Is there anything sadder than a half-full container of sour cream or yogurt, sitting forlornly in the refrigerator and waiting to reach its "best used by" date? Sure, you can always put a few spoonfuls of sour cream on baked potatoes. And the yogurt can be eaten for breakfast, with fruit or cereal. But the saddest container in my refrigerator has always been half-filled with ricotta cheese, because what on Earth can you do with it if you don't have quite enough for pasta or pizza? Inspiration struck one morning when I noticed the words "whole milk" on my ricotta container. I use milk when making cakes, so why not substitute some ricotta cheese?
If the idea of cheese in your cake seems wrong, remember that ricotta isn't actually cheese. It is made with whey left over from the cheesemaking process, recooked (thus its name) with some acid until small curds form. With more character than milk but less character than sour cream, it can add fresh, creamy flavor to a cake without too much tartness.
For my experiment, I chose a not-too-sweet cake recipe that can be put together in minutes and pulled out of the oven before everyone else wakes up. Rather than creaming together butter and sugar before adding wet and dry ingredients alternately, I use the quick-bread method of mixing. (Creaming beats air into batter, and produces a cake with a fine crumb and a high rise.) The quick-bread method results in a more crumbly texture, which is fine for breakfast and snacking. A bonus: You don't need an electric mixer to make the batter this way. A spatula or wooden spoon will do. And clean up is easy since everything goes into one bowl.
Cornmeal gives the cake some color and crunch. The ricotta lends moisture and a mild dairy flavor. The batter is rather thick, which is a good thing when you are adding blueberries, which would sink to the bottom of the pan if the batter were thinner.
I kept it simple this time, dusting the top of the cake with confectioners' sugar. But I might add a streusel topping if I were serving it to houseguests. I'd cut up 4 tablespoons of butter and then use my fingers to work them into a mixture of 1/4 cup sugar, 1/4 cup flour and 1/4 cup yellow cornmeal until crumbs form. Then I'd freeze the crumbs while I made the cake batter, sprinkling them on top just before putting the cake into the oven.
ONE-BOWL BLUEBERRY-RICOTTA BREAKFAST CAKE
3/4 cup whole-milk ricotta cheese, room temperature
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 cup fresh blueberries, picked over
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Spray an 8-inch square baking pan with nonstick cooking spray. Whisk together ricotta and eggs in a large glass measuring cup. Whisk together flour, sugar, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large bowl.
2. Add ricotta mixture and lemon zest to bowl with flour mixture. Stir with a spatula until moistened (it will be lumpy). Stir in butter until incorporated. Stir in blueberries.
3. Scrape batter into prepared pan and smooth top with a spatula. Bake until the top is golden brown and a toothpick inserted into center comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Let cool in pan 5 minutes, invert onto a wire rack, and then turn right side up to cool slightly. Cut into 9 squares and serve warm or let cool completely before cutting into squares and serving.
Makes 9 servings.