Pecan Shortbread with Fresh Ricotta and Honey

by Carol Peterman

These are delicate little shortbread cookies that offer a perfect stage for fresh homemade ricotta. The ricotta plays perfectly against the peppery bite of the mace. If you are not serving the ricotta you could use a bit less mace or substitute a less potent spice like nutmeg or cinnamon. 

Makes about one dozen 2 -1/2 inch cookies

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon ground mace
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick or 4 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 ounces (about 1/2 cup) coarsely chopped pecans, toasted
12 nice looking pecans for garnish
honey for garnish
1 batch fresh ricotta cheese (see recipe above)

Sift together the flour, mace, and salt and set aside. Using an electric mixer with a paddle attachment, beat the butter until fluffy. Add the sugar and vanilla and continue to beat for about 3 minutes. With the mixer on the lowest speed add the flour and stop the mixer just before all of the flour is fully incorporated. Add the pecans and finish mixing by hand just to the point that all the flour is mixed in and the pecans nicely distributed. Over mixing will build gluten and make the cookies tough.

Turn the dough out onto an large piece of plastic wrap and press it together to form a round disc. Wrap tightly with the plastic and place in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours to chill.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or bake on an ungreased sheet pan.

Unwrap the dough and place it on a lightly floured surface. Roll the dough out to about 3/8-inches thick. the dough may crack as you roll, but just press the cracks together and keep working the dough out. It will tend to stick to the work surface so after every few rolls slide a spatula or bench scraper under the dough to free it from sticking. Cut the dough with a cookie cutter and place each cookie on the baking sheet about one inch apart. Bake for 15-20 minutes until the edges of the cookies are just beginning to brown. Remove from the oven and slide the parchment onto a cooling rack, if you are not using parchment let the cookies rest on the baking sheet for a few minutes until they are set enough to safely lift to the cooling rack without breaking.

Just before serving, place a scoop or fresh ricotta on each cooled cookie and top with a pecan half then drizzle with honey. If you have just made the ricotta it will be extra delicious to serve the cheese warm, but if it has been in the refrigerator let it warm up a bit before serving on the cookies. 

Whole Milk Ricotta Cheese

1 quart whole milk (do not use ultra-pasteurized milk)
1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar
1/2 teaspoon sea salt

Place a fine mesh strainer over a medium bowl. Cut a piece of cheese cloth large enough to line the strainer and be folded to create 2-4 layers. Wet the cheese cloth with water and wring out the excess so the cloth is just damp. Layer it and spread it evenly over the strainer and set aside.

Pour the milk, vinegar, and salt into a heavy-bottomed sauce pan and heat the mixture over a medium-low temperature stirring occasionally to prevent the milk from scorching on the bottom of the pan. Once the mixture reaches 175 degrees F the curds should begin to form. If you have a thermometer, use it to track the progress, but it is not critical to use a thermometer because either way you want to watch carefully for the curd formation. As soon as you see the first signs of curds forming, remove the pan from the heat and resist the urge to stir.

Let the mixture rest 10-15 minutes and then give it a gentle stir to release any curds from the bottom of the pan. Carefully pour or gently scoop the curds with a mesh scoop into the cheese cloth lined strainer. Let the ricotta cheese drain until it reaches a consistency you are happy with. Once the initial volume drains down, you can gather up the cheese cloth ends and tie them to create a sack that can be hung from a kitchen faucet to continue draining. Store the ricotta cheese in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to a week. You can freeze any ricotta you will not be using right away.