Carnival (Carnevale in Italian) is a festive season that ends on Fat Tuesday, or Martedì grasso. The most famous Italian Carnival celebration, of course, takes place in Venice, while the coastal Tuscan town of Viareggio is known for its elaborate parade floats.
Each region also has its own special treats for celebrating the holiday, though those most closely associated with Carnevale are often various forms of fried dough (such as cenci), fritters (such as frittelle di riso), or doughnuts (such as bomboloni or ). Now, I love hot, fried dough sprinkled with sugar as much as anyone, but what I don't love is deep frying things in my kitchen.
For others who don't like cleaning up grease spatters and wondering what to do with a potful of used oil, here's a recipe for migliaccio: a lovely, simple treat traditionally made in Naples during Carnevale time. It's a sort of light cheesecake, known as a ricotta cake or "ricotta pie" to some Italian Americans. It is delicately flavored with lemon zest and vanilla, like many other Carnevale desserts, but isn't too heavy or sweet, making it well suited for an afternoon snack (merenda), tea-time, or even for breakfast with your cappuccino.
In addition to the optional (but highly recommended) limoncello, you can add chopped candied lemon or orange peel, or raisins. Try using Meyer lemons for more flavor (I often make my limoncello with Meyer lemons). Or you can omit or substitute the semolina flour to make a gluten-free ricotta cheesecake.
- 1 cup whole milk
- 3 cups water
- 3 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 medium lemons (for one, use a vegetable peeler to create 4-5 large, wide swaths of zest, being careful to avoid the bitter white pith; for the other, use a fine grater [a Microplane grater works well] to create finely shaved zest)
- 1 1/2 cups semolina flour
- 1 cup fresh ricotta (homemade ricotta recipe here)
- 4 large eggs
- 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- Optional: 1 1/2 teaspoons limoncello (homemade limoncello recipe here)
- Garnish: powdered sugar, as needed for serving
With oven rack in the middle, preheat the oven to 390 °F.
In a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat, bring the milk, water, butter and large strips of lemon zest just to a simmer. As soon as the milk starts to bubble, remove the strips of zest with a slotted spoon or fine-mesh strainer and discard. Sprinkle the semolina into the pot gradually, stirring constantly. Reduce the heat to low and continue to stir until the mixture thickens and becomes dense and smooth, 1 to 2 minutes.
Remove from heat and set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the ricotta, eggs, granulated sugar, finely grated zest, vanilla extract, and limoncello (if using) and mix well with a wooden spoon or electric hand mixer on medium-low until well blended.
Gradually add the semolina mixture to the ricotta mixture, stirring well to create a smooth, creamy mixture without any large lumps (a few small lumps are fine).
Butter and flour a 9-inch round cake pan and transfer the mixture to the cake pan. Bake until the cake is firm and the top is golden brown, about 40-45 minutes.
Let cool completely, then sprinkle lightly with powdered sugar before serving.