I’ve recently added several wonderful Italian cookbooks to my ever-growing cookbook shelves. One of the first cookbooks I bought for myself this year was Rachel Roddy’s My Kitchen in Rome: Recipes and Notes on Italian Cooking. I pre-ordered it as soon as it was available and then waited eagerly for what seemed like an eternity, but the wait was well worth it. I’ve been reading Rachel’s blog for several years and am also a faithful reader of her new weekly column in The Guardian. Her photos on Instagram are some of my favorites, particularly those of her now very famous sink, which is often filled to overflowing with her day’s seasonal produce haul from the Testaccio market. Like so many of my newest friendships with food bloggers, I befriended Rachel through our respective blogs and social media which has been a highlight for me. Last year, I was fortunate to recipe test for Rachel as she was nearing the final edits of her cookbook, and I chose to test her ricotta and lemon ciambellone. I found it fitting for this to be the first of Rachel’s recipes to be featured here.
Rachel’s cookbook was released first in Europe and is titled Five Quarters: Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome. It sports a different cover than the US edition and all the recipes are written in metric measurements, but the content of both books is the same, with the US edition’s recipes converted to Imperial measurements. The book is a compilation of traditional Roman recipes Rachel has learned to make since moving to Rome from London in 2005. What I love best about the cookbook are the stories that precede many of the recipes. Her writing is enveloping and makes me feel like I’m chatting casually with her at the dinner table (which I hope to do someday). Her words and photographs also transport me right back to Rome–which I am missing terribly at the moment–and has introduced me to a part of the city I have yet to explore. Then there are the recipes, so many of them familiar to me as I ate and watched them being prepared in my maternal grandmother’s and great-aunts’ kitchens both at home in Maryland and during summers spent in Rome. They are simple and straightforward–the hallmarks of true Roman cooking–no fuss, just excellent quality ingredients expertly and lovingly prepared so their intrinsic qualities shine in the final dish. It’s just the way I love to eat.
The word ciambellone refers to a cake in the shape of a ring, and is also often called ciambella. It’s a cake that has as many variations as there are bakers. There was often a ciambellone sitting on a plate on the kitchen counter in my grandmother’s kitchen, the recipe, ingredients, and method slightly different from this cake, but still in the shape of a ring, perfumed with lemon zest, and topped with multi-colored nonpareil sprinkles. I’ll soon share that recipe here, too because it’s a good one.
This ricotta and lemon ciambellone has a similar texture to pound cake, except with a slightly lighter crumb thanks to the olive oil and the ricotta, which keep the cake moist and tender. The grated zest of two lemons lightly perfume the cake and adds a bright contrast to the richer flavor of the olive oil. I tweaked the recipe only slightly and put the zested lemons to use by juicing them and mixing the juice with powdered sugar to make a glaze that I poured over the cooled cake. I also decided to flip the cake back over after removing it from the pan so that the craggy split was showing rather than the bundt pan pattern. I like the more rustic, homemade look, and the crack was the perfect place for some extra lemon glaze to puddle.
This is a simple cake and in true Roman fashion, it’s no-fuss: it comes together quickly–no mixer necessary–just two bowls and a whisk (and your measuring implements) is all that’s needed. The ingredients are all most likely already in your pantry (except for maybe the ricotta, but that’s easy to find everywhere). I should note for those of you who live in North America that if you live anywhere near an Italian specialty store, be sure to buy fresh ricotta for this cake as it is the best (just drain it well beforehand). I have not had luck with finding fresh ricotta here in Houston (although I haven’t given up the search), so I use a good quality packaged ricotta and my cake turned out beautifully.
Ricotta and lemon ciambellone is the kind of cake that can sit uncovered on a pretty plate on a small corner of kitchen counter, with a knife perched on the edge at the ready to cut off a sliver for breakfast, afternoon snack, or a late-night nibble. It’s the kind of cake you can have handy when a friend comes over for coffee (or tea) and a chat, or to have on the breakfast table for early-rising houseguests. I would also turn to this recipe for an impromptu dinner party dessert and dress it up with a little more glaze, macerated fresh berries and a dollop of whipped cream. As the saying goes: “simple is best” and this cake proves it.
Ricotta and Lemon Ciambellone
Adapted from My Kitchen in Rome: Recipes and Notes on Italian Cooking by Rachel Roddy
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the bundt pan
2 teaspoons baking powder
¾ cups granulated sugar
Pinch of salt (about 1/8 teaspoon)
1 cup ricotta
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 large eggs
Grated zest of 2 small, organic lemons (or 1 large lemon)
Preheat the oven to 350°. Grease a 9-inch diameter bundt pan (or a standard loaf pan) with some olive oil and flour it lightly, tapping out the excess.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt. Set aside.
In another bowl, whisk together the ricotta and olive oil until smooth. Add in the eggs one at a time, whisking after each addition until they are fully incorporated and the batter is smooth. Pour the ricotta mixture into the flour mixture and whisk until the ingredients are combined and the batter is thick and smooth. Fold in the lemon zest using a rubber spatula.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top with the spatula. Bake for 30-40 minutes, or until the cake is golden and a cake tester comes out clean. Cool the cake completely in the pan before inverting it out onto a platter.
Storage: Store the cake on a platter at room temperature covered lightly with plastic wrap (when it’s not being nibbled on).