Ada Boni’s Lemon Ricotta Cake, and the Meaning Behind It

Ada Boni's Lemon Ricotta Cake | Hortus Natural CookingListening to: Mon Coeur s’Ouvre a ta Voix (Samson et Dalila) ~ Camille Saint-Saens

When I was in New York, there was a place I always went to for fresh ricotta about once a week.  I reached for that plastic tub, and I did for several reasons. Sure, I did because I knew that ricotta was locally made with organic milk, and I also did because pasta with basil, ricotta and peas has always been one of my staples (care for the recipe?).
But the main reason was another.
Whenever I reached for that tub, I could not help but think of what those snow-white curds meant for me. I did because, as I grabbed it and held it in my hand, which inevitably turned numb with the cold, clouds of images started forming in my head.
I snapped a mental photograph of my post-school afternoons, when for merenda my mom would spread a thick layer of fresh ricotta on a slice of white bread – the kind of fluffy, classic Italian baker’s bread I never liked but never had the courage to tell her, and sprinkle it with honey or sugar. I thought of the pool of the many things I never had the courage to tell her, as, though she never admitted it, she has the same tendency to snap at remarks as me: I never  told her how I never liked the shoes she picked for me, or how I once hid a door key that we both never found again in an attempt of vengeance for what I thought was an undeserved punishment.
But, even on that bread I did not like, ricotta and honey were a crown on a poor man’s head. It was my favorite merenda, and one of those many things that just tend to fade with adulthood, without a specific reason. It is like Bianca Pitzorno says in her book La Voce Segreta (The Secret Voice), in which Cora, the little girl protagonist, can talk to objects and small children with a secret voice that everyone said would disappear as she grew older.

Then my mind proceeded to paint the picture of my mom, sitting at her table as a kid, in those little dresses I always saw her wear in her black-and-white photos. She told me how, when they could have merenda, it was always that white bread from the baker downstairs, topped with the freshest ricotta from the countryside, where her grandmother still resided. A sprinkling of sugar topped it, and that was it. A merenda that bore the milky taste of her countryside heritage, mixed with the store-bought bread which so well represented their attempt to embrace the ever gentrifying town lifestyle. In their countryside home, the outdoors wood-fired oven built into the wall had been bricked up.
She took her slice and went and hid in the attic, where she hid a pile of books that the family preferred she did not read. She, too, had many things she did not have the courage to tell her mother.

Ada Boni's Lemon Ricotta Cake | Hortus Natural CookingAda Boni's Lemon Ricotta Cake | Hortus Natural CookingAda Boni's Lemon Ricotta Cake | Hortus Natural CookingAda Boni's Lemon Ricotta Cake | Hortus Natural Cooking

I thought of all the other things I could have used that ricotta for. I could have made pane e ricotta again, and sprinkled a touch of cinnamon on top, which I so learned to love after spending a fall in the States. Or I could have made a spiced sugar with rose petals and sweet spices, or maybe a honey bomb, to top it. I could have made a cake, or a filling for crespelle. Or maybe I could have eaten it as is, with honey and walnuts.
This whole, Orient Express-like train of thought lasted no more than a few seconds. It vanished as I put the ricotta in the basket, like when you wave smoke away with your hands.
Pasta with ricotta and peas it would be.

As I grabbed that tub again to pass it to the cashier register, I thought of what that same tub of ricotta could mean to other people. I wondered if there was something people thought as they grabbed that very same tub. And I though about what stations those trains of thoughts could stop at today, and where they could go in the future.

This meaning behind food is way too important to me, and the reason why I try my hardest at keeping this blog going in spite of the work overload I accepted for the year. I am just back from the event Cibo a Regola d’Arte organized by Corriere della Sera and Angela Frenda, where I was a finalist for their #CucinaBlogAward. I was so happy I had the chance to meet and listen to some of the most inspiring people ever, including the winners and other finalists (full list at the end of the post!). In particular, I loved a speech given by Andrea Berton and Antonio Santini about how their work as (Michelin starred) chefs is tied to their roots (more on this in another post, coming soon), and I was happy to meet Amanda Hesser, and hear her talk about her experience as a writer and entrepreneur.
I was most happy to exchange a word with Francesco Zonin – a man who stood out both for his stance and his quiet composure – head of a very large company of winemakers, which sponsored both these awards and the Saveur Awards. I asked him what he loved most about his job.
‘As wine dealers we always have to keep our feet both forward and back,’ he said. ‘We have to explore new trends for sure, but we can never forget who we were and what our ancestors did. The moment we lose track of our past, we’re lost.’
And we – writers, bloggers, photographers, and ultimately cooks – can all relate to that.

Ada Boni's Lemon Ricotta Cake | Hortus Natural CookingAda Boni's Lemon Ricotta Cake | Hortus Natural CookingAda Boni's Lemon Ricotta Cake | Hortus Natural CookingAda Boni's Lemon Ricotta Cake | Hortus Natural CookingAda Boni's Lemon Ricotta Cake | Hortus Natural CookingAda Boni's Lemon Ricotta Cake | Hortus Natural Cooking

{Thanks Signe Bay for the lovely portrait of me!}

Now mom makes her own whole wheat bread; she does because I taught her how to make it, and yet I never tried ricotta and honey on it. I like it better on its own. Maybe a properly dressed gentleman needs no extra accessory other than what he is already wearing perfectly.
or maybe I like the memory of the food more than the food itself. Maybe we all do, and maybe that is the point of a good part of food writing. Who can say.
But for sure, as long as we get those long trains of feelings going back and forth, we’re all good.

