Recipe: Ricotta Torta with Honey and Orange Flower Water
For me ricotta has always been one of the most soothing foods. Its subtle flavor is hard to pin down. I know it when I taste it or smell it, but it’s so elusive it almost isn’t there. Maybe that’s its appeal. All I know is that ricotta has a huge pull on my soul, calming me when I’m anxious, exciting me when I’m bored. It signals the emergence of a dish of stuffed shells or ravioli or lasagna. What I taste first in those beautiful preparations is the oozing ricotta, lightly scented with nutmeg and maybe parsley. How that particular flavor jumps out amid all that sausage, tomato, and garlic is beyond my comprehension, but there it is, up front.
This holiday season, I wanted to work ricotta into at least one of my meals. I bought a big container of locally made fancy stuff at Murray’s cheese shop, on Bleecker Street. It was milky, with a touch of tang. How lovely.
Things got strained and strange over Christmas, as I knew they would. As you may recall from my Christmas post, my mother can’t eat by mouth anymore, so as the household cook I found this year’s holidays loaded with anxiety. Not a lot of soothing going on. How do you make a holiday meal for a family where the matriarch doesn’t eat? Make the food appealing but inconspicuous? What could that even mean? Make the food boring? Make less of it? Get takeout? I managed to plan a good Christmas one-pot meal, a big pasta with shrimp, brandy, and a lot of fresh herbs, but at 7 p.m. I still had that tub of ricotta sitting useless in my refrigerator. I became, well, not frantic exactly, but in need of a Negroni, which I made for myself. Gotta use up that ricotta or it’ll go bad. That would be a sin. Should I make a ricotta cheesecake? It’s so time-consuming with that crust and lattice top. And it’s more of an Easter thing. But whatever. I thought for a moment more and decided to just throw a cake-like concoction together quickly by beating egg whites and then combining the ricotta and flavorings together in the food processor. Into the oven it went. At least I used the ricotta. I made myself another Negroni. At best I was expecting some sort of soggy ricotta pancake. Instead I got a delicious, tender torta di ricotta, senza crust, but simple and so fragrant.
I felt peaceful eating this torta, almost carefree, as if I were dropping in on someone else’s Christmas. It was strangely transporting, right when I needed it. Who made that cake anyway? Must have been the ricotta Christmas fairy. Thank you Mr. Fairy. Wait a minute. I’ve made things like it before. That was no fairy, that was me. My old cooking brain had just kicked in, working on automatic pilot. Thank you, old brain full of good Italian recipes.
Ricotta Torta with Honey and Orange Flower Water
About a tablespoon or so of softened butter, to grease the pan
6 extra-large eggs
½ cup sugar
½ cup orange blossom honey (or some other mild honey)
A big pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon orange flower water
The grated zest from 1 large lemon and 1 large orange
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 large container whole milk ricotta (about 30 ounces)
¼ teaspoon baking powder
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Grease a nine-inch springform pan with the butter.
Separate the eggs, placing the yolks in a food processor and the whites in the bowl for your mixer (either a standing or handheld one).
Add the sugar, honey, salt, vanilla, orange flower water, and lemon zest to the food processor, and give it all a few good pulses. Now add the ricotta, the nutmeg, and the baking powder, and process until the mixture is smooth. Pour this into a large bowl.
Whip the egg whites until they achieve the classic stiff-peaks stage.
Add half the egg whites to the bowl, and gently fold them in. Now add the rest of the egg whites, and fold until just blended.
Pour this into the greased pan, and bake until the cake is browned and puffy and feels fairly firm in the center, about 50 or 60 minutes.
Place the cake on a rack. It will immediately deflate a bit, but that’s normal. Let it cool, and then remove the rim of the pan. You can now dust it with powdered sugar, if you like.