Positano Dreamin’: Amalfi Pear & Ricotta Cake

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Imagine, if you will, an Italian beach town paradise with colorful buildings, bright fuschia bougainvilleas, and curly iron balconies cascading down the side of a mountain to meet the perfectly aquamarine Mediterranean Sea. Rows upon rows of orange beach umbrellas carpet the sand in-between, and a few small boats bob in the distance. You are sitting in a cafe overlooking this enticing scene while the warmth of the Amalfi Coast sunshine washes over you. Your soul is happy.

This was me in early July. My husband and I spent our last few days of a 3-week Italy trip basking in the delights of Positano before wistfully boarding the plane to return to reality. There is such a serenity about this otherworldly place that I try to keep it with me in less serene times. It is not an exaggeration to describe it as totally, completely magical.

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One of the things that I loved most about Positano was indulging in a luscious piece of cheesecake topped with wild strawberries while playing out this beach cafe scene. It was fluffy and light as air, and it encapsulated the whole experience; it’s one of the first things that come to mind when I think about Positano.

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Sadly, right now it is not July. It is winter. Even in California, it is cold. There is no warm beach, no Mediterranean, no ethereal strawberry cheesecake. However, there is Amalfi Pear & Ricotta Cake, and if we can’t frolic in the Italian summer on demand, this is a damn good alternative for the cold weather months. It is nutty and creamy and fruity and Italian all at the same time in every bite. (Though if I’m being honest, I could just chow down on the filling with a big ol’ spoon… which is probably not a very Italian thing to do…)

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The cake is comprised of a fluffy, heavenly ricotta-cream filling laced with vanilla-perfumed pears, sandwiched between two layers of delicate hazelnut sponge cake. It was introduced in 1998 by Sal De Riso in his pasticceria (pastry shop) in the small town of Minori as a way to showcase fresh local ingredients, and is now an iconic cake in the Campania region of Italy (and beyond), which includes the Amalfi Coast. It is best when pears are in season and works nicely as an elegant, yet simple, holiday cake. I adapted it from Food 52, which adapted it from the original version.

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A few recipe notes:

  • The hazelnut cake is very delicate and crumbly because it contains just a small amount of flour, so there’s little gluten to hold it together. I thought it might be dry, but brushing it generously with the pear syrup moistened the cake nicely.
  • The original cake was made with two very thin 9″ cake layers, and the Food 52 adaptation was made by splitting a single 9″ layer. I decided to make the cake in two 8″ pans to avoid having to split the cake or handle exceedingly thin layers; now knowing how fragile the cake is, I’m glad I did this because I think there would be a large likelihood of cake breakage during splitting or handling. You can use any of these methods, but I found the slightly thicker 8″ layers to be easier to manage when removing from their pans and stacking them in the cake ring.
  • At first I was sure I had done something wrong with the cake, as the layers looked weird when they were baking up, but once they were fully baked, I was relieved to see that they looked fine– just different than most cakes I’ve made because this cake is mostly made of nuts and eggs. It resembles the cake in the photo from Sal De Riso’s original, so I felt pretty okay with it. I was thrilled to see when I carefully flipped them out of their pans that they had baked up with completely flat, even tops– yessss!
  • I used an 8″ cake ring lined with acetate to stack the cakes and get a smooth finish on the sides. This is not absolutely necessary, but will help the cream filling set and will result in a cleaner look. Alternatively, you could use the ring from an 8″ springform pan, and you can also use a strip of parchment paper instead of acetate.
  • I only needed about half of the filling from the Food 52 recipe, so the reduced quantity is reflected in the ingredients below. (Though believe you me, I did not mind one bit having a bowl of extra filling in the fridge to snack on, and it was divine dolloped onto some brown sugar shortcakes that I had in the freezer.) I recommend erring on the side of under-whipping the heavy cream for the filling because you will continue to mix it while folding it into the ricotta, as well as when you add the pears; do not whip the cream to firm peaks.

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Ingredient notes:

  • Ricotta: I’m gonna go ahead and say it’s pretty imperative to use high-quality fresh ricotta here. Most of the ricotta that you find in supermarkets is grainy stuff in a tub, which is a very different product than fresh ricotta, which is a light, creamy cloud of heaven. You drain it in a sieve in the fridge for a day before using it in order to remove the liquid, and what’s left behind is smooth and amazing– that is the real Italian way. I use Bellwether Farms Cow’s Milk Basket Ricotta, which you can find at Whole Foods and other well-stocked markets in the San Francisco Bay Area. Most Italian markets and well-stocked stores should have something similar.
  • Hazelnuts: You can either use whole, ground hazelnuts or hazelnut meal, though the Food 52 version recommends grinding whole nuts, which is what I did. I also toasted them for a deeper flavor.
  • Liqueur: The recipe recommends a splash of pear liqueur in the filling, which I found to be very expensive for something that I otherwise have no use for. A good alternative is brandy, and I used Laird’s Applejack, which worked nicely. You can also omit the liqueur altogether.

