A bright cranberry cake for those cold winter daysPosted on January 5, 2019
In most places, the holidays are officially over. By now, decorations are making their way back into boxes, people are back at work, and schools are back in session – a return to the usual, now that the new year has kicked off and gotten underway. In Italy, though, things aren’t finished quite yet. While the bulk of the festivities are over, there’s still January 6th – the holiday of Epiphany – to get through before real life really gets going again. Decorations stay up, trees stay lit, and streets stay draped with lights until at least the 6th – and sometimes much later, because in Italy there are very few things that actually happen quickly, and the timely removal of holiday decorations usually isn’t one of those things.
I always enjoy seeing the lights around the city, but really, by the time it’s New Year’s Day, I’m feeling ready to move on. My own Christmas tree was carefully stripped of its ornaments, dismantled, and wrestled into its too-small box promptly on the morning of January 2nd. For me, this month is all about looking forward into something new; if I wanted to sum up how I feel about January in one word, I think the one I’d end up going with would be “bright”. Bright partly because, at this point, the year still feels untarnished and full of unbroken resolutions, but bright also because in Rome, the beginning of January always seems to be particularly sunny and blue-skied in that piercing, crisp way that manages to make me feel simultaneously chilled to the bone and completely invigorated.
Lately, in the morning I’ve been leaving the apartment wrapped up in my warmest coat, a hideously shapeless down-filled cloud with a huge, puffy collar that flips up to surround half my head in a warm cocoon. I bought it last year to get me through all those sub-zero, snowy work trips in the dead of winter, but as it turns out, it’s making itself pretty useful in Rome too. There’s something undeniably pleasant about walking to the market or to get a cappuccino first thing in the morning while feeling so enveloped in something cozy, gloved hands pushed deep into my pockets, face cold enough to jolt away any remaining sleepiness. It makes me feel bright.
Occasionally, on my way through the Campo de’ Fiori market, I’ll pick up a bag of fresh cranberries. I’d probably do this a lot more often if a bag of less than half a kilogram of cranberries didn’t cost €8.50, which always seems pretty steep for some berries – but still, I’m glad to at least have the option of buying fresh cranberries, which are still pretty much impossible to find in other parts of the city (the dried ones, sold as “mirtilli rossi” – red blueberries – are pretty easy to find, but just don’t compare to the fresh ones). Sometimes the cranberries are irresistible though, regardless of their price – there’s something so perfectly sharp and eye-opening about their flavour that they’re like the food equivalent of a crisp, bright January day.
When I do splurge on a bag of cranberries, I usually turn to one of two tried-and-true recipes that I know will put them to good use. One is an intense sticky, spicy gingerbread cake dotted with pockets of jammy cranberries, and the other is a fluffy cornmeal cake studded with cranberries and covered in a shockingly pink cranberry glaze. It was this cake that I made for dessert on Christmas Eve this year – a departure from tradition, sure, but festive in its own bright way – and that I’m going to share here today. It’s a cake that feels like the perfect match to the word “bright” – it’s got the bright colour, the bright flavour, and (importantly) it’s quick and easy to make.
Cornmeal and ricotta cake with cranberries
Makes 1 8-inch cake
This recipe is a very slight adaption (I can’t help it – I find myself modifying every single recipe to ever make its way into my kitchen) of the cake in Yossy Arefi’s wonderful cookbook, Sweeter Off The Vine*, which became an instant favourite as soon as I bought it a couple of years ago. It’s straightforward and fairly quick to make, and its shocking pink glaze makes it an impressive end to a nice dinner.
In Italy (and maybe in other parts of Europe), you might have a hard time sourcing fresh cranberries. You could substitute other berries or small pieces of chopped-up rhubarb – the glaze might not have the same intense colour, but the flavour will still be good. You might also have a hard time finding cornmeal in Italy, but fortunately it’s basically the same thing as polenta, which is everywhere here. Just look for a medium-corse polenta that’s not the quick-cooking or pre-cooked kind.
For the cake…
- 1 cup (125g) all purpose flour
2⁄3 cup (100g) medium ground yellow cornmeal (or polenta)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1⁄2 teaspoon baking soda
3⁄4 teaspoon salt
10 tablespoons (140g) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup (200g) fine cane sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 cup (235g) whole milk ricotta, at room temperature
1 teaspoon orange zest
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups (about 150g) fresh cranberries
For the glaze…
- 3⁄4 cup (75g) fresh cranberries
- 2 cups (240g) confectioners’ sugar
- With the rack positioned in the middle, preheat oven to 350º (180ºC). Butter an 8-inch springform cake pan with sides at least two inches high.
- In a bowl, mix together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder and soda, and salt.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and the sugar together until it’s light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing until incorporated, then add the ricotta, the lemon and orange zest and the vanilla extract. Mix until fully incorporated.
- Fold in the flour mixture until just incorporated, then fold in the cranberries, being careful not to break them open and stain the batter with pink.
- Pour the cake batter into the springform pan and smooth the top with a spatula. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out with just a few crumbs on it. Let the cake cool in the pan for 15 minutes, then invert it onto a cooling rack and let it cool completely.
- When the cake is cool, prepare the glaze. Purée the cranberries in a food processor or with a handheld immersion blender until smooth, then stir in the confectioners’ sugar. The glaze should be thick but still easily pourable – if it’s too thick, add a few drops of water, and if it’s too thin add another spoonful or two of confectioner’s sugar. Pour the glaze over the cake and let it set for about half an hour before slicing into it.