Ricotta cheese and I have a strange (strained?) relationship. I want to love it. Dishes in which it features – lasagna, calzone, a certain breed of cheesecake – sound to me decadent and worthy. But when I do eat it, I feel torn. It’s a texture thing, isn’t it? It has this graininess – a kind of luscious roughness that doesn’t feel quite right. I want it to make up its mind. Either be feta, all craggy and crumbling and tang, or be mascarpone, relentlessly silken. But ricotta is neither. It resists singularity. It hovers in the middle there, taunting me with its bothness.
Just before our annual in-laws holiday shuffle, I needed to use up some of our perishables, and there was half a container of ricotta, lonely and renounced in the back corner of the fridge. With lemons coming in on my backyard tree, I suddenly thought of a feta dip flavored with lemon zest and oregano and garlic that I’ve made dozens of times, and wondered how it would fare with this creamy cousin as its star player. I’d also been itching to try baked ricotta, after hearing that it transforms in the oven into something airy and rich. With a block of cream cheese also wailing its abandonment and crackers to use up before the trip at the end of the week, hey presto, my lunch menu was suddenly all about a savory Greek inspired dip.
Unlike a standard baked ricotta, I didn’t add any eggs here. This omission, plus the addition of cream cheese, kept the dip quite thin – not the quasi-souffle texture you might be expecting. Were I to make this again, I might add an egg or two just to puff it up a bit more. If you try it that way, let me know how it turns out.
Thanks to these changes, what you’re getting here is essentially melted creaminess that, at least when it’s hot, won’t even need spreading, covered by a layer of golden-brown bubbles that are easily pierced with the persistent corner of a cracker. It’s soft, it’s hot, it’s herby and spicy and perversely fresh, thanks to the lemon zest, and while I had it with crackers, it could be easily compelled to drape itself over sticks of fresh vegetables or bread. Pita chips, too, would be particularly nice. I’d be clever and current and say it would make a superb addition to a Superbowl game day spread, but I’ve narrowly missed that opportunity which, for me, seems somehow fitting. Instead, bake yourself a batch of this to fend off the post-holiday cold of the next month or two, when winter always seems the longest.
Savory Greek “cheesecake”dip
Makes a generous 1 cup
4 ounces ricotta cheese, at room temperature
4 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
Zest of one lemon
¼ teaspoon dried oregano, or ½ teaspoon fresh, finely chopped
3 pepperoncinis, finely minced
Salt to taste (start with ¼ teaspoon)
- Preheat the oven to 400F and spray or oil a 16 ounce (2 cup) oven-safe dish. I used the smallest soldier in my Corningware collection.
- In a small bowl, mix the cheeses thoroughly until they are quite smooth. Lumps are the enemy here, as they signal incomplete incorporation.
- Add the remaining ingredients, mixing well to combine evenly. Taste for salt and add more if needed.
- Using a rubber spatula, scrape into your prepared dish, smoothly the top a bit for even browning.
- Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the top is burbling and oil is sizzling around the edges.
- If you want more browning, carefully place it under the broiler for a few minutes to let some of the bubbles turn deeply golden and barely crusty.
- Remove from the oven and let sit for 5 minutes or so, just until it is cool enough to eat without scorching your throat. Serve with chips, thin slices of toast, crackers, or a crudités platter.