Why It Works

  • Ricotta provides richness, moisture, and a subtly candy, milky taste to the cake. 
  • Utilizing a mixture of cake flour and almond flour reduces the quantity of gluten within the cake, making a uniform crumb whereas additionally contributing a nice nuttiness.

I requested my three-year-old daughter Hazel what she appreciated most about Italy after her first go to. Her reply was quick: “Cake for breakfast.” Throughout our journey to Polignano a Mare, a city in Puglia, our Italian hosts supplied us a bevy of desserts each morning. Every was decidedly higher than soggy cereal and milk: a chocolate torte dusted with cocoa powder, an apricot-studded almond cake, and my favourite, a moist, lemon-kissed ricotta sponge that I continued to consider lengthy after my return dwelling to Massachusetts, a lot in order that I sought to recreate it myself. 

Breakfast in Italy is often a easy affair, consisting of a espresso—often an espresso or cappuccino—with a small candy deal with, be it a cornetto, biscuit, or slice of cake. That is how loads of Italians begin their day every morning, and although some “may confuse it for a deeply rooted, centuries-long custom,” writes Katie Parla for Eater, it’s a reasonably current phenomenon. Till the 1950’s, breakfast in Italy—at the least for the frequent people—wasn’t eaten for pleasure; it was merely a option to refill on energy earlier than an extended day of labor. It wasn’t uncommon for the meal to encompass leftovers from the evening earlier than or substances that had been about to spoil, like cheese, dairy, or bits of stale bread soaked in milk.

In response to Parla, “Italy’s post-war financial growth, coupled with rising city populations, induced radical shifts in Italy’s food programs and eating customs, together with the way in which Italians procured breakfast.” Extra Italians started breaking their quick exterior the house with a espresso and pastry. Although the biscuit stays an Italian breakfast staple, many additionally select to begin their day with a slice of cake. 

Rustic desserts made with nut meals are standard all through Italy, with so many variations from area to area, city to city, and family to family that it might be a life’s work to doc all of them. Examples embrace the mandorlaccio, a domed flourless cake made with floor almonds and sweetened with honey; ciambella alla ricotta, a ring-shaped breakfast cake with ricotta; and the torta di nocciole delle Langhe, constructed from the famed hazelnuts of Piedmont.

This explicit recipe goes by the title torta ricotta di mandorle e limone (almond, lemon, and ricotta cake) in Italy, which appears to take many types primarily based on the recipes I’ve seen for it on-line. Mine is closely impressed by the one I loved in Puglia, however is not an actual duplicate since that one did not embrace almonds. The cake isn’t flashy; it has no frosting or filling, simply powdered sugar flippantly sifted over its golden-brown dome to enhance the richness and refined sweetness of ricotta.

Critical Eats / Maureen Celestine

Perfecting the Lemon Ricotta Cake

Although the hosts introduced out the identical cake every day (with increasingly slices lacking every time…), it by no means appeared to stale. Someway, it remained moist and tender, and I used to be fairly positive the moisture-rich ricotta was key to holding it that means. It gave the impression to be a easy cake. How onerous may or not it’s to recreate?

I ought to have recognized I used to be being silly.

The cake appeared easy, however easy recipes are sometimes the toughest to get proper. In contrast to an elaborate cake with fondant or buttercream decorations to distract you from its imperfections, a simple cake like this leaves you with nowhere to cover. For sure, I bumped into some snags. 

I began with an almond-free recipe that included all-purpose flour, baking soda, salt, butter, granulated sugar, vanilla, eggs, ricotta, and lemon juice and zest. There’s so much occurring in even a fundamental batter like this. The chemistry is complicated and will fill chapters, however a succinct rundown is that this:

