We’re somehow wrapping up January, and while it would be absurd to complain about weather in San Francisco, I can’t help but notice my mind wandering to memories of warm, dreamy destinations that have felt particularly far-off for about two years. Specifically at the moment, I’m thinking about a brief, yet impactful trip that I took to the tiny island nation of Malta a little over three years ago. In the latter half of 2018, I was living in Tel Aviv as part of a nomad/sabbatical year to shake up my life after leaving a marriage that had needed to die years earlier… and Malta was such a breath of fresh air and inspiration, a place like no other I’d ever been before. Being based in Israel for that time allowed me to travel frequently and cheaply to destinations in Europe (ahh, the Before Times), and while I’d been super lucky to travel a good amount in the years leading up to this, I hadn’t actually stepped foot in a *new* country in over a decade. It was exceptionally easy to hop on a direct Air Malta flight from Tel Aviv, and a few hours later I was soaking in this wee archipelago situated between Sicily and Tunisia.
Aptly, it was a mishmash of so many different cultures that had melted uniquely into Maltese language, culture, cuisine, and architecture. Somehow Italian-esque with Arabic flairs and yet… different? Or was it Arabic with Italian flairs? But also they speak some English? I was there for a long birthday weekend with a friend, and we initially thought three days would be plenty of time to get the lay of the land. But how wrong I was about that– so. very. wrong. Three+ years later, I still daydream about Valletta, Mdina, and the Blue Grotto, and we barely scratched the surface. Several locations in the first season of Game of Thrones were filmed there before they relocated to Croatia and it LEGIT looks like King’s Landing!
I never quite wrapped my head around how to characterize Maltese cuisine since we only had a handful of meals there, but what we ate was amazing– mostly a fusion of Italian/Mediterranean/Middle Eastern flavors, a unique interpretation that I can’t say I’d ever encountered before. Predictably, I was *ecstatic* to discover a new world of pastries! My favorites were actually savory baked goods, specifically the ones called pastizzi and qassatat. I had every intention of trying to make them at home, and sadly I can’t say I’ve done that yet, but writing this blog post has inspired me to revisit that idea…
When I got back to Tel Aviv, I started researching Maltese pastries that I could recreate at home, though it took a very long time to actually make anything because I was nomadic for many more months (longer than intended, in fact). While I haven’t tried making those particular pastries yet, I did discover this gorgeous Maltese Ricotta Pie with Honey-Lemon Syrup & Pistachios from Meike Peters, which is one of my favorite-ever deployments of ricotta and pistachios! The flavors of ricotta, lemon, and pistachios are heavily influenced by Sicilian delights brought to the island nation around the 11th Century, and I happily used Sicilian pistachios that I had brought home from Italy, which I use very sparingly– gotta pick and choose only worthy dishes for those gorgeous bright green nuggets!
I would describe this as more of a cross between a tart and a cheesecake than a pie (definitely not an American-style pie), a perfect ray of post-holiday, spring-longing sunshine– bright and lemony, fluffy, creamy, sweet-tart, and crunchy from the nuts on top. (I’d love to deliver this to my friends in the northeast getting pummeled by a Nor’easter blizzard right now!) I made a few adjustments to fit a 9″ pan and loved the ratio of crust to filling. I also found it easier to use a quiche pan with a removable bottom rather than what looks like a pie dish in the original post— this helped it release from the pan perfectly.
A couple of notes about ricotta:
- The ricotta filling in and of itself is not very sweet– it gets balanced out by the sweetness of the syrup, so don’t skip the topping!
- Using good-quality, fresh ricotta, such as Bellwether Farms, is essential here. I would not attempt to use supermarket-tub “ricotta”, which barely resembles what real ricotta is. If you cannot locate good ricotta, it is super easy to make– in fact, this is what I almost always do now when I need ricotta for a baking or cooking recipe, or simply to swirl into pasta or shmear on toast. I use Smitten Kitchen’s recipe (the richer cream-to-milk ratio), which turns out pretty perfect every time.
Maltese Ricotta Pie with Honey-Lemon Syrup & Pistachios
Adapted from Eat in My Kitchen
Yields, 12-16 servings
I highly recommend using a kitchen scale to weigh the ingredients since the original post was written in grams rather than volume measurements. I adjusted the crust, filling, and syrup quantities for a slightly larger pan and thicker crust (⅔ of Mieke Peters’ full dough recipe, but twice what she used for this pie, and ⅓ more filling + syrup– these adjusted quantities are reflected below).
For the short crust dough:
- 260g (2 cups + 3 tablespoons) all-purpose flour
- 67g (⅓ cup) granulated sugar
- Scant ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- 133g (about 9½ tablespoons) unsalted butter, cold, cut into small cubes
- 2 large egg yolks
- 1½ tablespoons water
For the ricotta filling:
- 500g (2¼ cups) full-fat good quality ricotta, store-bought or homemade, drained for 4 hours or up to overnight (depending on the amount of liquid)
- 1½ teaspoon grated lemon zest
- 4 large eggs, at room temperature
- 133g (⅔ cup) granulated sugar
- 55g (scant 4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted
- 1½ tablespoons fine semolina
- 55g (½ cup) unsalted pistachios, roughly chopped, for the topping
For the lemon syrup:
- 120ml (½ cup) freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 67g (⅓ cup) granulated sugar
- Scant 1½ tablespoon mild honey
Prepare the crust:
Whisk together the flour, sugar, and salt. Sprinkle the butter pieces over the flour mixture and work them into the dry ingredients with your fingers until the butter bits are blended in and the mixture looks sandy. Add the egg yolks and water and mix with a wooden spoon until it comes together into a crumbly mixture. Transfer the crumbles to a lightly floured work surface and bring it together with your hands into a cohesive dough. Shape it into a thick disc, wrap it in plastic wrap, and place in the freezer for 30 minutes.
Preheat an oven to 390°F and set a rack in the center position. Get out a metal quiche pan with removable bottom and leave it ungreased. The pie can also be made in a deep 9” pie dish.
Retrieve the dough from the freezer and roll it out on a lightly floured work surface. Carefully transfer it to the quiche pan and press it into the bottom and up the sides evenly. Prick the crust with a fork all over and bake for about 15 minutes, or until golden, and set it aside to cool. Turn the oven down to 375°F.
Prepare the ricotta filling:
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the ricotta, lemon zest, eggs, and sugar until smooth. Add the melted butter and semolina and whisk until the mixture is well combined. Pour the filling into the pastry crust and bake for about 30-40 minutes or until just set (mine took the full 40 minutes). The edges of the filling should take on some pale golden color, but the center should not brown, and the filling should bake up quite flat across the surface. Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool completely.
Prepare the syrup:
Stir together the lemon juice, sugar, and honey in a small sauce pan and bring it to a boil (the sugar granules will melt). Cook for about 4-5 minutes on medium-high heat, swirling the pan once in a while, until it thickens and turns a light golden shade (resembles honey, but a bit thinner).
Let the syrup cool for a few minutes and then drizzle it evenly over the ricotta pie. Sprinkle the pistachios generously over the syrup.
Chill the ricotta pie in the fridge for about 5 hours to set. When ready to serve, push the pie up from the bottom to slide it out of the removable quiche ring. Slip a large offset spatula or wide knife between the bottom of the crust and the base of the pan to release the metal round, and slide the pie onto a serving platter. (If using a deep pie dish, simply serve it from the pan, or you can try to remove it in one piece onto a platter.)
It will keep optimally for about three days tightly wrapped in the fridge (though honestly I was eating it for about a week and it was still perfect).
© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2022.