There was always 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!)
You don’t need an electric mixer to make it. You can mix it all with a wooden spoon. The quantity makes a lot of cake (to fit my mother’s old cake tin) – you could easily halve it. I find that the hardest part is not eating the ricotta filling before putting it in the cake – it is just delicious. Use fresh ricotta bought from a delicatessen rather than the ones that you buy from a tub in a supermarket – it is so much nicer. I used candied orange peel rather than orange zest in the ricotta filling for the cake in the photo.
Dolce di Ricotta alla Livia (Livia’s ricotta cake)
2 large eggs lightly beaten
100g butter, melted and cooled
150g caster sugar (depending on how sweet you like it)
zest of 1/2 orange and 1/2 lemon
250g cup self raising flour
1/2 cup of milk (plus more if needed)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla essence
100-150g caster sugar (depending on how sweet you like it)
80g – 100g sultanas pre-soaked in grappa (if you don’t have grappa, use brandy or warm water if you don’t want to use alcohol), drained
40g pine nuts, toasted
2 eggs beaten
2 1/2 tablespoons self raising flour
zest 1/2 lemon and 1/2 orange
Preheat oven to 180 degrees. Line and grease a large rectangular tin 38cm x 35cm (or a round 23cm pan). Mix all the ingredients for ricotta filling. Set aside. Add more flour if it is too runny. It should be fairly firm.
Mix the cake ingredients with a wooden spoon in another bowl. Layer half this mixture in the cake 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. I sometimes make more cake batter (add another egg, another half cup of flour and a tablespoon of sugar) if it looks like I will not have enough (when I am using a larger cake tin).
Cook at 175 degrees for 10 minutes then reduce the heat to 160 degrees for 40-45 minutes until golden (if you use the round pan it will take 10 minutes more, it should be firm to touch). Allow to cool in the pan before removing. Serve at room temperature or even slightly chilled.