Baked ricotta may be my favorite dessert—it's light, not too sweet, easy to make, and, most importantly, it's downright delicious. And if that's not enough, the thin, pudding-like cake tastes even better when you bake it ahead of time. It also provides an ideal platform for seasonal produce (like the rhubarb here), so you can make it all year round and never grow tired of it. You can even play around with the flavorings (swap in orange or lime zest for the lemon, add rum in place of vanilla, use maple in place of honey, and so on) according to your tastes and the fruit accompaniment. Really, the only element that you need to be strict about is finding good-quality fresh ricotta.
In Italy, where ricotta originated, the fluffy, fresh cheese was traditionally made by curdling whey, a byproduct of Pecorino and mozzarella cheesemaking, and then draining the fresh curds to create a pillowy, spoonable cheese. Today, most ricotta producers both in Italy and domestically augment the whey with milk or cream to create a creamier-tasting cheese. Many commercial producers also abridge the draining step, adding stabilizers to prevent the cheese from separating, leaving a much wetter, blander-tasting product. When shopping for ricotta to highlight in this dessert (or anywhere you want a better-tasting end result), it's worth the trouble and added expense to track down a brand made with nothing more than whey, cream, or milk; vinegar or rennet (which help form the curds); and maybe a little salt. Galbani
is a good, readily accessible brand. If you're shopping at a well-stocked cheese shop, you may find ricotta labeled “basket-drained,” which refers to a traditional method of ensuring the cheese isn't wet and waterlogged. And if you're really lucky, you'll find sheep's milk ricotta, prized for its richness and tantalizing sweet-tangy flavor. If top-quality ricotta is new to you, take a moment to taste it in its natural state before adding it to a recipe; you’ll immediately understand what the fuss is all about. Indeed, if you want an even simpler dessert than this baked ricotta, spread a little of the uncooked ricotta on a slice of toasted walnut bread and drizzle with honey. Or mix in a little cocoa powder and sugar, and you've got an instant chocolate pudding.
Versions of this baked ricotta dessert exist all across the Mediterranean, but many include flour, more eggs, and more sugar, making them closer to an American-style cheesecake. I prefer this more restrained approach that creates a cake about the height of a thick pancake, because it's lighter, simpler, and it's a better showcase for the sweet taste of the fresh cheese, lightly perfumed with honey. The way I cook the rhubarb prevents the stalks from collapsing into a compote-like mush. Instead, by baking the rhubarb in a low oven, the stalks poach in their own juices, holding their shape. (Bonus: They can cook alongside the ricotta cake.) Adding lemon juice to already tart rhubarb may seem misguided, but the lemon snaps the flavors into bright focus. I like to tuck in a piece of star anise and cinnamon into the dish before baking to provide a whisper of spice; if you want more, add a pinch of their ground counterparts instead. Both the ricotta cake and rhubarb taste best when left to cool before serving, or even with a light chill, making this the perfect start to a season of warm-weather eating.