more than the semolina, tapioca or rice pudding itself, it was the spoonful of jam that I liked best. The adult in charge of the jar would drop a red blob into the center of each bowl of white, and the jam would settle a little and spread into a pink puddle. Not only at home we ate semolina with jam; we had it at school too, and like custard there were no ambivalent kids: you didn’t like it or you liked it. Years later, I would make semolina for myself when I got home late, eat it while watching TV, and let the pan soak overnight.
In The Book of Difficult FruitsKate Lebo notes, “Recipes are rituals that promise transformation.” It’s a line that gets stuck in my head like a tune. It feels especially true in relation to recipes that involve thickening. Lebo also describes how recipes “combine the precision of a manual with the faith of a spell and, regardless of when they were written, occur in the present”. It’s just you, a pan, a whisk, milk, water and fine semolina. The recipe is as sure as a head girl: it will thicken. But will it? I always have to stop myself from throwing in another handful, just to force myself to have faith. And sure enough, it transforms.
Semolina comes from durum wheat, which, as the name suggests, is a durum wheat variety, resistant to grinding, reducing to an angular, grainy texture and the color of pale egg yolks. Grinded twice, it becomes a flour, semola rimacinata in Italian, which is soft grit, like fine sand, and ideal for pasta (it is the prescribed flour for all factory-made dried pasta in Italy). Coarsely ground, hard durum wheat becomes semolina, suitable for couscous, porridge, pudding and today’s recipe.
Migliaccio napoletano is a dense Neapolitan cake pudding traditionally made for Carnival, and Shrove Tuesday in particular. The name tells us it was originally made from: miglioor millet, but today most versions are made with semolina, hence the alternative name, semolina torta.
While migliaccio napoletano is unmistakably made with semolina and has a dense pudding quality, the eggs and ricotta lighten it up to ensure a custard like quality too, cutting into smooth slices that wobble slightly. We didn’t have any cream, but I think it would have been even tastier with a spoon or two. Or cherries in syrup, from a jar or can, or fresh stewed in red wine. Vincenzo cut his slice in half so he could fill it with red (raspberry) jam.
Ricotta and semolina cake
Preparation 10 minutes
Cook 1 hour 20 minutes
500 ml whole milk
A pinch of salt
thick strips lemon peel
200 g semolina
30 g butter
4 large eggs
250 g caster sugar
Zest of 1 unsprayed lemon
Zest of 1 unsprayed orange
1 tbsp Grand Marnier or orange blossom water (optional)
250 g ricotta beaten with 50 ml milk until smooth
powdered sugarto dust
Preheat oven to 180C (160C Fan)/350F/Gas 4. In a saucepan, gently heat the milk with 400ml water, a pinch of salt and the lemon zest until it comes to a boil. Shake in the semolina, whisk as you do, and continue until the semolina thickens into a very dense mixture. Add the butter, beat again, remove from heat and let cool.
In another bowl, beat the eggs and sugar until light and fluffy. Using a hand or electric whisk, slowly work in the ricotta-milk mixture, liqueur (if using), grated citrus zest and finally the cooked and cooled semolina. It will look a little lumpy, but don’t worry.
Place the mixture in a 24-cm baking tray lined with baking paper and bake for an hour, loosely covering with foil if it seems to be browning too quickly.
Let cool before removing the cake from the tin, dusting with icing sugar and serving.