It was the beginning of June, summer was nothing more than a promise in the air. Tommaso and I drove to Val d’Orcia to meet Sabrina and Barbara, the two sisters who own Villa Pienza. It was our first time there, though we felt at home as soon as the first piece of warm focaccia was put on the table and the first glass was filled with crisp, cold wine.
We sat there, right in the middle of the most beautiful wheat fields of Val d’Orcia, while a thunderstorm was brewing outside, sharing glimpses of life, of creative work and expectations. Towards the end of the meal, when we were dizzy from the flowing food and the infinite chats, they made some space on the table, moving aside empty glasses and the remnants of a memorable dinner.
What was put there, on the middle of the table, was an unpretentious cake, a humble ricotta cake with coarse crumbs on top and some dark chocolate showing up in between.
But it had sometimes alluring that I could not explain.
Even though I was so full I could barely walk, I could not resist a slice of the cake, that was soon after followed by a second wedge. The cake was still warm, the ricotta filling creamy and the chocolate oozing.
I had to have the recipe.
Sabrina gave me ingredients and an outline of the procedure to make it. It was easy, unbelievably easy to make. It was the answer to the problem of making a crostata, a shortcrust cake, in summer, when it is so hot that the butter melts in your hands. With this cake, you use the same ingredients, but with different proportions. You rub butter, flour and sugar in fine crumbs, then you add an egg to bind everything together. You don’t have to roll out the dough, just crumble it on the bottom of the pan, press it, and spread with ricotta, then crumble some more dough on top. Easy, foolproof recipe, with endless variations allowed.
The day after, when we took this cake out of the fridge for breakfast, we had a surprise: it was dense, almost like a semifreddo. You could cut neat slices, and the chocolate was shining through. I had to make it as soon as possible.
Fast forward a few months, we’re at the end of August.
Summer is still here, in the scorching sun, in the smell of dried mint when you walk along a country road, in the hedgerows dotted with ripe blackberries and in the lazy afternoons spent inside, in the windows wide open at night to let an imperceptible breeze in.
Since that June dinner in Val d’Orcia, I’ve been making this ricotta crumb cake at least once a week, during cooking classes and when we had friends over for dinner, trying out different combinations of flour, fruit and chocolate. Everyone was impressed when we were making it – it is so easy! – but mostly when, at the end of a meal, we had a fat slice accompanied by an espresso or a little glass of iced limoncello: they always had some room left for a second serving.
A ricotta crumb cake in my cooking repertoire
Two years ago, I decided to share these recipes, staples of a Tuscan repertoire, analysing the ingredients and the process with plenty of details so that, if you want, you’ll be able to include them into your collection and make Tuscan cooking your signature style.
After the crespelle alla fiorentina and the eggplant meatballs, after the ricotta and kale gnudi, after one of the desserts you loved the most, a humble Tuscan apple olive oil cake, and the summer baked eggplants with a breadcrumb topping, after the Tuscan ragù, the stuffed turkey breast, and the Italian potato salad, I want to share with you the recipe for a ricotta crumb cake.
I still have to decide if I prefer the cake warm from the oven, or after a few hours of resting in the fridge. Today I’m sharing with you’re the recipe for this ricotta crumb cake, as part of a Tuscan cooking repertoire, as an unmissable summer cake, and I’ll let you decide when to serve it, if you are in a hurry or armed by adamant patience.
Let’s have a look at the ingredients of the ricotta crumb cake
Flour. Along with all-purpose flour, Sabrina told me to add 100 g of unsweetened shredded coconut. It works perfectly to make a crumbly summer cake, and it marries beautifully the dark chocolate of the filling. I often substitute the shredded coconut with almond flour for a nuttier result. I find almonds are the perfect complement to blueberries and apricots. I’m sure I’ll be using hazelnut flour soon, for a more autumnal flavour, along with dark chocolate and chestnuts.
Butter. I used both unsalted and rich semi-salted butter. They work perfectly well.
Sugar. Sabrina did not add sugar to the ricotta filling, I usually add a scant tablespoon. Follow your taste, but do not exaggerate with the amount of sugar, especially if you’re using fresh fruit or jam with ricotta.
More than a filling
The recipe Sabrina gave me for the filling called for fresh ricotta, a tiny glass of vinsanto, a sprinkle of cinnamon and a generous handful of roughly chopped dark chocolate. If you make this cake for the first time, start with this combination, and you’ll fall in love. Then, for the next cake, you’ll bake, play with your imagination, or use one of these possible fillings I tried over summer.
