MI liked the spoonful of jam more than semolina, tapioca or rice pudding itself. The adult in charge of the jar landed a blob of red in the center of each white bowl, and the jam would sink slightly, spreading into a pink puddle. Semolina with jam was not only available at home; we had that at school too, and like pudding, there were no ambivalent children: you didn’t like it or you liked it. Years later, I’d make my own semolina when I got home late, eat it while I watched TV, and then let the pan soak overnight.
In The Book Of Difficult Fruit, Kate Lebo notes, “Recipes are rituals that promise transformation.” It’s a line that stuck in my head like a melody. This is especially true for recipes that involve thickening. Lebo also describes how recipes “combine the precision of an instruction manual with the belief of a spell and, no matter when they were written, occur in the present.” Just you, a pan, a whisk, milk, water and fine semolina. The recipe is as confident as a head girl: it’s getting thicker. But will it? I always have to stop myself from throwing in another handful to force myself to believe. And indeed it transforms.
Semolina comes from durum wheat, that is, as the name suggests, a Hard wheat variety, firm to grind, reduced to an angular, granular texture and the color of light egg yolk. Ground twice, it becomes a flour, Semolina rimacinata in Italian, which is slightly gritty, like fine sand, and ideal for pasta (it’s the prescribed flour for all factory-made dried pasta in Italy). Hard durum wheat semolina is coarsely ground, suitable for couscous, porridge, puddings and today’s recipe.
Migliaccio Napoleon is a thick Neapolitan cake pudding that is traditionally made for Carnival and especially Shrove Tuesday. The name tells us that it was originally made miglioor millet, but these days most versions are made with semolina, hence the alternative name, Torta from semolina.
During migliaccio Napoleon is unmistakably semolina and has a dense custard quality, the eggs and ricotta fluff it up to also ensure a custard-like quality that cuts into smooth slices that wobble slightly. We didn’t have any cream but I think it would have been even nicer with a spoon or two. Or cherries in syrup, from a jar or can, or freshly braised in red wine. Vincenzo cut his piece in half so he could fill it with red (raspberry) jam.
Ricotta and semolina cake
preparation 10 mins
Cook 1 hour 20 minutes
500ml whole milk
A pinch of salt
thick stripes Lemon peel
200 grams of semolina
30 grams of butter
4 large eggs
250g powdered sugar
Zest of 1 unwaxed lemon
Zest of 1 unwaxed orange
1 tablespoon Grand Marnier or orange blossom water (Optional)
Beat 250 g ricotta with 50 ml milk until smooth
powdered sugarfor dusting
Preheat the oven to 180°C (Fan 160°C)/350°F/Gas 4. In a saucepan, carefully heat the milk with 400 ml water, a pinch of salt and the lemon zest until it boils evenly. Pour in the semolina while stirring and continue until the semolina thickens into a very dense mass. Add butter, whisk again, then remove from heat and allow to cool.
In another bowl, beat the eggs and sugar until fluffy. Using a hand whisk or whisk, slowly stir in the ricotta and milk mixture, liqueur (if using), grated citrus zest and finally the cooked and cooled semolina. It will appear a little lumpy, but don’t worry.
Pour the mixture into a 9-inch (24 cm) tin lined with parchment paper and bake for 1 hour, loosely covering with foil if it seems to be browning too quickly.
Allow to cool, then remove the cake from the tin, dust with icing sugar and serve.