Italian Love Cake

By Dan Nieves

Photography by Sarah Gwilliam


Anyone who grew up in an Italian household, especially with an Italian mother, will know what I mean when I say that as I grew up, anywhere I turned there was likely food coming my way. “Try this. Taste that.” Not surprisingly, some of my very first memories are happy ones of being with my mother and grandmother in the kitchen.

Mary, my grandmother, was “Nanny” to us and her passion was for baking. She lived with us when I was growing up, so naturally she was a fixture in our kitchen and always had coffee, tea and always a baked good of some kind for us. It probably won’t surprise you to hear that having a sweet tooth also runs in the family, and I’ll claim the title of “Big Tooth” on that one.

Young Dan and sister with "Nanny," his grandmother

Young Dan and sister with "Nanny," his grandmother

Lucky for me, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree because my mom, April, loves to bake as much as her mother. She amazes me with what she creates in the kitchen. We joke that she needs to start selling her cookies (she makes over a dozen kinds!) come the holiday season. One day we will make it happen.

I remember fondly watching my mother and Nanny work magic in the kitchen together. Sweet breads at Easter, cookies and cream puffs at Christmas, peach pie come summer. And with each season, there were laughs, happy vibes and always a story. You always learned a little something about more of the family. “Now your Uncle Al, he makes his pignoli cookies a little different ... my sister hated the golden raisins in the sweet bread ... my uncle loved a cup of coffee and a couple sesame cookies.”

While I have a long way to go before I could even begin to claim the same level of baking skills as my mom and grandmother, they passed their love for baking on to me and I love to roll my sleeves up and get baking as often as a I can.

One of the first recipes I tried on my own was for an Italian Love Cake that my mom passed along; it came from my grandmother originally. It is a delicious combination of light, airy and just the right amount of sweet and goes so well with a cup of coffee or tea. I first made this cake while I was living in DC and working as a consultant for one of the big four firms. After I made the cake for the first time, my mom suggested I had to bring a cake in to work. So, I did. Our team had been working long hours on a deadline, everyone was tired. But it’s amazing to see what happens when you bring a still-warm cake into a conference room. It was a hit, even my clients enjoyed it! I was reminded that homemade food, particularly a sweet baked good, speaks a universal language that can bring us all together. Just the kind of thing that can lift spirits and sprinkle a little positivity in the day to keep us going.

More recently, there’s been a new chapter to this baking story. About seven years ago my wife discovered she had a severe gluten allergy. At the time, we thought that would put a damper on the baked goods and sweets, but my mom has taken this on as a personal challenge. She’s now set out to re-mix many of our favorite recipes, sans gluten. No surprise: She’s crushing it.

Having watched many moments in the kitchen between my mom and grandma that will always be magic memories for me, I’ve come to realize that the key ingredient in being a successful baker is the love that goes into it. The happiness warm cookies or a fresh pie can bring to family, friends and loved ones cannot be measured but the stories, conversation and connections it can lead to will last a lifetime. Oh, how sweet it is!

Italian Love Cake (The “easy” version)*
Serves 8–10

6 eggs (3 used in cake mix)
1 box butter golden cake mix
1 stick butter (used in cake mix)
15 ounces ricotta cheese
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
⅓ cup sugar
Powdered sugar for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 350°. Prepare the cake mix as directed and spread the batter evenly in a well-greased and floured 9- by 12-inch pan.

Using a hand mixer or whisk, mix the ricotta cheese with 3 eggs, 2 teaspoons vanilla and ⅓ cup sugar until well blended. Spread cheese mixture on top of the cake batter. It will sink to the bottom during baking.

Bake at 350° for 50 to 55 minutes. The top should be a golden brown, and a cake tester or toothpick should come out clean when done. Let the cake cool. Finish by dusting the cake with powdered sugar and then cut into squares. Enjoy a piece (or two) with your favorite cup of coffee or tea.

*Note: This is the “quick recipe” that uses a boxed golden cake mix.

Lemon Meringue Cake

By Tiffany MacIsaac, Owner & Chef, Buttercream Bakeshop

Makes 8–10 servings

Cake Overhead.jpg

This Lemon Meringue Cake is perfect for spring because it’s lighter, filled with flavor—but it’s not as rich as buttercream! It’s tart and sweet, which makes it really refreshing in the warmer months. You’ll love it, and while there are several steps, it is all doable for the home baker. 

