Saturday, February 26, 2011

Ricotta Cake: A Palatable Pastiera That Reminds Me of My Mother-in-Law, Brooklyn and All Good Things About Easter

I had a lot of ricotta cheese left over this week from making my homemade manicotti and I decided to try Ricotta Cake, a dessert usually popular around Easter. I know, I'm rushing the holidays again (only the warmer weather ones, I swear!!) but my not-so-great experience with ricotta cheese and the cannoli is still fresh in my mind. I figured if I gave this a try early on, I might perfect it by Easter and can bring it for a dessert to my sister-in-law's house for the holiday. (though if she reads this, I might be uninvited!!)

So once again, leafing through my old Martha Stewart Living magazines (April, 2003) I came across a recipe that was exactly what I was looking for. This is not a cheesecake, no crust is involved, but a moist, light cake with a slight cinnamon flavor that actually is called a 'pastiera' in Italian circles.

My mother-in-law who was Italian introduced me to a lot of Italian baked goods and it was a learning and growing process for me since some of the flavors were not to my liking (anisette comes to mind!) but she did make a version of this cake at Easter and I became a fan right away. I remember the savory scent of cinnamon coming from her oven in Brooklyn and the lemony color of the cake as it was placed on the dessert table.

I made some changes to the recipe and as a result, the cake was probably more moist than it should have been. It smelled amazing while baking and tasted great. The substitutions I made were small but the rice substitution probably was the reason for the extra-moistness. I'll be sure to use the right ingredients next time around. Just a note: I looked up the recipe online yesterday as I was cooking (having misplaced the hard copy version) and I was dismayed to see a bunch of negative comments posted on the recipe page about this cake. So it was with a some trepidation that I awaited the final product. My fears were misplaced. Except for the wetness of the cake it was pretty close to perfection. Give this one a try.

Ricotta Cake
Serves 8
1 quart whole milk (I substituted 1%)
3/4 cup arborio rice (I used Minute Rice, eek!!)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise (I used vanilla extract. Where do you get a vanilla bean?)
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
Unsalted butter, for pan
All-purpose flour, for pan
3 pounds fresh ricotta cheese, drained 3 hours or preferably overnight (don't forget this step) 
3 large whole eggs plus 3 large egg yolks, lightly beaten
Confectioners' sugar, for dusting
Strawberries, blueberries or raspberries for garnish (or a combination of all three)

  • Bring milk to a boil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir in rice, cinnamon, salt, and vanilla bean (or extract). Reduce heat to medium-low; cook, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, until rice is very tender and has absorbed all liquid, about 30 minutes.
  • Remove pan from heat. Stir in 3/4 cup granulated sugar. Cover; let cool, stirring occasionally. Discard vanilla bean(eliminate this if you used extract).
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour an 8-inch springform pan. In a large bowl, combine the rice mixture, ricotta, whole eggs and egg yolks, and remaining 1/2 cup sugar. Pour into prepared pan. Bake until golden on top and almost set in the center, 65 to 70 minutes; cover with foil if starting to brown too much. Transfer pan to a cooling rack.
  • When cake has completely cooled, run a knife around edge to loosen. Gently remove ring; transfer cake to a serving platter. Sprinkle with confectioners' sugar, and serve berries.

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