What is ricotta? It's important to start with a definition, because the name is a hold-all that covers a loosely defined family. Strictly speaking it isn't a cheese; it's a by-product of cheese-making. The word itself translates literally as "re-cooked". Milk is heated with a coagulant to separate curds and whey - the cooking stage. The curd is the basis of all cheese; the whey still contains some solids. By reheating it, â¨"re-cooking" it, the lost, protein-rich solids are recovered from this liquid phase. Italian ricottas, made from sheep's, goats', cows' or buffaloes' milk come in dozens of shapes and sizes. The key eating quality is freshness.
In English (probably down to American influence) ricotta has a borrowed meaning. It has come to describe a blander, richer, moister, creamier fresh cheese, made from milk (either whole or more-or-less skimmed). In Italy, it would probably be known as cagliata, "fresh curd".
No chef is going to prepare traditional ricotta. How would he or she go about buying large quantities of whey? Making a fresh curd to a consistent standard isn't difficult. Nor is it limiting. Any milk will work. It can be whole or skimmed, heat-treated or raw. The variations add to the character.
Tom Aikens makes his from whole, Jersey milk, adjusting both texture and taste to suit a challenging vegetarian starter. His use reflects his own complex, creative style. There is no reason why the basic recipe shouldn't suit, say, a cheesecake.
RICOTTA CURD Make this often and in small quantities, as here, because the flavours start to develop within a couple of days.
The base (Yields about 1kg)
50ml water at room temperature
4g citric acid
8g lactic acid
2 litres chilled, whole Jersey milk
2g (one sachet) fromage blanc starter
Combine the water, citric and lactic acids.
Put the milk in a pan and heat slowly to 38Â°C - body temperature.
Stir in the water and add the starter. Set aside for about an hour to allow the junket (freshly formed curd) to form.
Cut the curd roughly. Line a conical strainer or sieve with a muslin. Stand it over a bowl or pan. Pour the curds and whey into the strainer. Set aside in the fridge to drain for 24 hours.
Tom Aikens makes this up for each service
(For about 350g, six starter portions)
300g fresh curd
3tbs fresh whey
Lemon juice to taste (about 1/2 lemon)
1tbs olive oil
Put the curd in a mixing bowl. Whisk in the other ingredients, to obtain a texture that is smooth but holds its shape.
Options The home-made curd can open the door to a string of sweet and savoury recipes. Mixed with crème fraÁ®che and chopped herbs, it becomes the classic Lyonnaise bistro dish "Cervelle de Canut". It can be used as a base for ravioli stuffings or added to Austrian-style strudels with poppy seeds. Old English curd cakes or tarts could also be adapted from it.
The extra whey need not be wasted - it can be used in lieu of milk in Breton crÁªpes recipes.
Tom Aikens makes a jellified sheet of milk and Ossau Iraty (semi-hard sheep's milk cheese from the South-west of France) as part of a double-decker sandwich for his ricotta - a kind of layered, open ravioli.
Batch size based on: 300g grated cheese, dissolved in one litre of hot milk.
Recipe and method for one gastronorm, â¨GN 1/1 baking sheet lined with clingfilm, to yield 24 x 7cm discs.
Ingredients (For 12 portions)
200ml cheese milk base
Heat the milk and cheese slowly to boiling point. Stir in the agar-agar. Leave it for about five seconds and then pour it on to the prepared baking sheet. It should cover the tray in a thin film. When it has cooled and set to a gel, cut out discs with a 70mm cutter.
HOUSE-MADE RICOTTA, GREEN OLIVE JUICE, HONEY JELLY AND â¨PINE KERNELS
Planning The cold starter includes the following elements: ricotta, Ossau Iraty discs, honey jelly, Parmesan snow, olive starch, pine nut ice-cream, basil oil, basil purée, olive oil juice.
Dried green olive crumbs need to be prepared as a part of standard basic prep. Other tasks, all part of the kitchen's larder section, can be made ahead of service.
Costing cost price £3.80; selling price £15. Tom Aikens points out that although the cost of raw materials is relatively low, the dish involves a lot more labour than would typically be spent on a starter. However, the dish is on his tasting, vegetarian and Á la carte menus, which reflects its popularity.
