Migliaccio: Aunt Loretta’s Cheesecake – Arthur Schwartz

I suppose the subject of migliaccio has come up several times lately because in some Italian-American families it is traditional for Easter.

The word migliaccio means pudding, derived from the Latin word for millet, the grain. In antique times, migliaccio was porridge or gruel made from millet. Today, it is different things in different parts of Italy, although I believe it is a word used mainly in the south of Italy. It can be a savory or sweet pudding, and it can be made with semolina (the flour of hard wheat) or cornmeal, or, in one case I know, from pasta. That case, the migliaccio di Ischia, which is capellini (angel hair) baked with eggs, milk, sugar and candied orange peel, is in my book Naples At Table. It’s a recipe from the Calise family, who own the largest and best pastry shop and cafe on the island of Ischia, although it is a homey dessert, not something the Calise make or sell in their elegant shops. (An interesting side note: There is a very good Italian restaurant on Henry St. in Brooklyn Heights called Noodle Pudding, which is called that because the owner is from Ischia and his last name is Migliaccio. Not knowing that the connotation of Noodle Pudding in New York would be Jewish kugel, he translated his name to what he knew Migliaccio to be back in Ischia.)

The savory migliaccio I know is essentially polenta (corn meal mush) baked with eggs, pork crackling or bits of ham, dried sausage, pancetta (Italian bacon), like that. It can be very heavy and it is not made much these days in Naples and surrounding area, the place from where it hails.

When I was asked about a sweet mulyach by my friend Marie Bianco, one of Newsday’s food columnists, who used the dialect pronunciation of one of her readers, I was at something of a loss. I didn’t have a recipe, although I knew it existed. I decided to put the question out to my radio listeners, but first I did a little book research and found the following recipe in my friend Michele Scicolone’s La Dolce Vita, her book on Italian desserts. When I recited it on the radio, a number of people called to say that it was essentially the same as their family’s recipe. It is from Michele’s aunt Loretta, who I happened to meet last year – a charming, pretty woman. It is made with farina (cream of wheat breakfast cereal), not semolina or cornmeal. I think this is so because when Loretta’s family came to the U.S., semolina, which is the grain they probably used in the old country, was not available. They substituted farina, just as, to offer just one other example, many Italian-Americans make their Easter grain pie, called pastiera with barley or rice instead of whole wheat berries – because the whole wheat used to be difficult or impossible to get.

Interestingly, while on the radio talking about migliaccio, my friend Maurizio De Rosa, who grew up in the Vomero section of Naples, right in the city, called to say he had never heard of the sweet version of migliaccio, only the savory. I have two possible explanations for this: 1) The sweet pudding was not made in the city of Naples itself, only in the nearby hinterlands (Italy is that regional, yes), and/or 2) migliaccio is such an old-fashioned dessert that it was no longer being made by the time Maurizio was born in the mid 1960s. There are many dishes that Italian-Americans perpetuate that are no longer made in Italy.

P.S.– It is now May 1, and yestereday I learned from my house guest, Giuliana Di Lucia, who lives in Salerno, that pastiera has long-been made with rice in the southern section of Salerno province called Cilento. This is just to set the record straight: Rice was apparently not merely a substitute for whole wheat beries that was made by Italian Americans who couldn’t get the grain.

Aunt Loretta’s Cheesecake

Makes a 9-inch round, serving about 12

6 large eggs, at room temperature
3 cups (about 1 1/2 pounds) whole-milk ricotta
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon orange liqueur
2 cups milk
1 cup water
3/4 cup uncooked farina
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup finely chopped candied citron

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9- by 3-inch springform pan.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs until foamy. Beat in the ricotta, sugar, orange and lemon zests, and the liqueur.

In a medium saucepan, combine the milk and water, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Add the farina in a fine stream, stirring constantly. Stir in the salt and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes, or until thick and creamy.

Stir the cooked farina into the ricotta mixture, then stir in the citron. Pour into the prepared pan.

Bake for 1 hour and 10 minutes, or until the top of the cake is golden and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack.

To serve, run a thin-bladed knife around the outside edge of the cake. Remove the springform sides, and serve the pudding/cake off the base. Serve at room temperature or slightly chilled. Store in the refrigerator.