  • All-purpose flour is a tempting alternative because it’s essentially the most versatile, frequent flour in American kitchens (uh, the title kinda spells that out, would not it?). It is a product we are able to safely assume shall be in nearly any pantry and never require a particular journey to the shop. And, with a protein content material of about 9-12%, it is type of the mama bear of flours, sitting comfortably in the course of the gluten-development zone, which suggests it might work in a variety of recipes, from pastries to breads. As you may learn under, I ended up altering this to lower-protein cake flour within the last recipe.
  • Butter contributes fats, richness, and taste, and influences the feel of the cake. It impacts texture in two vital methods. First, when creamed with sugar, it traps numerous miniscule air pockets that can contribute lightness to the cake. Second, butter impedes gluten improvement by coating the flour’s gluten-forming proteins in fats, which reduces their means to work together and kind a powerful gluten community. We wish some gluten for the cake’s construction, however not an excessive amount of, lest it change into powerful, chewy, and dense.
  • Sugar’s contribution of sweetness is the obvious of its many roles, however under no circumstances is that its solely, and even most vital, one. Sugar has profound results on texture and taste in a wide range of methods, together with the way it binds water to each cut back gluten formation (water is a important element within the creation of gluten) and retain moisture even after the cake is baked.
  • Eggs add richness and moisture, act as an emulsifier to convey the fats and water phases collectively within the batter, and supply construction by coagulating throughout baking in order that the crumb units.
  • Ricotta, the one ingredient listed to this point that isn’t customary to only about any batter, is especially vital right here. Not solely does it add taste and richness to the cake, however it additionally helps to thicken the batter with out contributing gluten. This implies we are able to use much less flour with out ending up with a very skinny and watery batter. As a result of ricotta is not a normal batter ingredient but has a huge impact on how the cake cooks, it ended up being a wild card in my recipe improvement.

So, how did my preliminary cake prove? It tasted fairly good, however its inside was riddled with irregular holes and tunnels. Tunneling might be attributable to a number of issues: overmixing the batter and overdeveloping the gluten, an improper ratio of sugar to fats to flour, or substances which can be on the mistaken temperature. (As Stella talked about in her basic butter cake recipe, eggs which can be too chilly can curdle a batter, breaking its emulsion and inflicting tunneling.)

I tweaked and tweaked, particularly with an eye fixed towards lowering gluten improvement. I blended the batter by hand as an alternative of utilizing the stand mixer, I added extra yolks, then used fewer eggs, and even strained the ricotta. Influenced by among the desserts I’d eaten in Italy, I changed among the all-purpose flour with almond flour—one other ingredient that reduces gluten formation whereas thickening the batter (to not point out the fantastic rustic taste and texture it provides). Nonetheless, the tunnels persevered. 

It is tough to totally pinpoint what in the end mounted the cake, for the reason that variables are many and they are often onerous to tease aside, but when I needed to level to one in all my many adjustments, it was that I lastly began mixing the batter for longer. I had been so involved with avoiding the event of gluten that I’d ended up undermixing the batter. By beating the batter way more absolutely, I used to be in a position to make sure the cake was correctly emulsified with a a lot better consistency that baked right into a fluffy, tender cake. In contrast to my prior batters, which had dry clumps as I folded the ricotta and flour in by hand, this one was easy and satiny.

As a result of this extra thorough mixing provides to the danger of extreme gluten improvement, I ended up switching from the extra sensible all-purpose flour to the safer realm (from a gluten-development perspective) of lower-protein cake flour. Between the cake flour, the almond flour, and the ricotta, I used to be capable of enhance my batter-mixing for correct emulsification whereas minimizing the potential of the cake turning into powerful and rubbery.

With all of these adjustments, can I say for positive whether or not the web end result was roughly gluten improvement? Laborious to say, however what I do know is I solved the tunneling drawback whereas touchdown on a cake that was simply as mild, tender, and moist as I might needed.

Critical Eats / Maureen Celestine

Selecting the Proper Ricotta

Simply as vital was the query of what sort of ricotta to make use of. Sadly, a number of the ricotta offered within the States could be very low high quality. As a result of a lot of the cake’s taste comes from ricotta, I like to recommend utilizing the most effective yow will discover. Historically, ricotta is made by rigorously heating whey leftover from cheesemaking to a exact temperature, often between 175 and 185ºF (79 and 85ºC). Most mass-produced ricotta, nevertheless, is the results of including acid to complete or skim milk. Whereas it’s doable to get fluffy curds when acidifying milk, there generally is a huge distinction in high quality in mass-market ricotta, probably due to extra gums or stabilizers and/or the strategies used. You’ll wish to search for candy, creamy ricotta with delicate curds—as Kenji wrote in his ricotta style check, chalky ricotta is an indication the milk was “too sizzling or agitated an excessive amount of throughout manufacturing, inflicting the proteins to tighten up into rubbery bundles.” 

Whereas I like having this cake for breakfast alongside a cappuccino, it’s nice any time of day. Chances are you’ll not discover folks consuming it for dessert in Italy typically, however nobody would fault you if you happen to did tuck right into a slice as an after-dinner deal with.

February 2024

The headnote contained an error relating to lemon juice and baking soda; it has since been up to date for accuracy.

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