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Amalfi Pear & Ricotta Cake
Adapted from Food 52
Yields one 8″ inch cake

This cake can be made gluten-free by substituting potato starch for the flour.

For the hazelnut sponge cake:

  • 180 grams (6½ ounces) whole, peeled hazelnuts, lightly toasted (or hazelnut meal)
  • 60 grams (½ cup) all-purpose flour
  • 130 grams (⅔ cup) granulated sugar
  • 3 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 100 grams (3½ ounces/about 7 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

For the pear-ricotta filling:

  • Drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 small, firm green pear (such as Bartlett), peeled, cored, and diced
  • 35 grams (2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons) granulated sugar
  • Seeds scraped from ½ vanilla bean pod, or ½ tablespoon vanilla bean paste
  • ½ tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • Small splash of pear liqueur (or Kirsch or apple brandy), optional
  • ¼ teaspoon cornstarch
  • 250 grams (½ pound) fresh cow’s milk ricotta, drained at least 24 hours (see note above)
  • ½ cup (125mL) heavy whipping cream, whipped to medium-soft peaks

For garnish:

  • Confectioners’ sugar

Preheat an oven to 350°F and place a rack in the center position. Grease two 8″ round cake pans and line the bottoms with circles of parchment paper. Grease the paper and dust the pans with flour, knocking out the excess. (If making this gluten-free, dust with potato starch instead.) Set aside.

If using whole hazelnuts, pour them into the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade and process until they are finely ground. Transfer the ground nuts to a bowl and add the flour; whisk them together.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or using a hand mixer), whip the sugar and eggs together until the mixture becomes very pale, thick, and creamy, doubling or even tripling in size. Fold in the hazelnut-flour mixture with a rubber spatula and then the melted butter until just incorporated.

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Divide the batter evenly between the cake pans and bake for about 15-20 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through, or until the cakes are browned and springy on top. They will look something like a sponge with open “bubbles” all across the tops. Set the pans on a wire rack to cool completely. Carefully flip the cakes out onto a clean surface and peel off parchment circles.

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Drizzle just enough olive oil into a small saucepan to thinly cover the bottom. Heat moderately over medium-low and add the diced pear, sugar, vanilla seeds, lemon juice, and liqueur. Stir the ingredients together to coat the pears evenly with sugar and oil, and stir the mixture occasionally until the pears start to cook down and release liquid. Continue cooking the pears for another 5 minutes or so, until the sugar dissolves completely and the pears soften a bit, stirring from time to time to avoid burning. Add the cornstarch and keep stirring for another 2 minutes; the pears should be bubbling away in their fragrant, fruity syrup. Transfer the pears and syrup to a clean bowl and let them cool completely before using.

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To make the cream filling, whisk the ricotta and sugar together vigorously until very smooth and creamy. Fold in the whipped cream, followed by the cooled pears, along with some of the syrup. Reserve a few tablespoons of syrup to brush onto the cake layers.

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To assemble the cake, it’s easiest to use a 3″ tall cake ring lined with acetate around the inside, or if you have an 8″ springform pan, using its ring (without the base) would work as well. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper, and place the cake ring with acetate on the pan. If you don’t have acetate, line the inside of the ring with a strip of parchment paper lightly greased on both sides.

Very gingerly wedge one cake layer into the ring and push it down to the bottom. Using a pastry brush, brush the cake generously and evenly with about half of the leftover pear syrup. Scrape the ricotta mixture onto the cake and smooth it evenly to the edges with a small offset spatula. (It may look like a lot of filling, but it is supposed to be a thick layer.) Gently place the second cake over the filling and press down lightly to sandwich the filling firmly in place. Brush the top of the cake with pear syrup. Cover the cake with plastic wrap and chill in the fridge overnight, or at least for several hours.

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When you’re ready for serving, carefully pull off the cake ring/springform, then unwrap the acetate or parchment from the sides of the cake. (If using a cake ring, it’s helpful to have someone help with this, as the ring will fit very snugly, and it may be difficult to pull it up and over the cake with one hand while holding down the cake with the other.) Dust the top of the cake with confectioners’ sugar, or you can even place slices of poached pear on top. The cake is best on the first day (after the chilling period), but will keep in the fridge for another couple of days.

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© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2016.

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