 Lemon Curd
½ cup lemon juice
1½ cups sugar
27 egg yolks
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 pound unsalted butter, softened

Combine lemon juice and sugar in a pot. Bring to a simmer.

Place egg yolks in a bowl. Slowly pour the hot lemon mixture into the bowl, while gently whisking until combined. Return the mixture to the pot.

Cool over medium heat, stirring constantly with a rubber spatula. Be sure to scrape the bottom of the pot so there is no scorching. Do this until it reaches a simmer. Allow mixture to cook for 3–5 minutes at a low simmer.

Remove from heat and add the vanilla extract. Stir to combine. Once combined, add butter, and allow it to melt into the curd. Whisk smooth or use an immersion blender to smooth. Strain to remove any pieces of cooked egg. Refrigerate at least overnight, up to 1 week.

Prepare at least 24 hours in advance of assembly.

14 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
2⅔ cups sugar
1½ tablespoons lemon zest
½ cup + 2 tablespoons shortening
4 whole eggs
1 egg yolk (reserve egg white for buttercream)
¾  teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1¾ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ cup + 2 tablespoons buttermilk
1½ teaspoons lemon extract

Place butter, sugar and lemon zest in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment. Alternatively, use a medium-sized bowl and hand mixer. Cream on a medium speed 1–2 minutes, or until the butter and sugar are evenly combined and smooth. Scrape the bowl.

Add the shortening to the cream mixture on medium until combined. Scrape the bowl well. On medium speed, add the eggs and yolk, 1 at a time, allowing each to fully incorporate before adding the next. Then, add vanilla. Scrape the bowl well and mix about for 5–10 seconds, until everything is evenly combined.

In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt. Whisk to combine. In a separate bowl, combine buttermilk and lemon extract. Add half the flour mixture to the batter and mix on low to combine. With the machine running add the buttermilk slowly. Mix on medium until fully combined.

Preheat oven to 325°F (convection) or 350°F (still oven). Divide batter between 3 (8-inch) baking pans that have been sprayed with Pam and lined with parchment paper, roughly 2¼ cups per pan. Bake for 25–35 minutes, or until golden brown and fully set in the center.

Use a toothpick to check the center. If it comes out clean, the cakes are ready. Cool at room temperature then wrap and refrigerate until ready to stack the cake, at least 2 hours.

Prepare at least 2 hours before starting the meringue.

1½ sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
2¼ cups powdered sugar, sifted
¼ cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Place butter in the bowl of an electric mixer and cream on medium until smooth and creamy. This should take about 1 minute on medium speed. Scrape the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.

Add the powdered sugar to the bowl and mix on medium speed for another 2–3 minutes, or until light and fluffy. Scrape the bowl well with a rubber spatula. Slowly incorporate the cream and vanilla extract. Mix to combine, scraping once or twice to make sure there are no thick chunks of butter stuck to the sides.

Use right away, or place in a covered container at room temperature for up to 4 days. This can refrigerate for up to 2 weeks, or freeze up to 2 months. If using after placing in the fridge or freezer, be sure to bring to room temperature first.

 Honey-Vanilla Meringue
½ cup water
⅔ cup + 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
3 tablespoons honey
⅓ cup light corn syrup
Pinch salt
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
4 egg whites
¾ teaspoon cream of tartar

The cake should be stacked and refrigerated for at least 2 hours before starting the Honey-Vanilla Meringue.

Combine water, sugar, honey, light corn syrup, salt and vanilla extract in a pot. Cook over medium heat to 240°F.

 In the bowl of a stand mixer with a whip attachment, combine egg whites and cream of tartar. When the syrup reaches 234–235°F, turn the mixer on to medium speed. Whip until it starts to form a meringue.

With the mixer running on medium-high, pour the syrup slowly down the side of the bowl. Once added, continue to whip until it forms very stiff peaks, but is still slightly warm. Use immediately to frost the cake. Any remaining fluff can be stored at room temperature up to 2 days or refrigerated up to 1 week.

If the cake layers have a dome to them, trim them flat. Plate the first layer on a cake plate or board that is 10 inches or larger.

Pipe a “well” of vanilla buttercream around the edge of the cake layer. Fill with lemon curd. Stack the next layer on top and repeat. The last layer should be turned upside down and placed on top. Cover the entire cake with a thin coat of buttercream and chill at least 2 hours or up to overnight.

Use the slightly warm meringue to decorate the outside of the cake. Use a blow torch to torch the meringue until it is perfectly golden brown. Serve within 2 days.