Weekend Project: Lemon Ricotta Cake with Pears
or the easiest cake to make when you have leftover ricotta
Ciao and welcome to a new letter from Tuscany. Today you’ll read about the small cheese food truck at the market, my love for ricotta, and a simple lemon and ricotta cake with pears for a Fall weekend project.
There’s a little truck at the market that parks on the edges of the big parking lot that hosts the Wednesday market in Gracciano, where I shop every week for the cooking classes. It is located in an isolated position, right next to the two busy vegetable stalls, shadowed by a large, white tent.
On the open side, the vendor lines up pasta packets, canned tuna, baccalà, olives in brine, capers and sun-dried tomatoes, mozzarella, ricotta, and all things pecorino, from the mellow, young marzolino to aged wedges that crumble under his experienced knife. On the back of the truck, a quarter of a Parmigiano Reggiano wheel sits at the centre of the stage, surrounded by local charcuterie, bread, focaccia, and more canned goods. It’s like a tiny, well-stocked supermarket on wheels, where I know I can find everything to satisfy last minute requests for mascarpone, burrata, or pitch black, oven-roasted olives.
You might have to queue for a while behind nonnas provided with their handy shopping trolleys: be patient, they’ll want to go through the whole inventory inquiring how fresh each product is, and if it is good (and the vendor will courteously reply that yes, of course it is, it’s the freshest/best you could ever get).
When it’s our turn, we bow our heads to get under the tent, as we were curtseying at the spread of local cheese making a show in front of us.
I inspect the cheese on display, searching for new items to try, maybe that fresh pecorino to bake on a crostone with pears, or that provolone to grill and serve with a drizzle of honey. And, invariably, I end up with the same request: and 500 grams of ricotta. Is it fresh?
I cannot restrain my inner nonna spirit from asking if the sheep milk ricotta is fresh, just for the gratification of being told that yes, it has been made yesterday, and it comes from San Gimignano.
Content, I grab my pecorino and ricotta and we move on to new adventures in the kitchen.
Nine times out of ten, though, I forget about the ricotta when we plan our menu, or we end up using just a part of it, so I have to come up with ideas to use it.
It might become the filling of a savory tart with spinach and nutmeg, or I might toss the pasta in the ricotta, tinted with a spoonful of tomato sauce and a sprinkle of dried oregano. Recently, though, since I was left with quite a lot of ricotta already mixed with sugar, I was reminded of a Sardinian ricotta cake I used to make during the first months of blogging, inspired by a recipe I had found on Cavoletto’s blog.
Do you know what ricotta means?
Ricotta has encoded in its name the way it is produced. “Ri-cotta” in Italian means “re-cooked,” or “cooked again,” referring to how the fresh whey cheese is made by re-cooking the whey leftover from making other cheeses. This process is key to making real ricotta, in its lightest, softest, truest form.
By Italian law, ricotta is defined not as a cheese, which must be made from milk, but as a separate dairy product.
Even in Italy, however, it is difficult to find proper ricotta in supermarkets. If you read the label of an industrially-produced ricotta, most of the time you’ll find milk—or worse, cream—listed in the ingredients. Real ricotta, on the other hand, is made exclusively from whey—perhaps also a bit of salt, but nothing else. Often the best way to find real ricotta is to buy it directly from a dairy farm or creamery.
As for the kind of milk, you can find ricotta made from cow, sheep, goat, and even buffalo milk. They will differ in flavor and consistency—cow’s milk ricotta is the lightest, buffalo’s milk ricotta is the richest, and goat’s milk ricotta, somewhere in between, tends to be a bit crumblier—but all share the same light, delicate texture.
My preference goes to sheep ricotta, and this is what I used to make today’s cake, but any ricotta you can find will work.
More recipes to use your ricotta
RECIPE - LEMON RICOTTA CAKE WITH PEARS
I adore those cakes that can be whipped up in 5 minutes and require one, maximum two bowls. This cake is a great example of a special category of cakes I mentioned a couple of months ago, torte da credenza.