There was always a tub of ricotta in the fridge while I was growing up. Papa’ would often have it on bread with some of my mother’s home made jam for breakfast. Ricotta is so versatile that mamma would use it most days in both sweet and savoury dishes. She tells stories of making it during World War II, when they had to leave the tiny town in Veneto in Italy where she grew up to escape the bombing and move to a small remote farm, which was considered a lot safer. With her sisters, she helped to run the farm and this included making butter and ricotta cheese.
My favourite was always her ricotta cake. The creamy centre filled with grappa soaked sultanas and pine nuts fills me with memories of growing up in my italian home. The recipe is my mother’s – she says that she copied recipes from her friends and adapted them to make this version. The secret is in the grappa soaked sultanas. A small jar filled with these is always in my fridge, ready to make a ricotta cake or even to put on some creamy yoghurt for a night-time adult snack. Grappa is distilled from left over grape skins/pulp/stems from wine making. It is a great use of what would otherwise be waste. I remember my father making it – illegally – when I was tiny. I love adding a splash of it in a cup of espresso coffee with some sugar (this is called caffe’ corretto). Of course you can have straight but it is rather potent and best drunk chilled. You can buy grappa from a good liquor store (like Piedimonte’s in Melbourne), or if you are still lucky enough to know someone making it in their backyard…..(let me know!)
When I asked mamma for the recipe of her ricotta cake, she could not tell me. I had to watch her make it, count the number of handfuls and non-metric tablespoons that went in. She has tasted my metric version of the recipe and agrees it is pretty close to hers! You don’t even need an electric mixer to make it. I find that the hardest part is not eating the ricotta filling before putting it in the cake.
Dolce di Ricotta alla Livia (Livia’s ricotta cake)
Cake: 1 large egg, beaten; 50g butter, melted; 4-5 tablespoons caster sugar (depending on how sweet you like it); zest of 1/3 orange and 1/3 lemon; 3/4 cup self raising flour; 1/4 cup of milk (plus a bit more if needed); 1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla essence
Ricotta filling: 450g ricotta; 2-3 tablespoons caster sugar (depending on how sweet you like it); 60g sultanas pre-soaks in grappa (if you don’t have grappa, use brandy or warm water if you don’t want to use alcohol); 30g pine nuts; 1 large egg, beaten; 1 1/2 tablespoons self raising flour; zest 1/2 lemon
Preheat oven to 180 degrees. Line and grease a loaf tin. Mix all ingredients (remember to drain the sultanas) for ricotta filling including a bit of the grappa/brandy they were soaked in if you like. Set aside. Add more flour if it is too runny. It should be fairly firm (see photo above as there is a plate of ricotta filling in the background).
Mix the cake ingredients with a wooden spoon in another bowl. Layer half this mixture in the loaf tin. If it is too difficult to spread, add a bit more milk to achieve the desired consistency. Then layer all of the ricotta mixture on top of this. Smooth with the back of a spoon so that it is flat. Add the other half of the cake mixture as a thin layer over the top. You should have just enough to cover it.
Cook at 180 degrees for 10 minutes then reduce the heat to 160 degrees for 40-45 minutes until golden. Allow to cool in the pan before removing. Serve at room temperature. You can dust the top with icing sugar if you like, it looks prettier that way.