It is hard to imagine the following comments being uttered at the dinner table, and before the cook and in the presence of company no less:
‘The spaghetti are too al dente.’
‘The sauce could use more garlic and parsley.’
‘The clams are a bit gummy.’
In fact, they are more likely to recall dialogue taken from an episode of Chopped or Hell’s Kitchen, both cooking shows devised to critique poor, stressed-out chefs whom have just been pushed to their creative limits.
But alas, the comments actually came from a recent dinner, and were made by our friends Pina and Anthony, who were lamenting the perceived shortcomings of the spaghetti with clams they had prepared. My husband Erik, now accustomed to their aspirations for culinary transcendence, took it in stride. They might as well have been discussing Donald Trump’s newest faux pas on his bid for the Republican Party or how goats have been enlisted recently to help de-weed the Congressional Cemetery in Washington D.C. I watched as he calmly munched his way through what was, in actuality, a pretty delicious plate of spaghetti.
It wasn’t always so.
Years ago, he became quite alarmed at a similar conversation with other friends of mine, Paola and Fabio. This time it was over the exquisiteness – or apparent lack-thereof – of a roasted D’Artagnan duck they had prepared. I observed him shuffling nervously in his seat, utterly and completely uncomfortable as they continued to dissect the dish and where it went awry.
“But it was delicious!” Erik blurted out as we headed home in our car. “Why were they being so hard on it? On themselves?” He was really quite bewildered, my little muffin. It seemed confusingly rude, even if they were chastising their own cooking.
Unknowingly, he had stumbled upon a rather common Italian idiosyncrasy, which is that it’s not at all uncommon for Italians to mercilessly critique food when sharing a meal with family or intimate friends.
“I know it must seem impolite, perhaps even bizarre,” I answered, “but they aren’t really being cruel or critical.” He didn’t seem convinced.
“They’re just being…Italian,” I added, with a tone of finality, as though it would explain everything. It didn’t.
I persevered. Food, you see, is a work of art to Italians, I tried to explain. When it is found wanting – however slightly – it often elicits a spirit of collaborative problem-solving in an effort to raise the dish, at some future time, to the levels of exquisiteness where it rightly belongs. The dialogue is actually, believe it or not, paying homage to the collective yearning that all Italians possess, which is to enjoy food at its peak, at its most flavorful, at its most divine.
“You’re all nuts.”
Probably…and he hadn’t even met my cousin Nico yet.
Be it as it may, cooks and eaters alike share in this perhaps odd ritual as a way of celebrating one of their great loves in life. And no cook, at least that I’ve ever seen, has ever stormed from the table in a huff. That’s because the emphasis is always about what can be done to make the food even better next time, and not on what the cook has done wrong.
At the end of the day, it’s all about the food.
Now…there’s no need to fret about getting this pound-like cake right, as it’s one of those forgiving type of desserts that somehow always comes out right. Whipped egg whites replace the butter, making the dough incredibly moist and, unlike pound cake, simultaneously light. It makes for a perfect afternoon snack for kids to boot.
making mini chocolate chip ricotta cake
To prepare, preheat the oven to 375° and grease a Bundt cake pan with ample butter.
Then pour 2 tablespoons of optional unsweetened cocoa in the pan and rotate the pan over the sink in a circular motion, like a wheel, to ensure that the cocoa sticks to all sides. Pour out any remaining cocoa powder that which has not stuck to the sides.
Beat 4 large egg whites in a medium bowl. (Click here to learn how to master the whipping egg whites process.) Start by beating them in a metal bowl on medium-low speed for 3 minutes before adding anything else. Then add 1/4 teaspooon of cream of tartar and switch the speed to medium high and beat for another 6 minutes or so until the eggs look foamy and droopy peaks form.
In a separate large bowl, beat 4 large egg yolks and 1 cup of sugar for about 1½ minutes. Add ¼ cup of melted and then cooled unsalted butter, and beat for 30 seconds.
Add 1 cup of whole milk ricotta and beat for 30 seconds.
Finally, add 1 cup white flour, a pinch of salt and 2 teaspoons of baking powder and beat for 30 more seconds. The dough will be quite firm at this point.
Fold in the whipped egg whites with a spatula until you can no longer see streaks of egg whites in the batter.
and then add 1/2 cup of semi-sweet mini chocolate chips.
Mix well with spatula.
Spoon into the prepared Bundt pan.
and place in the middle shelf of the oven.
Lower the temperature to 350° and bake for 35-40 minutes, or until the cake is a golden color and feels springy to the touch. Allow to cool for 15 minutes before turning it over on a plate. Dust with powdered sugar before serving. Makes 8 servings.