More than the semolina, tapioca or rice pudding itself, it was the spoonful of jam I liked best. The adult in charge of the jar would land a blob of red in the middle of each bowl of white, and the jam would sink slightly and spread into a pink puddle. It wasn’t just at home that we had semolina with jam; we had it at school, too, and, like custard, there were no ambivalent kids: you either didn’t like it or you did. Years later, I would make myself semolina when I got home late, eat it while watching TV, then leave the pan to soak overnight.
In The Book Of Difficult Fruit, Kate Lebo notes: “Recipes are rituals that promise transformation.” It is a line that stuck in my head like a tune. It feels especially true in relation to recipes that involve thickening. Lebo also describes how recipes “blend the precision of an instruction manual with the faith of a spell and, no matter when they were written, occur in the present”. It is just you, a pan, a whisk, milk, water and fine semolina. The recipe is as confident as a head girl: it will thicken. But will it? I always have to stop myself throwing in another handful, to force myself to have faith. And, sure enough, it transforms.
Semolina comes from durum wheat, which, as its name suggests, is a hard variety of wheat, resistant to milling, reducing to an angular, granular texture, and the colour of pale egg yolks. Ground twice, it becomes a flour, semola rimacinata in Italian, which is gently gritty, like fine sand, and ideal for pasta (it is the stipulated flour for all factory-made dried pasta in Italy). Ground coarsely, hard durum wheat becomes semolina, suitable for couscous, porridge, puddings and today’s recipe.
Migliaccio napoletano is a dense Neapolitan cake-pudding traditionally made for carnival, and on Shrove Tuesday in particular. The name tells us it was originally made from miglio, or millet, but these days most versions are made with semolina, hence the alternative name, torta di semolino.
While migliaccio napoletano is unmistakably made with semolina and has a dense pudding quality, the eggs and ricotta lighten it to ensure a custard-like quality, too, which cuts into smooth slices that wobble slightly. We didn’t have any cream, but I think it would have been even nicer with a spoonful or two. Or cherries in syrup, from a jar or tin, or fresh ones stewed in red wine. Vincenzo cut his slice in two across the middle, so he could fill it with red (raspberry) jam.
Ricotta and semolina cake
Prep 10 min
Cook 1 hr 20 min
500ml whole milk
A pinch of salt
Thick strips of lemon zest
4 large eggs
250g caster sugar
Zest of 1 unwaxed lemon
Zest of 1 unwaxed orange
1 tbsp Grand Marnier or orange flower water (optional)
250g ricotta beaten with 50ml milk until smooth
Icing sugar, for dusting
Heat the oven to 180C (160C fan)/350F/gas 4. In a saucepan, gently heat the milk with 400ml water, a pinch of salt and the lemon zest until it comes to a steady boil. Shake in the semolina, whisking as you do, and continue to do so until the semolina thickens to a very dense mixture. Add the butter, whisk again, then pull off the heat and leave to cool.
In another bowl, beat the eggs and sugar until light and fluffy. Working slowly, with a hand or electric whisk on slow, beat in the ricotta-milk mixture, liquor (if using), grated citrus zest and, finally, the cooked and cooled semolina. It will seem a little lumpy, but don’t worry.
Tip the mixture into a lined 24cm tin and bake for an hour, covering loosely with foil if it seems to be browning too quickly.
Leave to cool before removing the cake from the tin, dusting it with icing sugar and serving.