Cooking Off the Cuff: For Dessert, a Memory of Sicily

If you can get the makings, you will amaze your guests -- and yourself.
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It could be 15 years ago that Jackie and I went to Sicily. It was a memorable trip in so many ways, but on the food side the most striking thing was how traditional the menus were: On the coast, there was fish and little meat; inland there was hardly any fish at all (except dried or salted), but plenty of meat, both farmed and wild. That's powerfully old-fashioned, and I wonder whether it still holds true.

I retain two specific cooking discoveries that I still act on regularly: from Palermo, tuna cooked through rather than being served rare or raw the way we tend to do it in the U.S. nowadays; and from some hilltop village toward the center of the island, one of the best no-cook desserts ever. This was fluffy sheep's milk ricotta with the most crazily flavorful honey we'd ever had and some toasted nuts for a little crunch.

"Fluffy sheep's milk ricotta"; "crazily flavorful honey": clearly, the quality of the ingredients was what made this so good. Luckily, those of us who live near farmers' markets can sometimes find what's needed. Last week, I got a basket of excellent ricotta from Dancing Ewe Farm; it is packaged in such a way that it continues to drain as you keep it in the fridge, which is a fine idea. (I've had delicious sheep ricotta from 3-Corner Field Farm and Valley Shepherd Creamery too.) And I bought a jar of dark, complex Connecticut buckwheat honey from Andrew's Honey.

If you know ricotta only from the supermarket dairy case, you probably think of it as a damp and tasteless thing good only as a foil for tastier ingredients in lasagne or ravioli, or as the basis of a cheesecake batter. The kind I'm talking about here is quite different: It tastes of fresh ewe's milk and pasture, and it has a soft springiness that gives special pleasure in the eating.

I also got hold of some good shelled walnuts; these I put into a skillet over low heat and toasted them lightly just until they began to smell aromatic.

And that was dessert: An egg-sized blob of ricotta; a generous tablespoon of honey; a few toasted walnuts, with more honey and nuts brought to the table for refills.

If you can get the makings, you will amaze your guests -- and yourself. Except those of you who've been to Sicily or another sheep-raising region that makes such good use of the local milk. (Leftover ricotta? The plan for ours is to drop blobs of it onto a dish of pasta dressed with fresh tomatoes, herbs and olive oil.)

For Dessert, A Memory Of Sicily