Italian Recipe Exchange
Olivia’s Grandma’s Ricotta Cake
My friend Olivia recently sent me five recipes, four for cookies and one for cake, from her Sicilian grandmother’s recipe book. Her grandmother, now gone, was evidently always stingy with her recipes, not even sharing them with her own daughter, yet sometimes distributing them to neighbors instead. I’ve certainly seen that before. I remember meeting up with a group of people from my grandmother’s hometown in Puglia. When I inquired about a recipe book they had put together, and I knew for a fact it existed, they acted like they had no idea what I was talking about. They didn’t want me to get my greedy little hands on it. Southern Italians can be very strange and suspicious, attaching odd motives to innocent people, especially relatives.
At any rate, I’m glad to have Olivia’s family recipes now. I find them very interesting, for they illustrate the metamorphosis much Italian food went through when it made its way to this country. Many of the ingredients Italians relied on just didn’t exist here, so they made do in ingenious ways. You wonder why grape jelly shows up in so many Italian-American dishes, even meatballs? Well, maybe you’ve never wondered, but I’ll tell you. It was usually a stand-in for vino cotto, cooked down grape must, a common sweetener in Italy.
Olivia’s grandmother came from Augusta, Sicily, a small harbor town on the southeastern part of the island, about a half hour from Catania. Olivia visited the town last summer and commented in an e-mail to me that it was amazing “in a surreal kind of way.” She didn’t elaborate on this, but I think I know what she meant. A surreal feeling can set in when you feel a part of something but yet don’t truly feel a part of it. There’s more desire than reality in many of these Old World discovery trips for a lot of us. A similar mood came over me when I visited my grandmother’s hometown of Castelfranco in Miscano. I can truly say I never felt particularly inbred until I visited that town (with its six or seven family surnames listed in the local phone book).
Olivia’s recipes are for anise cookies, hazelnut biscotti, Sicilian date balls, something called Sicilian Chocolate Salty Balls (love that name, but oddly there’s no salt in the recipe), and a ricotta cake. Getting back to my mention of grape jelly, some of the ingredients in these recipes are very obviously stand-ins. I knew I had to make the ricotta cake first, since its inclusion of a box of yellow cake mix really intrigued me, a sort of Sicilian answer to the show Semi-Homemade. I imagined cake mix must have been one of grandma’s exciting discoveries when perusing the shelves of Boston supermarkets, marveling at all the packages and cans of unfamiliar but fascinating looking stuff—something like my Nanny’s obsession with frozen spinach. She must have decided at some point to augment her family ricotta cake recipe by including it. It’s hard to say what her thinking was, and Olivia doesn’t know, but I can tell you the cake is absolutely delicious and nothing like any ricotta cake I’ve ever had in Sicily.
The technique is interesting. You first put together the boxed cake mix batter. I chose Duncan Hines French vanilla, which seemed to have the least amount of artificial flavoring. You pour that into a cake pan. Then you whip ricotta up with eggs, sugar, and a little anise flavoring, and pour that on top. As the cake bakes, the ricotta falls to the bottom and the cake bakes up on top, producing a two layer affair with a lovely, moist texture. It had the taste of a traditional ricotta cake, but with the look of an American custard pie. An amazing feat of chemistry.
Three of the cookie recipes she gave me list Crisco or margarine as an ingredient, and I believe those are stand-ins for lard, which was and still is to a certain extent a staple of Sicilian baking, used in traditional cannoli shells, for instance. The Sicilian date balls contain two cups of Rice Krispies. They may just be a substitute for rice, but it’s hard to say.
I will tackle the Salty Balls at some point, but since they were a little more complicated, with many ingredients including Hershey’s dark cocoa, cloves, cinnamon, chocolate chips, walnuts, and Crisco, I thought I’d hold off on them for a while.
Olivia, I thank you so much for sharing these recipes with me and my readers. They’re a delicious history lesson to be sure.
Here’s the cake recipe from Granny’s collection. And I might add that this entire cake takes about 15 minutes to assemble. Great for a spur of the moment espresso or vin santo party.
1 box yellow cake mix
2 pounds whole milk ricotta
¾ cup sugar
4 large eggs
¼ teaspoon anise oil (I used ¼ teaspoon anise extract mixed with ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Grease and flour a 13-by-9-inch cake pan. Prepare the cake mix according to the directions on the box, and pour it into the pan.
Now, in a large bowl, blend together the ricotta, sugar, eggs, and anise oil (or use the anise and vanilla extract substitution I chose) until well mixed. Pour this over the cake mix, but don’t mix it into the batter.
Bake for 1 hour. Let sit about 30 minutes before slicing so it can firm up a bit.