The photos from this post were shot when Signe Bay came and visited me in Gradara, all the way from Denmark. I also shot some of these photos when Monika came for a workshop with me all the way from Hong Kong. And this is the part of blogging that is most incredible to me: the power of people coming together, (almost) never as rivals but as the newfound companions we always wished we met, who understand us and can relate to our lives, fears, and joys. I met the most important people of my life through blogging and I know there are many more to come.
I feel like I can never be thankful enough.

Ada Boni's Lemon Ricotta Cake | Hortus Natural CookingAda Boni's Lemon Ricotta Cake | Hortus Natural Cooking

For this recipe, I went back – way back – and decided to tackle an old recipe from Ada Boni’s book, Il Talismano della Felicitá, and brought it forth with a few twists. It has that flavor from ancient recipes, so familiar to my Italian palate: it is not very sweet, and almost of a flan-like consistency, spiked with candied citrus, which was so common in the olden days. I added a little more flour, as I found it a little too flan-like, and used a sugar I made out of brown sugar, cinnamon, and dried rose petals that Saghar gifted me from Iran, as well as tons of lemon.
I baked it in a crown-shaped mold, though I suggest you bake it in a springform pan, as it really tends to stick and is quite soft, plus it tends to fall. It is an absolutely delicious cake, and if you like the kind of dense baked goods, then this cake is totally for you.
Could you not expect deliciousness from a book that is called The Talisman of Happiness, after all?

And what about you? What is it that comes to mind when you grab a tub of ricotta?

Ada Boni's Lemon Ricotta Cake
makes a 10-inch / 26cm round cake
Cuisine: Italian
  • 1 cup light brown sugar
  • 1 heaping tablespoon cinnamon
  • about ¼ cup dried rose buds, crumbled
  • 4 eggs
  • 4 tablespoons Cinnamon Rose Sugar
  • 2 to 4 heaping tablespoons runny honey
  • 500g creamy ricotta
  • 1 vanilla bean, seeds scraped
  • The grated zest from 2 organic lemons
  • 2 tablespoons liquor like rum or limoncello (I used pistachio liquor)
  • Extra: lemon or orange blossom essence
  • 30g potato or corn starch
  • 50g whole wheat flour (or brown rice flour for a gluten-free version)
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • Pinch salt
  • A large handful candied lemon peel, chopped and lightly floured
  • A large handful candied orange peel, chopped, or soaked raisins, squeezed and lightly floured
  • Finely chopped toasted pistachios, for serving
  1. Combine all the ingredients in a powerful blender or a spice grinder, and process for a few seconds at maximum speed, until you obtain a fine powder. I did this with my Vitamix.
  2. Store in an airtight container or jar.
  1. If your ricotta is a little watery, set it in a strainer lined with a paper napkin and leave in the fridge to drip for a few hours, or overnight. If it seems to not release any water, it is good to go. Choose high quality, organic, full-fat ricotta.
  2. Preheat the oven to 180 C˚ / 355 F˚, and grease and flour well the springform pan or silicone mold where you will be baking the cake.
  3. Separate the egg whites and yolks into two large bowls, and set the egg whites aside.
  4. Beat the egg yolks with the sugar and honey until pale and frothy.
  5. Add the ricotta, pushing it through a sieve with a wooden spoon or with a spatula. Beat it in until fully blended, along with the scraped seeds from the vanilla bean, the lemon zest and the liquor (and the lemon or orange blossom essence if using). Cut the empty vanilla bean in half crosswise and add it to the jar/container with the cinnamon sugar, and just leave it there so it will infuse the sugar with its scent.
  6. Sift in the flour, starch, baking soda and salt, and mix them well. Add the candied lemon and orange peels and stir them in until well distributed.
  7. Beat the egg whites until stiff, and fold them delicately into the ricotta mixture with a circular downward and upward motion, until fully incorporated.
  8. Pour the batter into the mold, scraping it with a spatula and leveling the surface.
  9. Bake for about 50 minutes to an hour, depending on your oven. The surface of the cake will turn quite brown and the inside will remain moist but, when pierced with a toothpick, the toothpick should still come out clean.
  10. Let cool completely before unmolding.
  11. When cool and unmolded, dust generously with extra rose cinnamon sugar and chopped pistachios. The cake is not very sweet, so feel free to dust extra sugar and pistachios on individual slices as well.
  12. The cake keeps very well outside the fridge, or refrigerated is the temperature is very warm, for several days. It also makes a nice breakfast, snack or light dessert served with yogurt or cream and berries, or extra pistachios and honey.


By the way, Cora from The Secret Voice ended up never losing it. And, according to the author, she never did because she kept telling stories and believing everything was possible all her life. Which is kind of what every writer should do. Can you write stories you do not believe in?
I think not.
This is ours, and here are all the people who keep writing it:

Fotogrammi di zucchero (WINNER)
L’ultima fetta
My name is Yeh

Two for the bar (WINNER)
Do Bianchi

What should I eat for breakfast today (WINNER)
Betty Liu
Il gambero russo

Con le mani in pasta (WINNER)
Miss Foodwise
Jul’s Kitchen

Gnambox (WINNER)
Lab Noon

Naturalmente buono (WINNER)
Kraut Kopf
Hortus (myself!)

And finally MISS FOOD WISE / Regula Ysewin won BEST BLOG! So well deserved!


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