Ricotta and summer berries. Mash two cups of your favourite summer berries with a tablespoon of lemon juice and a tablespoon of sugar then set aside for half an hour. If you, like me, love herbal notes in desserts, try mint with strawberries, basil with raspberries, bay leaves with blueberries and sage with blackberries. Drop dollops of berries on the ricotta. Top with crumbles and bake.
Ricotta and grapes, with rosemary. This is Tommaso’s favourite combination. I patiently cut open all the grapes, remove the tiny seeds, then sprinkle them with cane sugar, the leaves from a few thyme sprigs and the grated zest of half a lemon. Very classy, end of summer cake.
Ricotta and jam. If you do not have fresh fruit at hand, try with your favourite jam. I already tried once with my bay leaf and blueberry jam and once with a sweet and tart apricot jam. Thick slices of preserved fruit in syrup work as well: a few weeks ago, I used my preserved apricots, for example.
Ricotta and Fall fruit. Can you imagine jammy figs in this cake, with a hint of rosemary? Or what about crumbled marrons glacés? It feels festive already. I can’t wait for persimmons: I’ll cut them open, and I’ll spoon their pulp just like jam on top of the ricotta, adding maybe some crumbled amaretti, too.
Ricotta crumb cake with plums
So here we are with the recipe. Let me know if you’ll try it and which filling you’ll choose.
Ricotta crumb cake
For the cake
- 250 g (2 cups) all-purpose flour
- 100 g (3 ½ oz) almond flour
- 50 g (3 tbsp) sugar
- 100 g (3 ½ oz) butter, cold
- 15 g (1 tbsp) baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 egg
For the filling
- 500 g (1 lb) fresh ricotta
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 small glass of vinsanto, or your favourite dessert wine
- grated zest of ½ organic lemon
- 8 plums
- Preheat oven to 180°C (350°F).
- In a large bowl, collect the flour, the almond flour, the sugar, the baking powder and the salt. Add the butter, cut it into small pieces. Rub all the ingredients with your fingers until you get fine crumbs, almost like sand.
- Add a beaten egg and work all the ingredients again with the tips of your fingers' tips until you get coarse crumbs. You do not need to make a ball of dough. Stop when you get coarse crumbs that stay together when squeezed in your hand. Set aside.
- Now prepare the filling. Scoop the ricotta into a bowl. Add a little glass of vinsanto, the sugar and the grated zest of half a lemon. Whisk energetically until you get a smooth cream.
- Line with parchment paper a 26-cm round cake pan. I usually butter the pan, too, to stick the parchment to the edges: it will be easier when it comes to making a nice cake.
- Now spoon a little bit more than half of the crumbly dough on the bottom of your pan, and press it with the palm of your hands to make the crust.
- Pour the ricotta on top, and spread it with a spatula.
- Pit the plums and arrange them on top of the ricotta.
- Now crumble the dough that was left on top.
- Bake for about 40 minutes, until pale golden and set.
- Remove from the oven and let it cool down for about 15 minutes before transferring it to a plate. Eat warm, or stash in the fridge for a few hours.
Serve this ricotta crumb cake with…
This meal resembles one of the many summer lunches we had after a whole morning spent in a cooking class. Start with pasta with a garlicky tomato sauce with guanciale and olives, then prepare a turkey breast with a tuna and mayonnaise sauce and serve it with a tray of baked vegetables topped with more crumbs.
- Pasta with tomato sauce, guanciale and olives. A garlicky tomato sauce, a handful of pitted olives to stir in some bitterness and strips of browned guanciale to coat a simple bowl of pasta, better if whole wheat. All you need is a sprinkling of cheese, a chair and a fork to call this a meal.
- Turkey breast with tuna and mayonnaise sauce. You roast the meat on the stovetop with the canned tuna, lemon zest and white wine. This has a double effect. On one side your meat, a turkey breast which is known to be a cheap cut with not much flavour, will turn out unusually tasty and juicy. On the other hand, and here the quality of the wine has a key role, the white wine gravy gives an unexpected scent to the tuna mayonnaise.
- Baked eggplants. Colours and textures of that once loved recipe surfaced along with the ingredients: eggplants, of course, either the round purple ones or those thin long ones, then breadcrumbs, parsley, capers, garlic and some grated Parmigiano. There it was, my forgiving recipe, thick slices of eggplants topped with boldly flavoured breadcrumbs, roasted in the oven until golden and crisp. You can use also peppers, onions and, my favourite, tomatoes halved and emptied.
