As I mentioned in my last post, a couple of weeks ago it was my birthday. I turned 27 (cue horror movie soundtrack)! For the second year in a row, I’ve made my own cake and this is it. It’s no tiered nor frosted affair, as you can see. I much prefer simple-looking food and it always shows in my choice of cake. I might be frugal and avoid the esthetical wow-factor, but I certainly am not frugal with flavour. In fact, this fresh and moist cake packs quite a punch, with its lemon zest and juice, from not one, but two lemons. The abundance of citrus, however, is only half of the story. The other half is ricotta.
Close your eyes. Think of the food that you love most. The one that makes you giddy with excitement, The one that you can’t help buying in the shop or ordering at the restaurant. The one that, with every mouthful, makes you simply happy. For me, that food is ricotta. It has been my favourite food for as long as I can remember. I mean, I love pizza, gelato, and all sorts of other things, but ricotta sends my tastebuds in meltdown. Together with speck from Sauris, it’s the thing that I request my mum buys for me every time I go back to Italy to visit. Its plastic box is the one I reach for in the fridge before every meal, placing it on the table next to my plate – spreading knife and slice of bread at the ready. I love ricotta on its own, or with a trickle of honey and a handful of walnut pieces mixed in. But – I know you’re not supposed to start a sentence with but, but this requires it – but, I was saying, my favourite, absolute favourite way with ricotta is dipping my finger in the batter of a ricotta cake. My mum knows this too well: as I was sneaking my index finger into this cake batter, I could hear her voice (in my head – we live about 1220 miles away from each other these days) shrieking ‘Roberta!’. She used to do that when I was little too. I would hover around her in the kitchen as she mixed the batter for struccolo di ricotta, waiting for her to turn, then I would quickly stick my finger in the bowl. She would turn again and see me looking guilty and triumphant at the same time, the finger still in my mouth.
Mark these words: ricotta, sugar, lemon zest and egg yolks are a blend made in heaven. Add some pine nuts and, if you’ll excuse the blasphemous expression, angels will sing. There are countless recipes you can make starting with this wonderful combination. A rich crostata, for instance. A strudel – struccolo, as we call it where I’m from – using either puff pastry, or, unconventionally, an easy egg-and-flour pastry that allows for the strucolo to be boiled. Yes, boiled. In time, when I’ve mastered it, I will tell you about that too. In the meantime, this cake is one of the simplest incarnations of that ingredient combination that I’ve loved for (ouch) over two decades, and come to recognise as my very own Proustian madeleine.
Preheat the oven to 190°C static / 170°C fan-assisted, then grease and flour a 23cm springform cake tin. For the cake batter, cream the softened butter with a wooden spoon; use a big-ish bowl as you’ll have a lot of ricotta in there, as well as some whipped egg whites to add. Add the sugar to the butter and cream it in until fluffy. Beat the ricotta in, then stir the egg yolks. At this point add salt, ground almonds, semolina, lemon zest and juice. Stand for 10 minutes. In the meantime, whisk the egg whites to stiff peak in a separate bowl. Fold them in the batter, gently and slowly. Pour the cake batter in the tin and bake for 1 hour, or until firm to the touch. Cover with foil halfway through to avoid burning the top. Turn the oven off and leave the cake to cool in the oven for 1 hour.