About 5g basil purée
2 discs jellied Ossau Iraty
50-60g fresh ricotta
50g approx honey jelly
1tsp (approx) dried olive crumbs
1tsp approx toasted pine kernels
Baby basil leaves
1-2tbs olive oil starch
1-2tbs basil oil
1-2tbs green olive juice
1tbs (approx) Parmesan snow
20g quenelle pine kernel ice-cream
Off centre on the plate, pipe five or six dots of basil purée. These are to stop the jellied Ossau Iraty disc slipping. Put one disc on the purée.
Using half the ricotta, pile small mounds at intervals on the disc.
Cut the honey jelly into about 12 small pieces. They don't have to be exactly cubed. Put half the jelly between the pieces of ricotta (below).
Cover roughly with a thin sprinkling of dried olive crumbs, half the pine kernels and half the basil leaves. Add a little of the olive oil starch.
Place the second Ossau Iraty disc on top to form a kind of sandwich and start over.
Use the rest of the ricotta and jelly and olive oil starch. Pile on a little Parmesan snow. Decorate with the rest of the basil and pine kernels.
Spoon a ring of basil oil around the plate. Spoon a ring of olive juice around the plate (below). Lay the quenelle of pine kernel ice-cream to one side.
Agar-agar a gel that's on the cusp of becoming a standard kitchen ingredient
Maltosec branded Sosa product used for turning oils to powders
Isomalt adds extra gloss to ice-creams
Green olive crumbs Soak pitted green olives to remove excess salt; then dehydrate them overnight at 75Â°C before blitzing
Citric and lactic acids for flavouring
Honey powder (from health food and similar shops) for giving an extra honey hit to the jelly
Warm 500ml water, 300g clear honey (acacia or blossom), 28g honey powder and â¨4g citric acid. Add four soaked gelatine leaves. Dissolve and set on a shallow tray.
Pine nut ice-cream
Blend 250g toasted pine kernels, 400ml water, 80g crème fraÁ®che, 50g glucose, 5g salt, four drops pine essence, 30g sugar, 60g isomalt. Put in a Pacojet canister, freeze and prepare individual portions to order.
Green olive juice
Blend 100g stoned green olives with 150ml light chicken stock and lemon juice to taste.
Basil oil and basil puree
For the oil, blanch and blitz the basil with green olive oil. Leave it stand to extract the maximum colour before straining.
For the purée, blend blanched basil with toasted pine kernels and green olive crumbs. Ahead of service, fill a hand-made paper piping bag with the purée and snip off the tip so you can pipe dots on to the plate.
Combine 300g grated Parmesan, 500ml water and 4g salt. Heat to 85Â°C. Add 10g agar-agar. Transfer to a Pacojet container, freeze and prepare portions to order.
Olive oil starch
Whisk one part Maltosec into two parts extra virgin olive oil (optional salt) until the mixture becomes crumbly and powdery.
Tom Aikens believes that cooking shouldn't stand still. If it doesn't evolve, it grows stagnant. He profoundly disagrees with the statement of Nico Ladenis, A-lister of British cuisine a generation ago, that cookery was about copying. Coming from a chef steeped in the classic traditions, who worked his way up through the business when French cuisine ruled and who has names such as JoÁ«l Robuchon, Gerard Boyer and Pierre Koffmann stamped on his CV, Aikens's view may come as a surprise.
His own style has always had a restless creative energy that in his early forties hasn't deserted him. What he has learnt over time, he says, is how to channel his passion.
The desire to put challenging food on the plate is stronger than ever. Now, though, he makes it look so simple that customers don't see the amount of work that goes into it.
At 26 he was head chef at the two-Michelin-starred Pied Á Terre, one of the youngest chef to have achieved this accolade. By then he had already been working in kitchens for eight years. This, he would argue, gives him the right to criticise wannabe chefs who imagine they can become chefs de partie in a year and sous chefs soon afterwards.
The fiery temperament that marked his early years hasn't evaporated, but he has learnt to manage it to his advantage. He doesn't cook as he would have a decade ago.
Nor does he behave in the same way. Even so, his brigade remains in awe of his physical presence. Now, though, they admire him for his experience and imagination as well as his dexterity and native ability.
Aikens is currently heading to the finals of BBC2's Great British Menu, which will host a banquet for people associated with Comic Relief.