All the recipes of my cooking repertoire
These are all the recipes I added so far into my cooking repertoire. This is an ever-growing list, an always expanding collection that represents the way I live Tuscan food and cooking. Have you already tried something?
- Crespelle alla fiorentina. It is a handy recipe to learn as you can vary the filling according to the season: asparagus, artichokes and butternut squash are some of my favourites along with spinach and Swiss chard. You can mix the vegetables with fresh milky ricotta or add some béchamel into the filling. Cheese is a welcomed ingredient: Parmigiano Reggiano, Tuscan or Roman Pecorino, ricotta salata, or any other savoury aged cheese that you would happily grate over your pasta.
- Ricotta and Tuscan kale gnudi. There are two crucial ingredients here that can help you ease the anxiety while waiting for your gnudi to float tot the top: ricotta and cavolo nero, the Tuscan kale. Use well-drained ricotta and squeeze very well the cooked kale. Once you make this, they will be your next success in the kitchen.
- Tuscan ragù. The Tuscan ragù is cooked with red wine, poured in little by little, and with tomato purée (just tomatoes that have been peeled and blended into a sauce), even better if it is your homemade tomato purée, made during the heat of summer. To give more character to the ragù and have a more rustic sauce, sometimes I prefer to replace the passata with the same weight of peeled tomatoes, roughly crushed with my hands.
Main courses and side dishes
- Beef and eggplant meatballs. According to the season, you can substitute roasted eggplants with boiled potatoes, roasted butternut squash or breadcrumbs soaked in milk. I usually choose between grated Parmigiano Reggiano, aged Pecorino or Provolone to add flavour to the meat, sometimes adding brined capers, too. This time I opted for Parmigiano, along with a pinch of dry oregano to give a Mediterranean touch.
- Stuffed turkey breast. One of the recipes that my mum taught me and that I immediately associate with Sunday lunches is the stuffed turkey breast, roasted on the stovetop and not in the oven. It is a humble dish, but it has enormous potential.
- Baked eggplants. Colours and textures of that once loved recipe surfaced along with the ingredients: eggplants, of course, either the round purple ones or those thin long ones, then breadcrumbs, parsley, capers, garlic and some grated Parmigiano. There it was, my forgiving recipe, thick slices of eggplants topped with boldly flavoured breadcrumbs, roasted in the oven until golden and crisp.
- Italian potato salad. So a potato salad, which I had overlooked for years, becomes a distinguishing element of a menu, especially if you dress it with an Italian twist, with wild fennel, capers and olives. You can find the same aromas in a roasted pork loin with olive oil and wine, or in the baked eggplants that you are planning to serve as an appetiser.
- Apple olive oil cake. You can dress it up for a dinner party: serve a slice of warm apple cake with a scoop of vanilla gelato, a cloud of whipped cream or a drizzle of custard. Wrap in foil a slice of cake for a school break or an office break. Bake the olive oil apple cake on a Sunday and enjoy it for breakfast on the first days of the week with a strong coffee or a cappuccino.
- Coffee and vanilla pound cake. A versatile recipe to make a pound cake with the ingredients you have at hand, with a detailed explanation of the four macro-categories of ingredients you can use, plus a recipe for a vanilla pound cake marbled with coffee, designed to wake you up in the morning. Use white farro flour, white sugar and dark cane sugar, Greek yoghurt and butter.
- One of the books I loved the most this summer is The Way We Eat Now, by Bee Wilson. Data, statistics, stories, insights, interviews, memories. This is excellent food writing and outstanding journalism, all weaved with the best storytelling. Bee Wilson shares the true story of how we got to eat what we eat, the dangers and the hopes. As Nigella Lawson said, you have to read this book, to understand the world we live in and what we can do to make it more sustainable and fair. We were never quite so confused about food, and what actually is. So, begin with this book, delve into the economy, gastronomy, ecology, psychology, history, traditions and cooking and discover how they are all related. You won’t be able to put it down. I’m sharing a food-related book every time in our weekly newsletter, this was in the latest issue. Don’t miss it, and subscribe here.
- It’s Not Always Excellent to Be Jamie Oliver. An interesting article about Jamie Oliver, after he lost his restaurant empire. But he has still so much to say! He’s always been such an inspiration to me.
- The Tuscan Town Famous for Anarchists, Marble, and Lard. The Apuan Alps, an unknown part of Tuscany with an incredible charm. And they make the tastiest lardo there!