When Life Hands You Strawberries…

Strawberry Ricotta Tart

Strawberry Ricotta Tart

I am a big fan of the “Barefoot Contessa”, Ina Garten, from the Food Network. This is a strange and disturbing obsession. No, I don’t want to be her. It would be nice to meet her…I guess…although I am wary of meeting anyone I’ve seen on TV. The “real-life” version invariably disappoints. But I would like to visit Ina in her “barn”, show her to the door, say good bye (“Love ya baby, now get out…”), and keep the “barn” for myself. (“Barn”? Old McDonald should have such a “barn”.)

I do admire her, and can’t help but think that my cooking has been greatly influenced by her. But I am puzzled by something. For years I have been watching her clucking about breaking eggs into a separate dish before adding them to a batter because “…you never know when you’re going to get a bad egg.”

I’ve been baking and cooking with eggs for many years and have never gotten a bad egg. Two yolks? Yes. Cracked shells? Yes. (May I add that my cracked shells are usually the fault of the big oaf who carries the eggs home from the market?)

So, bad eggs? No. Bad strawberries? Ohhhh, yes. A few days ago I bought a pint of strawberries. You know this kind, they come in a clear plastic container. A brand name that I have come to trust because the strawberries sold under that name are usually very sweet and juicy.

Not this time.

Well, at least they weren’t mealy, they just had no flavor. Perhaps they were past their prime and my neighborhood grocer let them “stay too long at the fair”? They seemed fairly fresh, so the “when in doubt throw it out” rule also did not apply here. I could have dumped a bunch of sugar on them, but in truth, all I would have ended up with would be a bowl of wet, red sugar.

They actually might have been okay in some muffins or pancakes, but I just wasn’t in the mood for those. I wanted dessert—but nothing heavy. Hmmm. Inspiration needed here…

A week or two ago I had a long conversation with a chum about Boston’s North End. Growing up nearby, the “Nawth End”, like New York’s Little Italy, was a Mecca for genuine Italian food. I use the word “genuine” gingerly; a better description would be that we assumed the food in the North End was one step closer to what we would eat if we were actually in Italy. Through our leafy suburban lens, the North End somehow looked like a foreign land to us—Little Italyland—an image reinforced by a popular TV commercial for Prince Spaghetti. If you are –ahem—a certain age and grew up in the Northeast you know that Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti day. (But I digress.)

(I gained some understanding of how a neighborhood can assume neo-theme park status on a stinking-hot summer day a couple of years ago. As I walked through Times Square eating an ice cream cone I was accosted by a tourist who twanged, “Ooo! Where all is the ice cream?” Alas, I’ve digressed again.)

(My favorite Times Square story recalls a tourist asking me, “Where all is Times Square?” I was standing at 42nd St. and Broadway at the time. I thought I was being “punked.” Okay. Last digression, I swear.)

Our usual habit in the North End was to eat dinner in one place, and then troop down the street to another place that specialized in desserts. Cannoli? You bet. But there was also Ricotta Pie.

This was long before the ‘90’s obsession with Mascarpone cheese and Tiramisu, so if it was dessert and contained cheese, it was Ricotta. Funny how some things become clichés and others become perennials. The mystique and novelty of Tiramisu long ago wore away, leaving behind an often badly executed “heart attack in a plastic cup.” Cliché. Old hat. Sooo five minutes ago.

Cannoli? A perennial. As classic as a well maintained old Rolex. Never out of style.

I’ve actually never seen Ricotta Pie since our family forays into the North End. New York is such a Cheesecake-centric city that its little Italian cousin has been overshadowed. New York Cheesecake is a joyous celebration of dairy excess; I enjoy a bite or two, but beyond that have never succumbed to its wiles. Too much sameness. I find I’m always digging through to the (usually) sodden graham cracker crust just to break up the monotony.

Ricotta Pie was a simpler treat, and not designed to overwhelm. A few bites with an espresso, and you were good. The starchiness of Ricotta cheese is a quality that isn’t appreciated enough in desserts. That’s where I found my inspiration for a dessert with my boring strawberries.

A simple Ricotta custard with a graham cracker crust studded with the berries. A few bites with an espresso.

Still, the graham cracker crust seemed like an unfinished thought. It needed a little something more, so I added a bit of almond flour. While this addition makes the crust a bit richer, the almond flavor somehow makes the graham crackers taste more “graham-y” and infuses the ricotta with hint of extra flavor too.

You can see from the photo above that I used the same square crème brulee dishes I used a couple of weeks ago to make my little cobblers. But don’t feel hemmed in by this because you can just as easily make this recipe in a pie plate or springform pan.

What’s the Italian translation for “Tonight is Ricotta Pie night”?

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Click here for my recipe for Strawberry Ricotta Tart

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