In my mind, all Italian kitchens are helmed by confident, skilled home cooks. I picture even ordinary weeknight dinners in an Italian household as casually impressive affairs, featuring pasta from scratch and homemade gelato. But of course, that's not entirely the case, and even in a country with such a deeply rooted cooking culture, modern shortcuts will gain a foothold here and there.
Case in point: While looking for a simple ricotta cake recipe, I kept uncovering mentions of a simple "secret" ricotta cake. People seemed to all know the same one, which varied only slightly, and is made of prepared yellow cake mix batter topped with a layer of ricotta cheesecake batter. But no one seemed to know where it came from, just remembering it as something their mother made. Some people said it was written on a yellowed scrap of paper in their kitchen, or a torn sheet stuck to the cabinet.
Whatever the provenance, it's a quick, down-and-dirty sort of recipe. It's like the Italian version of a Rice Krispie treat: semi-homemade, crowd-pleasing, and really really really easy. The neat trick to the recipe is that the ricotta batter nestles on top of the cake as it bakes, creating a custardy cap over the tender crumb of the yellow cake.
No shame intended towards baking mixes, but I'm more of a from-scratch baker. So I set out to recreate the spirit of the recipe using a basic yellow cake recipe and adding the ricotta batter on top.
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But really, what's cake without a little booze? (Okay, it's just cake, and that's quite okay as is.) I decided to give this Italian dessert a little French twist by adding Calvados (apple brandy) to the ricotta batter. This is an excellent move! Calvados is almost always reserved for fall desserts, and usually ones featuring apples, but that overlooks its potential. It adds a nice richness and complexity to cake; if you don't want to use it, or can't find it, try adding 1 teaspoon of almond extract or some citrus zest. Neither will replicate the flavor of Calvados, but both would add something interesting. If you want that apple flavor, boiled cider would work in a pinch.