Put a ring on it
Rachel Roddy proposes ricotta and olive oil cake
There were so many delays in the renovations of Moka bar in Testaccio that I dared to hope it would never happen. Then it did. Toni retired to his garden and, like so many others in Rome, the old market bar was given a vigorous facelift: 50 years of wrinkles, coffee stains and smoke swirls – but also life and experience – were smoothed and sanded. Progress, I know, but what sadness when history is swept away like that.
I just hope somebody saved the zinc bar with its panelled base, the chiller cabinet that once upon a time dispensed wine like petrol, the fridges and luminous latteria sign, the woven plastic chairs, the coloured cups and saucers that were a bit too thick, the heavyweight juicer, and the plastic dome with an orange base that provided a home for a
Ciambellone means “big ring” – in this case a cake; possibly the most ubiquitous of Italian cakes. Everyone has a recipe, and almost every working bar in Rome has one on the counter, alongside the latticed jam tart and
cornetti filled with nutella. The
ciambellone that sat under the dome at Moka was three times bigger than the one I make, the crust the colour of dark honey, the crumb of straw. It was more functional than fun, but delicious in its own way: not too sweet; soft and springy at the outset, then drier as the days passed – which meant you’d need a second cappuccino to chase it down with, and then to dab the last crumbs with a damp fingertip. Over the past decade, many mornings began with that cake – afternoons too.
Not any more though, the newer, sleeker Bar Testaccio – to which I wish every success – has neither cake nor dome, although I am told they will. Until then, I have a domestic version, which began life as the yoghurt pot cake – a recipe taught to me by my friend Ruth. It is a neat and nimble bake that requires a pot of plain yoghurt, which you tip into a bowl, then use the empty pot to measure out three lots of flour, one of sugar, another of olive oil, to which you add eggs and baking powder. One bowl, one spoon, one tin and demanding about two minutes of your time if all the ingredients are to hand. Then after 40 minutes in the oven ... it is a eureka cake. On learning it, I developed a sort of cake twitch and couldn’t stop producing big rings: friend coming round – cake; friend not coming round – cake; email to write – cake; 3 minutes to spare – cake. I also became a yoghurt-pot cake evangelist, spreading the word and recipe, often while holding a cake before me like it was a newborn ... “Look what I made – and it only took two minutes!”
Then I tinkered. First, with the proportions of sugar and olive oil, then substituting ricotta for yoghurt and more of it, until eventually a set of kitchen scales seemed wise, which only adds about a minute to proceedings, but creates one more thing to wash. I am sure, though, you could make this a ricotta tub cake.
Beating is important – both the eggs and the batter. As is – stating the obvious – the baking powder: don’t skimp and, if you can get hold of a little packet of Italian lievito – a raising agent of seemingly magical powers – use that.
The combination of extra virgin olive oil and ricotta – lactic and lovely – makes for a tender cake, with the sort of fat, craggy crumbs that beg to be pinched between finger and thumb. The addition of lemon zest, and plenty of it, makes it fragrant too. This is also a cake that invites improvisation. You might well be tempted to puncture the ring and drench it in lemon syrup, or zig-zag it with a cobweb of lemonscented icing. Alternatively, forget the lemon, and add a handful of chocolate chips, or orange zest and some ground
almonds, sultanas and chopped apple. Mashed banana works, apparently – although not around here: I am banana-in-cake intolerant.
Whatever you add, the scent of it baking fills the kitchen with goodness. As my granny used to say: “There is nothing like the reassuring promise of a cake in the oven.”
It is also an accommodating cake: functional enough for breakfast, but nice enough for morning coffee or afternoon tea – pudding even: just add some ground almonds to the mix, stew some blushing plums and chill a bowl of thick cream. It keeps well too: just wrap it in greaseproof paper, then foil, or keep it on an orange base under a plastic dome, and slice as required.
Ricotta, lemon and olive oil ring cake
Makes 12 slices
Butter or oil, for greasing 250g plain flour (Italian 00-grade is ideal)
2 tsp baking powder (or a packet of Italian lievito)
250g ricotta (cow’s or sheep’s milk) 200ml extra virgin olive oil
4 large eggs
Zest of two unwaxed lemons
1 Set your oven to 180C/350F/gas 4 and butter/oil and flour a ring tin (about 23cm) or 2lb loaf tin.
2 Sift the flour, sugar and baking powder together in a large bowl, then mix well. In another bowl, use a fork to mix/mash the ricotta with the olive oil, then add the eggs, one by one, beating between each addition.
3 Scrape the wet ingredients into the dry and beat with a spoon until you have a smooth batter. Grate in the lemon zest and beat again. Scrape the mixture into the ring tin.
4 Bake for 35–45 minutes – this will vary depending on tin size – or until the top is golden and springy and the inside cooked through (test with a strand of spaghetti, which should come out clean.) Allow to cool in the tin for 20 minutes before turning on to a cooling rack.
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