'Ricotta keeps cakes tender without weighing them down’: Coconut ricotta loaf cake and orange passion fruit ricoota cheesecake. Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian
Ricotta is the secret to this succulent lime drizzle cake and silky passion fruit cheesecake, leaving them light and creamy without the usual heaviness of a butter-based mix.
There are a few ingredients outside of the standard baking arsenal that I turn to when I’m making something really special – a spoonful of coarse black pepper in a lemon drizzle, coriander seeds – toasted and ground – in the melting crumb of a spiced apple cake, a dash of balsamic to sharpen the bittersweet clout of a good chocolate cake.
My favourite, though, which I smuggle into as many recipes as I can, is ricotta. It keeps cakes tender without weighing them down; its milky blandness soothes without any of the heaviness of butter. It’s fresh, bright and mellow – make it your newest staple ingredient.
Coconut ricotta loaf cake with zesty lime glaze
Coconut oil can be pricey, but it’s well worth investing in a pot if you can – its mild flavour gives a crumb that’s rich and tender without butter’s greasiness. However, you can swap in 125g of softened, unsalted butter instead if that’s all you’ve got to hand.
100g coconut oil, soft but not molten
150g caster sugar
2 large eggs
1½ tsp vanilla extract
200g plain flour
50g desiccated coconut
2½ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
For the glaze
100g icing sugar
Zest of 1 lime
4-5 tsp lime juice
1 Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Line a 900g/2lb loaf tin with baking parchment.
2 Beat the coconut oil with the sugar until smooth and creamy. If it is too cold it’ll be heavy and difficult to mix, so warm gently in the microwave or over the radiator if that’s the case. Whisk in the eggs, ricotta and vanilla extract. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, desiccated coconut, baking powder and salt, then add this dry mixture to the wet ingredients and fold gently together into a smooth batter.
3 Spoon the batter into the lined tin and bake for 40-50 minutes, until risen, golden brown and springy to the touch. Test by inserting a small knife into the centre of the cake: if it comes out with no more than a crumb or two stuck to it, the cake’s ready.
4 While the cake is still hot, combine all the ingredients for the glaze, adding just enough lime juice to give you a smooth, but not watery, icing. Generously brush over the top of the still-warm cake – it’ll seep into the crumb as it cools, leaving a light sugar crust. Sprinkle with a little extra lime zest for an extra citrus hit, if you want. Leave the loaf to cool completely in its tin before unmoulding, slicing and serving.
Orange and passion fruit ricotta cheesecake
Pairing ricotta with bright orange and sharp passion fruit gives a cheesecake that’s fresh, light and rich without being cloying. A long, slow bake is crucial here – because ricotta is lower-fat than the usual cream cheese, it needs a gentle cook to avoid splitting and graininess. Some insist on a water bath to protect cheesecake from the dry heat of the oven, but it’s a lot of messing around and really not necessary if you bake at a low enough temperature.
For the base
75g unsalted butter
150g digestive biscuits
For the filling
5 tbsp cornflour
150g caster sugar
200g full-fat cream cheese
3 large eggs
Juice of 3 large (or 4-5 small) passion fruits, seeds strained out
Zest of 2 oranges
For the curd
Juice of 3 large passion fruit, seeds strained out
Juice of 1 orange
60g caster sugar
1 large egg
30g butter, softened
1 Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Melt the butter over a low heat. Crush the digestives with a rolling pin, or blitz in the food processor, until very fine and powdery. Combine the butter and digestives then press the mixture into a 20cm-diameter springform cake tin. Pack the base firmly using the bottom of a glass, otherwise specks of digestive will mix with the filling. Bake for 10-12 minutes, then set aside to cool in the tin. Turn the oven down to 130C/260F/gas mark ¾.
2 Combine the cornflour and caster sugar for the filling. Beat the ricotta and cream cheese together until perfectly smooth. Add the sugar and cornflour mix, then stir to combine. Add the eggs one at a time, stirring well, then whisk in the fruit juice and orange zest.
3 Pour the cheesecake mixture into the tin over the prebaked base. Bake for around 2 hours, or until the cheesecake is completely set save for the slightest tremble at its centre. It’s important not to over-bake, which can make the cheesecake more likely to crack as it cools. Leave to cool completely to room temperature.
4 While the cheesecake cools, prepare the curd. Whisk the passion fruit and orange juices together in a heatproof bowl along with the caster sugar and egg. Bring a small pan half-filled with water to a gentle simmer and set the bowl above it. This part is boring, but your patience is crucial: stir the mixture over the simmering water until after 10-15 minutes the curd has heated and thickened enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon. It ought to be close to the consistency of thin custard. Stir in the butter until it has melted, then leave the curd to cool.
5 Once both cheesecake and curd have reached room temperature, spread the curd liberally over the top of the cheesecake. (You won’t need all of it – spoon any excess into a sterilised jar and use on toast, to sandwich cakes, or enjoy straight off the spoon.) Place the cheesecake in the fridge to chill for a few hours, or overnight. I know that it’s easy to let impatience get the better of you here, but this stage really is vital: as the cheesecake rests and cools, its texture will change from soft and spongy to dense, creamy and smooth. Give it time.