This is ricotta pudding from Elizabeth David’s book Is there a Nutmeg in the House? The book is blue and there is somewhere on it a picture of quinces. In a heretical gesture, I added some dark chocolate, masquerading as raisins. I’m fairly sure that ED would not have approved. She would have spoken sharply. And of my decision to throw in some feta, to substitute strained Greek yoghurt, to add honey, as I have done occasionally, she would have regarded me coolly. I would have known this was not wise from the dip in temperature in the room.
It’s no surprise to me that she’d been an actress and had come to her writing life after failure in that department. I’ve always loved her writing; the recipe here for ricotta pudding (budino di ricotta) is simple and feels quite underwritten, basic almost. There is none of the hand holding we have now in cookery books. My mother remembers her kitchen shop in Pimlico in the sixties, remembers meeting her there, and watched as ED wrapped in tissue paper a present for my grandmother, to be shipped off later to Sydney.
It was an odd time then, hard to define when you haven’t lived it, but stories abound of London in the late Fifties, then the Sixties. It was this beatnik, makeshift place of eternal, random, spontaneous parties, according to my mother. ED appeared to be the only vaguely sniffy one there. But it was nice of her to wrap my mother’s present.
There was another figurehead at the time who gets talked of – Robert Carrier. Just before I was born, my parents owned a flat in Camden Passage, close to his restaurant. I think back then, you could afford to be a bit arbitrary and eccentric about food. Because people didn’t know about ratatouille and ricotta. These things came from the Continent, which a lot of people hadn’t explored in any great depth. And there had been rationing.
My mother knew more than most only because she had done the six week boat journey from Sydney, part of the first Push that included Clive James, Barry Humphries etc. and had stopped off along the way. She stayed in a brothel in Naples. But these are not my stories to tell. All I can tell you is how the book feels to read, and how it reminds me of the people who are still around, family friends in their eighties now and nineties, and how demure and evocative they can make an omelette seem. A collection of wooden spoons are there not just for show. An aura of quiet descends in the room, there are no winking red lights, no computer leads, and I find myself becalmed.
There’s the occasional sharpness if I lose the thread of the conversation, overwhelmed by central heating in a small space. A telling off is part of the deal somewhere, sometimes by accident I might break a chair. But on the whole it’s a relief not to be modern for a while. The food is delicious, simple, frugal, effortless. There is delight in the dish.
Adapted from Elizabeth David, Is There A Nutmeg in the House?
I prefer strained Greek or Turkish yoghurt here to nasty supermarket ricotta. If you can find fresh, or even better if you can make it yourself, it will transform the dish. Ricotta is slightly drier, less silky than strained yoghurt. Not wishing to confuse, curd cheese is also lovely. I’m not imagining you’ll be as common as me and add chocolate, but if you have some raisins and some rum or marsala it’s a lovely addition. You can use honey here as well. And ground almonds instead of flour – ED does in her other cheese-cake recipes. She’s not here to tell you off.
100g raisins (optional)
4 tbsp rum
Butter, for greasing
3 tbsp plain flour (or ground almonds)
400g fresh ricotta or strained Greek or Turkish yoghurt
Pinch of sea salt
6 heaped tablespoons of caster sugar (or to taste)
Grated zest of 1 lemon
Soak the raisins (if using) in the rum for a few hours until plump. Heat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Butter a 25cm plain cake tin or oven-proof dish of about 1.5 litre capacity. Beat the ricotta or yoghurt until smooth. Beat in 1 whole egg and the three yolks, 4 heaped tablespoons of sugar, the salt, flour/almonds, the lemon zest, and a good grating of nutmeg. Use a whisk to get rid of any lumps. Finally, stir in the raisins, along with any rum left in the bowl. Beat the egg whites until they hold soft peaks. Keep beating, gradually adding the remaining sugar, until you have a thick, glossy meringue that stays in the bowl if you hold it upside down. Stir a heaped tablespoonful of the meringue into the cheese mixture to loosen it, then lightly fold in the rest, keeping as much air in the mix as you can.
Pour into the prepared tin or dish and give it a gentle shake to level the surface. Bake for about 35 – 40 minutes, or until golden and set. Leave to cool to room temperature (it will sink). Eat cold – perhaps with cream. Lovely with some sharp, honeyed rhubarb.