April 19, 2012
I first discovered tarta de ricota at Dün Ken, one of our favorite bakeries in Mendoza. Since then, I've been working on perfecting my own version at home, and I think I've just about got it down.
Tarta de Ricota is just what it sounds like–a tart made from ricotta cheese. It's the Italian cousin of our beloved cheesecake, only without the cream cheese tang. Like so many recipes, the original has morphed into something unique–different but still delicious, developed by homesick Italian women missing the flavors of the old country. But that old home fell away with the diaspora–a new home was being built in Argentina.
Argentina's version of the ricotta tart is delicately sweet and mild, smooth and creamy with just a hint of lemon. (See the recipe notes for possible flavor variations.) It can be served any time of year, but is most often seen on the Easter table. Ricotta, made from they whey used in cheese-making, was traditionally made in the spring, hence the springtime connection. (At least in the northern hemisphere.)
The origins of this simple pie are ancient–it's been made since pre-Christian times in Italy, during the reign of Constantine the Great. It's rumored that priestesses of Roman goddess Ceres, goddess of fertility and motherhood, mixed ricotta with eggs to celebrate Spring. Swedes enjoy a treat called Ostkaka, an almond-y egg and cheese cake–perhaps a recipe exchange during the time of the Visgoth invasion? Nuns in a convent in Naples infused their springtime version of ricotta pie with orange blossoms from their garden, and the recipe was later adapted by local bakeries.
From pagan offering to a convent confection symbolizing the Resurrection, from the Easter tables of Naples' rich and famous to modern-day bakeries on the other side of the planet, Tarta de Ricota has had quite a journey, wouldn't you say? Take a bite of history when you make this pie, which is sure to become a tradition of your own!
Tarta de Ricota
This is a basic recipe for ricotta tart that can easily be adapted. It can be flavored with rum or another liqueur, like Grand Marnier, or you can stir in 1/2 cup of golden raisins or golden raisins soaked in liqueur–especially delicious during the holiday season. There are also versions that include finely chopped preserved peaches in syrup, and it would be simple to swap out the lemon zest and juice for orange, or the vanilla for almond extract. That version would be delicious covered in confectioner's sugar and sliced almonds for a fancy afternoon tea. I've chosen a traditional short-pastry type crust here, the shortbread-style crunch adds a nice texture to the pie.
For the tart shell:
1 1/2 cups flour
1/4 cup sugar
pinch of salt (or more to taste)
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
1 stick unsalted butter
1 egg, separated
2 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Generously butter and flour a tart pan with a removeable bottom.
In a food processor, combine the flour, sugar, salt, lemon zest, and butter and process until well combined and the mix resembles a coarse sand. Add in the egg yolk, reserving the white. Add in the vanilla and the milk, and process until combined and there is a coarse dough. To make the dough by hand, combine the ingredients as described below using a hand-held pastry blender.
Dump the dough into the prepared pan, and using your fingers, press around the edges and bottom of the pan. Then using the bottom of a cup, press the bottom into an even layer. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove, and then brush with the reserved egg white. Return to the oven for another 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare the filling.
For the filling:
1 1/2 cups fresh whole milk ricotta cheese
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon rum
1/2 teaspooon vanilla
1/4 cup heavy whipping cream
1 tablespoon lemon juice
zest from 1 lemon
confectioner's sugar, as needed, to decorate the top
In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients and using a hand-held mixer, blend at medium speed until smooth.
Remove the crust from the oven. Pour the ricotta mixture into the tart pan until 2/3 of the way full, and then carefully place in the oven. Bake for 45-60 minutes, or until the center is set and the filling is light golden, but not brown.
Let cool completely, then refrigerate until cold. Sift confectioner's sugar over the top, using a stencil design if desired.
Transfer to a cake plate and serve, cut in wedges.