sweet or semi-sweet desserts.

Funny thing about ricotta, it doesn’t demand attention like its intense cousins Gorgonzola, Cambazola, Epoisses or even aged Gouda. In the cheese world the lowly ricotta didn’t have the best social standing as it was often a food for poor peasants. Those days are over and and ricotta has found its place as a highlight, a stand-alone, and is no longer relegated to only enhancing or supporting other ingredients.

Enjoy it as a light snack with sprinkles of sea salt and pepper to fulfill your savory craving. It can just as easily satisfy your sweet tooth with some honey drizzled over it.

In Sicily they make ricotta salata, in which it is drained and then dried to be used to top salads, grated over pasta or as filling for a fried dessert.

We do have domestic ricotta. That being said, the best ricotta you can buy is imported from Italy, but more expensive, of course. There is, however, a way to have the freshest ricotta at the best price: make it yourself.

The best ricotta I’ve ever had was only 24 hours old, and I was able to continue to enjoy it for almost a week with very little change in the flavor or texture. I have had ricotta fresca (fresh ricotta) made from both sheep and cows milk. It would be difficult to pick a favorite.

It’s amazingly easy.

Homemade Ricotta Cheese

1 gallon whole milk

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (1 large lemon)—See note

2 tsp. kosher or sea salt

Heat milk and salt in large pot until it reaches 200 degrees. Do not allow to bubble or boil.

Stir milk often to keep it from sticking to the bottom of the pot.

Once the temperature reaches 200 degrees, add lemon juice. You will immediately see milk begin to curdle. Stir constantly for 10 minutes with wooden spoon.

Do not be concerned if you see large amount of excess liquid. After 10 minutes pour liquid and curds into a colander set in the sink. If your colander has really large holes, line it with cheese cloth before adding the content of the pot.

Allow to sit one full hour to drain and cool completely. Be patient.

Place curds into covered container and refrigerate for minimum 24 hours. Be patient, it needs this time for best results. Ricotta will keep nicely for 7 days.

Note: White wine vinegar can be used in place of lemon juice. This is the more traditional method, but I prefer the Northern Italian version using lemon juice because I think it’s more interesting, though subtle.

Ricotta Cookies

2 cups sugar

1 cup unsalted butter, softened

15 oz. ricotta

2 tsp. vanilla

2 large eggs

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4 cups flour

2 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. salt

Icing

1 1/2 cups powdered sugar

3 Tbsp. whole milk

In a large mixer bowl, using low speed, beat sugar and butter until creamed. Increase speed to high and beat until fluffy.

Lower speed to medium and add ricotta, vanilla and eggs and blend well.

Reducing speed to low, add flour, baking powder and salt. Beat until a dough is created.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Drop by level tablespoons, 2 inches apart, onto ungreased cookie sheets. Bake 15 minutes or until cookies are slightly golden. Finished cookies will be soft. Remove gently with spatula and place on wire racks to cool and set.

When cookies are completely cooled, prepare icing by combining powdered sugar and milk in a small bowl. Whip with fork until smooth.

Use small knife or spatula to spread icing atop cookies. Sprinkle with sugar crystals. Allow icing to dry completely, about an hour.

To make these cookies for Christmas, simply sprinkle with red and green decorating sugars.

Sweet with an ever so slight savory hint, moist and hard to stop enjoying once you start.

Got milk?

Diane De Filipi lives in the Napa Valley and leads cooking tours to Italy and Burgundy, France. Visit letsgocookitalian.com or ila-chateau.com/cook-italian for more information.

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