When I look back to my memories of childhood, it is amazing how many of these have, in some way or other, links with Maltese food containing ricotta (‘irkotta’). Maltese cooks in fact use ricotta, which is a smooth creamy dairy product, to create both sweet and savoury dishes.
There’s ricotta pie of course, and cheesecakes (‘pastizzi’), ricotta can be eaten as a snack or as a starter or even a main course, with Italian pasta, and in numerous desserts and pastries like kannoli or Cassatella Siciliana. Our grandmothers used to fill us up with ricotta when we were children, telling us that it was ‘good for us’, full of vitamins and that it would help our bones to grow stronger.
The manufacturing process of Maltese ricotta is a bit different from the Italian way of producing it, as it involves the cooking of milk, with the addition of calcium chloride (a type of salt) to form a curd. Italian ricotta, on the other hand, is actually a by-product of cheese making, where the milk whey left over from cheese production is used. Though most of the milk protein is removed when cheese is made, some remains in the whey which is left to become more acidic from 12 to 24 hours, and is then heated to near boiling. The combination of the cheese acid and the high temperatures form a fine curd, which, once cooled, is sieved through a fine cloth. The creamy curds are white and sweet in taste, though they are highly perishable and must be consumed immediately.
Ricotta is used in a number of savoury dishes including ravioli, lasagne or simply spread on bread or crackers (‘galletti’). It is important to note that it contains significantly less fat than other cheeses.
There are different types of ricotta; each variant differs in taste and can be used in different recipes. Ricotta Salata has a firm consistency and is white in colour. It is perfect at finishing off a dish when grated into very thin shavings. This type of ricotta is dried and salted after being pressed and aged. Ricotta Infornata, as the name says, is basically normal soft ricotta after it has been baked into an oven until slightly brown. Ricotta Affumicata on the other hand, refers to ricotta which has been placed into a smoker, thereby acquiring a slightly wood-smoked taste, as well as a thin gray crust. Ricotta Forte is made from the combination of the ricotta produced by different animals. This is left to ferment for a number of months up to a year. The resulting brownish ricotta is rich in texture and has a pungent taste and smell.
Ricotta is generally added to pasta dishes to promote a creamy and more filling element, as well as accentuate certain flavours, like that of pesto or blue cheese sauce. Served in ricotta pies together with smoked ham, bacon, peas, or other ingredients, it creates a tasty and filling main dish. Many also produce small ricotta pies known locally as ‘qassatat’, which are a very popular take-away food. The famous ‘pastizzi’ are a variation of this, albeit having more fat and sporting flaky pastry. Traditional Maltese breakfasts served in hotels and restaurants generally include small ‘pastizzi’ together with a cup of tea or coffee.
Ricotta filling is a staple of the Maltese diet since it is relatively cheap, easy to make, healthy and tasty. This is also why the sweet version of it is also used in a number of traditional and seasonal desserts, sweets, trifles and pastries, usually together with candied fruit, nuts, whipped cream or honey.