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A summer report from Italy: Lemon Ricotta Cake recipe

August 1, 2013 / By johannah

A week ago I decided on a whim to go to Italy for a few days. After a trip to Piemonte last fall, I’ve been dreaming of a summertime return. Last year, my sister and her husband returned from their summer holiday in Piemonte – where his parents have a house – with crates of juicy, tender apricots and peaches, tomatoes so ripe they were about to burst and peppers the size of small melons.

Freshly baked grissini at a market in Alba.

Freshly baked grissini at a market in Alba.

So as soon as I’d booked my flight, I started assembling a mental list of galettes, tarts, crumbles and pies I’d be baking with this abundance of summer fruit.

I don’t know what I was thinking. There is only so much baking you can do in three days, especially when you’re having ice cream for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Ice cream from Grom in Asti.

Ice cream from Grom in Asti.

But I couldn’t leave here without making at least one proper Italian dessert. Ricotta cakes are a staple at bakeries and supermarkets throughout Italy. They vary from region to region, but around here, they are dense, almost pudding-like in texture with a mild, creamy flavor. This version – adapted from a recipe by Deborah Mele – is a little lighter, though it remains true to the original. Lots of lemon zest and juice adds a refreshing tang, which is pretty great when the afternoon heat sets in and all you want to do is immerse yourself in a vat of lemon sorbet. You can cover the cake in a lemon glaze or dust it with confectioner’s sugar. I think it’d be delicious with fresh fruit or berries too, for a simple summer dessert.

Our haul from the market in Asti.

Our haul from the market in Asti.

Mele’s recipe recommends using sheep’s milk ricotta. I’d never even seen anything but plain old supermarket ricotta, so imagine my delight when the cheese monger at the market in Asti actually sold fresh sheep’s milk ricotta.

Cheese monger at the market in Asti serving up fresh mozzarella.

Cheese monger at the market in Asti serving up fresh mozzarella.

Somewhat surprisingly, considering the amount of lemon zest in this cake, the sheep’s milk flavor came through loud and clear. Try it if you like, but I’d call this particular flavor interesting rather than good, and will be making it with regular ricotta in the future.

Fresh ricotta.

Fresh ricotta.

Lemon Ricotta Cake

85 g (1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp) all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
170 g (3/4 cup) butter, softened
150 g (3/4 cup) sugar
3 large eggs, separated
240 ml (1 cup) whole-milk ricotta cheese
3 large lemons, zested
1 tbsp lemon juice

Lemon Glaze

1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
1 tbsp lemon juice


Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Butter an 8-inch round cake pan and line the bottom with parchment paper.

In a small bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt, and set aside. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar at high speed until it is light and fluffy. Turn down the speed to medium and add the eggs yolks, ricotta, lemon zest and juice and mix until smooth. Add the flour mixture and mix on low speed until just combined.

In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until soft peaks form. Gently fold the egg whites into the batter.

Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan and smooth the top with an offset spatula. Bake the cake for about 40-45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.

Allow cake to cool in the pan on a wire rack for 15 minutes, then carefully invert onto the rack to cool completely.

While the cake is cooling, make the lemon glaze. In a small bowl, whisk together confectioner’s sugar and lemon juice. Add more sugar or lemon juice as needed, until the glaze is thick and glossy, but this pourable. Smooth over the top of the cooled cake.

The cake can be stored, tightly covered, at room temperature for a day, or in the fridge for up to three days.

Morning light from a hillside near Castelnuovo Calcea.

Morning light from a hillside near Castelnuovo Calcea.

About The Baking Society

The National Baking Society is dedicated to preserving American baking standards,techniques, ingredients, ideas and recipes. In less extravagant ornate prose, The National Baking Society is a blog from the folks at Baked.