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Cool, milky and calm, fresh ricotta is the perfect cheese for a summer afternoon. Chalk white and soft as snow, it is the mildest of the fresh cheeses. Made from whey, it is not quite milk, not quite cheese. The sort you can buy in tubs from the supermarkets will be rather firm, but the best is the softest and freshest that you can find in Italian grocers and specialist cheese shops. It will usually come with tiny indentations from the mould in which it was originally shaped.

You can use ricotta to fill a sponge cake – a much lighter and less sweet addition than buttercream. I thicken the filling with mascarpone, so it holds its shape, but also fold in a little whipped cream to introduce a silky texture. Orange and lemon zest is good as a flavouring in summer, especially if you are serving it with seasonal berries, as are a few drops of vanilla extract or the tiniest drop of orange flower water.

I made a many-layered cake this week, alternating layers of lemon sponge and ricotta cream, then finished it with a layer of soft cake crumbs. It was mercifully unsweet, and we ate it on a Sunday afternoon with a strawberry sauce made from puréed berries, a splash of lemon and a shake of icing sugar.

The fresh ricotta came out again, a day later, seasoned with a little black pepper, to eat with scorched tomatoes, thyme and thick toast drenched with olive oil.

Ricotta cake
Serves 8-10

For the sponge:
butter 250g
golden caster sugar 250g
eggs 4, large
lemon 1, grated zest and juice
ground almonds 50g
plain flour 175g
baking powder 1 tsp

For the filling:
ricotta 500g
mascarpone 250g
icing sugar 3 lightly heaped tbsp
lemon zest 2 tsp, finely grated
orange zest 2 tsp, finely grated
vanilla extract a few drops
double cream 250ml
icing sugar a little, to finish
strawberries to serve

You will need 2 x 20cm cake tins, preferably springform. Set the oven at 180C/gas mark 4. Line the base of the cake tins with baking parchment. Drain the ricotta for the filling in a sieve over a bowl.

To make the cake, cream the butter and sugar in a food mixer until truly light and fluffy. It should be very pale and creamy.

Beat the eggs lightly and add, a quarter at a time, to the butter and sugar. If they curdle, just keep beating, adding a little of the flour to bring the mixture together.

Add the lemon zest to the butter, reserving the juice. Mix together the ground almonds, flour and baking powder. Fold the flour and almonds into the mixture, then add the lemon juice. Spoon the mixture into the lined cake tins, smooth the top and bake for 30-35 minutes. Remove, leave to settle for 5 minutes, and turn upside down on a rack.

Make the filling by putting the ricotta in the bowl of a food mixer with the mascarpone and icing sugar. Beat briefly to mix. Introduce the grated zests and vanilla extract. In a separate bowl, softly whip the cream. Stop while it is still in soft folds, then fold gently into the ricotta.

When the cakes are thoroughly cool – don’t try to do this while they’re still warm – slice each into 2, horizontally. A long, serrated bread knife is probably best for this. You will have 4 discs of cake. Place a bottom half of one of the cakes back in its tin, then spoon a third of the ricotta filling on top, smoothing it gently. Cover with a second layer of sponge and a second layer of the filling. Finish with a third sponge and a final layer of filling.

Reduce the remaining piece of cake to coarse crumbs by hand or in a food processor. Sprinkle two-thirds over the surface of the cake, reserving the rest, then cover and refrigerate for a couple of hours.

Free the cake from its tin, dust lightly with icing sugar, press the reserved crumbs into the sides and serve with whole or sliced strawberries.

Roast tomatoes, thyme and garlic toasts

If you wish, eat with a spoonful of ricotta.

Enough for 2 or 3

tomatoes 750g, assorted colours and sizes
olive oil 6 tbsp
red chilli 1, medium sized
bread 3 thick slices of chewy, airy bread, sourdough or ciabatta
thyme leaves 2 tbsp, chopped
garlic 2 cloves

Put the oven on. You need it really hot for this (the tomatoes are at their most delicious when they are slightly scorched) so set the oven to 220C/gas mark 8. Cut the tomatoes in half – red, orange, cherry, whatever you have – and put them in a single layer in a roasting tin.

Pour 3 tbsp of olive oil over the tomatoes and grind over them a rather generous amount of black pepper and a seasoning of salt. Halve the chilli, then slice it finely. Add it to the tomatoes and toss everything about a bit. Roast the tomatoes for 30 minutes, until there are lots of juices. Tear the bread into pieces 3-4 cm wide. Remove the tomatoes from the oven and pour or spoon out most of the juice into a wide, shallow bowl.

Into the juices stir the 3 tbsp of olive oil and the thyme. Peel and crush the garlic to a paste and stir in. Dip the bread into the juices and let it soak some up. Turn the oven on to grill setting. Place the bread on a grill pan and toast under the grill until pale gold and lightly crisp on one side. The underside should still be juicy. Lastly, return any juices to the tomatoes and place under the grill to let them brown and scorch here and there – you’ll get deep smoky notes that way – then tuck the pieces of toast on top and bring to the table.