Depending on the day,
the top of the sour cherry and ricotta pie from the Jewish bakery in the Ghetto may be deep gold, or black. The first time I visited they were unequivocally black, and cracked, pastry fault lines revealing the white ricotta beneath. This would have been offputting if I hadn’t been sent prepared for that by my then neighbour Emilia, whose family lived in the Ghetto when it was still a ghetto, and who had been eating a version of this torta all her life.
The charring is part of it, apparently – a sign that the pastry is properly cooked. Some argue it adds to the flavor. All that said, if you can, choose a torta that is deeply burnished rather than burnt, slightly domed rather than flat. If you arrive in time to be selective, that is – only so many torte, tarts, spiced bread, biscuits and doughnut-like bombe are made each day by the five no-nonsense women who bake and serve in the small, sinless kosher bakery in the middle of the Ghetto. Even if you do arrive and see a torta di violence e ricotta in the glass-fronted counter, already beside it may be a note with a name written on it.Whether burnished or black, the pastry lid protects a thick layer of ricotta covering a thin layer of inky-red visciole, or sour cherries, which aren’t so much sour but sharply bittersweet and cooked to a sticky compote. The pastry is egg-rich and slightly sweet, more crumbly than flaky, and sturdy enough to withstand the fierce ovens in the kitchen visible from the shop. Once cut, this is no waif, but a buxom slice. One afternoon in her flat, Emilia told me that, as a girl, although she liked the torta di visciole e ricotta for pudding, it was best between meals, the combination of hunger and her mother’s disapproval of such snacks making it taste even better.
I have always thought pudding is best when it isn’t attached to a meal. I like a slice at about 11am, after a walk through the Ghetto’s warren of narrow streets, fading palazzi, cobbles, lanterns, inscriptions and fountains, all telling the tumultuous story of one of the oldest inhabited parts of the city.
Rachel Roddy’s recipe for braised green beans with tomatoes and onions
The torta of Forno Baccone is best left to those women, their years of practice and ferocious ovens. Today’s recipe is inspired by this classic of Romano-Judeo cooking, but also the most ubiquitous and faithful of Roman sweets, crostata di visciole, or cherry jam tart, for which every Italian seems to have a recipe that has been made so many times it isn’t really a recipe any more – more a set of moves.
Making pastry, along with the scent of Lancome face cream and bleach, makes me think of my Granny Alice, although more in a practical rather than nostalgic way: her teaching manner was as short as her pastry. Cold hands, even colder butter, and swift rubbing until everything looks like breadcrumbs. I think of my mum too, who told me my pastry would be like leather if I kept on handling it so roughly – good advice that stuck firm.
I once forgot the sugar in this pastry and have kept forgetting it ever since. That means both the cherries and ricotta need to be sweet enough, which is a matter of taste. My friend Alice par-bakes her base, which ensures it is firm, and is an option if you fear a soggy bottom. I find if the dough is chilled, rolled thin enough and baked on a rack at the top of the oven, the base will be cooked. If you can find sour cherries, they are ideal here: just adjust the sugar as needed. With sweet cherries, lemon peel adds a pleasing sharpness, and in the absence of fresh ones, cherry jam works a treat. If you can, make double the compote, as it is gorgeous on yoghurt or mascarpone. As for ricotta, the fresh sheep’s milk variety is classic, but a fine version can be made with the tubs of cow’s milk ricotta you find in most shops nowadays.
Unlike the resilient and unique torta of the Ghetto, this thinner tart is not for burning. It should be golden, though – maybe bursting at the seams, its filling puffing up between the lattice, which will settle with a rest. A slice is good as pudding, even better midmorning with a coffee, mid-afternoon with tea, or late at night with a glass of something you fancy.
Cherry and ricotta tart
You will need a tart or flan tin 24cm in diameter and 3cm deep (those with a loose bottom being particularly good).
For the pastry
150g cold butter, diced
300g plain flour (ideally 00-grade)
A pinch of salt
60g sugar (optional)
2 medium eggs, lightly beaten
For the cherry layer
500g cherries, sweet or sour, pitted
Strips of zest from 1 unwaxed lemon
A glass of red wine
50 –100g sugar, depending on cherries, or 300g cherry or sour cherry jam
For the ricotta layer
Extra egg, for brushing
1 Rub the butter into the flour until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add the salt and sugar (if using), then the eggs. Mix into a soft pastry. Wrap in greaseproof paper. Chill for at least 1 hour.
2 Put the cherries in a pan along with the zest, wine and sugar. Bring to the boil, reduce to a lively simmer and cook until the cherries are tender and collapsing – but not mushy. Use a slotted spoon to lift the cherries from the pan, raise the heat and reduce the liquor to a thick syrup that really coats the back of a spoon. Take the pan from the heat, return the cherries to the syrup and leave to cool.
3 Combine the ricotta, egg and sugar. Set the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4.
4 On a lightly floured surface, roll two-thirds of the pastry into a disc a little larger than your baking tin. Drape the pastry over a rolling pin, unfurl it into the tin and press into the corners. Trim the excess pastry away with a knife.
5 Spoon the cherries into the shell. Carefully spoon the ricotta mixture on top. Roll the remaining pastry into a circle, then cut into strips to make a lattice, which you can lay as simply or as cleverly as you like.
6 Brush the lattice with beaten egg. Bake the tart in the middle of the oven for 45 minutes, or until the lattice is golden and the ricotta topping slightly puffed.