In medieval Italy, the cakes known as migliaccio were prepared not as a dessert but as a dietary mainstay. Leftover millet mush (“miglio” means “millet”) was augmented with whatever nutrient-dense food was on hand; often, that meant calorie-, protein-, and iron‑rich pig’s blood. The rustic mixture was poured into a pan and hearth-baked to create a filling, wholesome snack.
“There was something pan-Italian about it,” explained Danielle Callegari, Professor of Italian and Food Studies at Dartmouth College. “Everyone across the peninsula would have been making it in some way.” Callegari said the practice continued through the centuries until a “hard shift” occurred in post–World War II Italy: More-affluent cooks didn’t wait for leftovers to bake the cake, now lightly sweetened with sugar or honey, from scratch. Many also abandoned the pig’s blood (though it’s still part of the recipe in Emilia-Romagna) and traded the millet for semolina to make the decidedly more refined migliaccio di semolino.
I’m particularly fond of a style that’s common in Naples. It comes together easily: Simmer semolina flour with milk and/or water, butter, sugar, and flavorings—citrus, in the form of bergamot, orange blossom, lemon, or fiori di Sicilia, dominates, along with vanilla and spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon, or cardamom. Combine the fragrant porridge with beaten eggs, enrich it with a fresh cheese such as ricotta, scrape it into a springform pan, bake, and then chill it before serving.
The porridge provides body; the cheese, creaminess; the eggs, airiness. The result is a highly aromatic, lightly sweet, velvety treat evocative of a traditional yellow cake crossed with a flan. You can’t go wrong with a slim wedge to accompany a steaming mug of coffee or tea.
Semolina flour, made from the ground endosperm of durum wheat, is prized for its high protein content; golden color; and lightly sweet, rich taste. We developed our cake using Bob’s Red Mill brand, which has a relatively coarse grind. If you can’t find it, Cream of Wheat cereal—which is similar, though ground from nondurum wheat—can be substituted, but the cake will have a slightly more rustic texture (and a pale hue).
Porridge to Cake
A creamy migliaccio relies on a smooth porridge base. After bringing 4 tablespoons of butter, 3/4 cup of sugar (just enough for a lightly sweet cake), and 3 cups of whole milk (I preferred its richness to water or half milk/half water) to a simmer, I followed the lead of most recipes and “rained” 3/4 cup of semolina flour into the saucepan while briskly whisking. When this failed to produce a lump-free mush, I tried again, first stirring the semolina with the sugar before slowly streaming the blend into the milk mixture. Dispersing sugar throughout the semolina flour separated the semolina granules so that they couldn’t clump when they hit the hot liquid. After 5 minutes of gentle simmering, the porridge thickened to a polenta-like texture with no more lumps.
To infuse the porridge with the essence of citrus, some recipes call for briefly steeping swaths of lemon and/or orange peel in the warm milk. But porridge made this way was only weakly suggestive of the fruits. The floral, citrusy notes came to the fore only when I grated the zest of two lemons and one orange and heated the zest with the milk. That’s because the aromatic oils in the rind are contained in small pockets, and grating the rind ruptures those pockets, releasing much more flavor.
With the zest at its full potential, I also added a touch of cardamom for a hint of spice. As the porridge bubbled on the stove, my kitchen was perfumed with the heady scents of a pasticceria, and when I sampled a spoonful of the rich, warm semolina, I swooned; it tasted as wonderful as it smelled.
Making Semolina Cake
1. MIX RICOTTA BASE
Beat together eggs, ricotta, orange liqueur, and vanilla.
2. COOK porridge
Heat milk, citrus zests, cardamom, salt, and butter with semolina and sugar.
3. COMBINE porridge and ricotta base
Add semolina porridge to ricotta mixture in 3 additions.
4. BAKE CAKE
Pour batter into buttered and sugared springform pan and bake.
Mix and Bake
Next, the cheese and eggs. I opted for 11/2 cups of ricotta and four eggs, which I spiked with a generous dose of vanilla and, for even more citrusy depth, orange liqueur. (At this point, some bakers, especially those preparing for Carnevale, also stir in luxuries such as candied fruit and pine nuts, but I wanted more of an everyday cake.) A few recipes call for whipping the egg whites to soft peaks before folding them into the batter. While this produced a lighter crumb, the extra aeration meant that the top of the cake cracked more than the tops of the cakes I made with whole eggs. Simply beating the cheese and eggs together before combining them with the porridge produced a lovely cake without too many cracks.
Finally, one of the hallmarks of a successful migliaccio is a sugary, bronzed edge. To achieve this, I greased the pan with softened butter and dusted it with sugar before adding the batter. I baked the cake in a 375-degree oven for about an hour and was delighted to find that this produced a caramelized, mahogany crust encasing the lush, creamy cake.
Once the migliaccio had cooled, I refrigerated it for a full 12 hours to ensure that it would be firm enough to slice into neat wedges. After a generous dusting of confectioners’ sugar, my modern version of this cake with ancient roots was ready to enjoy.