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Author Notes: This cake was invented by the Amalfi's famous pastry chef Sal di Riso at his pastry shop in the little costal town of Minori in 1998 and is a symbol of the area's bounty of local produce. A delicious, thin sponge made with ground hazelnuts is filled with light-as-a-cloud mixture of cow's milk ricotta and whipped cream that's studded with cubes of pear cooked in syrup. It's simple but heavenly.
As Sal di Riso himself stresses, the quality of the ingredients is key, as should be the case for any simple recipe.
The original version is made with pears that grow in Campania known as pere pennate, which are small, green, and peach-shaped, but you can substitute with any green pear. For the hazelnut meal, you'll get the best results by blending whole, peeled hazelnuts in a food processor, but you can use packaged ground hazelnut meal if you like.
Possibly the most important ingredient to pay attention to is the ricotta. Try to get ricotta that can stand up on its own—the sort that you can buy at the deli in a large, almost pyramid-like mound, where pieces are cut off and sold by the weight. Avoid, if you can help it, industrially-produced ricotta that comes in a tub. (In fact, the same is true for any Italian recipe that calls for ricotta.)
The reason for this is simply that the texture and the structure of the two types of ricotta is completely different. The ricotta that you buy from a deli by the weight is likely to be real ricotta—that is, fluffy white flecks of curd that are born out of whey during the cheese-making process. It's thick, even crumbly, and firm enough that it can stand up on its own.
The stuff in the tubs has to go through a process that makes the resulting product "squirtable," for want of a better word; it's therefore runny and somewhat grainy. For this filling, it's ideal—for flavor as well as consistency and practicality—to have a firmer ricotta.
This recipe is ever so slightly adapted from Sal di Riso's recipe found here in Italian (as interviewed by Italian journalist Luciano Pignataro): http://www.lucianopignataro.it/a/grande-notizia-la-torta-ricotta-e-pere-di-sal-de-riso/75260/
In the original, a separate syrup was called for for brushing onto the cake. I left this out but I drizzled the extra syrup from the pears onto the sponge. He also uses the vanilla pod seeds directly in the ricotta filling, but I added them to the pears to infuse the fruit with some of the vanilla too. The original recipe calls for pouring this mixture evenly into two cake tins to a height of 1 centimeter (about 1/3 inch), but as I don't own two cake tins that same size, I poured it into one and sliced the cake in half horizontally.
You can easily make this a gluten-free dessert by using potato starch or cornstarch in place of the flour in the sponge.
You can prepare the sponge ahead of time and you can also assemble the entire cake the day before you need it; in fact, much like tiramisu, it's better when it's had an entire day to rest in the fridge. The ricotta mixture will firm up slightly, the cake will absorb the moisture and flavors of the pear syrup, and the whole dessert will slice more neatly.
If you absolutely need to serve it on the day that you have made it, try chilling it in the fridge at least a couple of hours before serving. It will make slicing it a little bit easier. —Emiko
For the hazelnut sponge:
- 2/3 cup (130 grams) sugar
- 3 large eggs
- 6 1/2 ounces (180 grams) whole, peeled hazelnuts (or hazelnut meal)
- 1/2 cup flour (or potato starch or cornstarch to make it gluten-free)
- 3 1/2 ounces (just under 1/2 cup or 100 grams) butter, melted and cooled
- To make the hazelnut sponge, prepare a 9-inch (23-centimeter) cake tin by greasing with butter and dusting with flour. (If you're making this gluten-free, you can dust with potato starch.) Whip the sugar and eggs together until the mixture becomes very pale and fluffy and doubles or even triples in size. Fold in the hazelnut meal, flour, and butter until just incorporated.
- Pour into the prepared tin and bake at 350° F (180° C) for about 20 to 25 minutes, or until browned and springy on top (or you can do as in di Riso's original recipe, and divide the batter into 2 cake tins, each with a layer about 1/3-inch thick, and bake 10 minutes). Remove from the oven and let cool.
For the pear and ricotta filling:
- Drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 small pears, peeled, cored, and cubed
- 1/3 cup (70 grams) sugar
- 1 vanilla pod, cut in half and seeds scraped
- juice of half a lemon
- a splash of pear liqueur (or Kirsch or brandy), optional
- 1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
- 1 pound (500 grams) cow's milk ricotta
- 1 cup (200 grams) sugar
- 1 cup (250 milliliters) cream, whipped to firm peaks
- Confectioners' sugar, for dusting
- Drizzle enough olive oil to thinly cover the base of a small saucepan. Heat gently and add the diced pear, sugar, vanilla, lemon juice, and liqueur, if using. Stir occasionally until the pears begin to cook and release liquid. Continue stirring so that the pears don't burn and so that the sugar dissolves and the pears soften, about 5 minutes. Add the cornstarch and continue stirring for another 2 minutes. Remove from heat and transfer to another bowl to help them cool down. Let cool completely.
- Whip the ricotta and sugar together until very smooth and creamy. Fold in the whipped cream and then the cooled pears, along with some of their syrup. Save a couple of tablespoons of syrup to drizzle on the top and bottom layers of cake.
- To assemble the cake, it helps to have a cake ring handy, or if not, spring form cake tin (possibly the same one you used to make the sponge so that it is the exact size). Line with parchment paper.
- Slice the hazelnut sponge evenly and horizontally so you have two discs. Be gentle: It is a bit of crumbly cake. Place the bottom disc on a serving plate, cut side up. Place the springform cake tin (minus the base), greased and lined with parchment paper around the cake. Drizzle 1 to 2 tablespoons of pear syrup evenly over the sponge. Then pour over the ricotta mixture and smooth over with a spatula. Drizzle the rest of the reserved pear syrup over the cut side of the top layer of sponge and carefully place it on top of the ricotta filling, cut side down. Chill for several hours, or better, overnight.
- To serve, remove the cake ring or springform tin and cut carefully into slices with a sharp knife. If you like, you can dust the top of the cake with confectioners' sugar for decoration or place a few slices of poached pear on top.
- This recipe is a Community Pick!