Sweet ricotta cheese filling separates three moist yellow cake layers in this Italian pastry-inspired cake. It’s frosted with a duo of mascarpone buttercream and rich chocolate ganache, and crowned with six irresistible mini cannoli.
One of my favorite jobs as a recipe developer is planning a new layer cake. Although I love pies, cookies, and pastries, for me, cake has always provided a very rich well of inspiration from which to draw. I can piece together my favorite components and flavors, stack them high and make them pretty with swirls of frosting. Sometimes those flavors come with the added ingredient of nostalgia, and that is the case here; mascarpone buttercream I once tasted on wedding cake and orange-ricotta filling from a cannoli enjoyed while on vacation.
The finished cake is rich yet deceptively light, and its ricotta filling speckled with mini chips makes the inspiration unmistakable. One thing is for certain, there can be no improvement upon classic Italian cannoli, but we can celebrate the pastry in a larger and more slice-able way with this delicious cake.
The cake is not difficult to assemble, but it has a few steps. For this reason I used ready-made cannoli shells for the decoration on top instead of homemade. You can usually find these prepackaged in the Italian foods section at the grocery store, or you can order them online (). You’ll need six.
The ricotta filling is extremely simple to make, but you’ll need to plan ahead. The whole milk ricotta needs to be drained in a sieve overnight. This removes extra moisture and makes the cheese a sturdier cake filling. And speaking of cake – this yellow cake recipe is pretty much my go-to. I always weigh the flour instead of measuring it in cups. This method always yields the nicest crumb so I recommend you do the same.
Mascarpone buttercream is exactly what it sounds like – butter and confectioners sugar with the addition of mascarpone cheese. A splash of vanilla extract will make it taste just right. It whips together quickly and provides a creamy exterior that smooths to a matte finish.
The lower half of the cake gets a chocolate fault line, which is a nod to the mini chocolate chips in the ricotta filling. Also, it’s just plain delicious. A simple ganache can be made with a 1:1 ratio of semisweet chips to heavy cream. Allow it to thicken to spreading consistency before using it.
Smooth the ganache over the lower half of the cake in a rather organic fashion. I piped the ganache on before smoothing it, and you can best see my technique in the video at the end of this blog post.
Almond slices are patted onto the sides of the freshly frosted ganache. They should stick easily, but if they don’t, run a warmed spatula around the ganache first. To warm the spatula, dip it in hot water and then wipe it dry before using.
The finishing touch! Cannoli pastries are arranged on top of the cake, in an almost flower shape. After the cannoli are positioned, ganache rosettes are piped on and sprinkled with almonds and mini chips.
I have a feeling this will become an evergreen favorite because it can be served as a birthday cake or for anniversaries, or just a delicious ending to an Italian meal.
Yields one 8-inch triple layer cake
The ricotta cheese for the filling needs to drain overnight before using, so plan ahead.
Yellow butter cake
3 1/4 cups (425g) all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup (226g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups (400g) granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste
6 large egg yolks
1 1/2 cups (360 ml) whole milk
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Coat three 8-inch cake pans with flour-based baking spray (or grease and flour); set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium speed until smooth and creamy. Add the sugar and mix on medium-high until the butter is light and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes. Scrape down the bowl.
With the mixer running on low, add the vanilla and egg yolks, one at a time. Scrape down the bowl.
Add the flour mixture in three batches while mixing on low speed, alternating with the milk; begin and end with flour. Mix briefly on medium speed until no streaks of flour remain.
Evenly divide the batter between the prepared pans. Bake for 25-28 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cakes comes out clean. Let the cakes cool in the pans for 10 minutes before removing the cakes from their pans. Transfer to wire racks to cool.
Ricotta filling and cannoli
32 oz. whole milk ricotta cheese
2/3 cup (3 oz.) confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1 1/2 teaspoons orange zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups (8 oz.) mini semisweet chocolate chips, divided
6 ready-made mini cannoli shells
Place the ricotta cheese in a cheese cloth-lined sieve. Tie the loose ends of the cheesecloth together with kitchen twine and place in a large bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place it in the refrigerator overnight. The next day discard the liquid (whey) in the bottom of the bowl.
Turn the drained ricotta out into a large mixing bowl. Add the powdered sugar and mix well with a hand mixer. Mix in the orange zest and vanilla. Fold in 1 cup of the mini chips using a rubber spatula; place the remaining 1/2 cup of chips in a small dish.
Remove about 1 cup of the ricotta to a piping bag with a 1/2-inch hole snipped in the end. Pipe the filling into the cannoli shells. Dip each end of the cannoli into the dish of mini chips. Refrigerate the filled cannoli while you prepare the rest of the cake.
3/4 cup (6 oz.) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 cups (365g) confectioners’ sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
8 oz. mascarpone cheese, softened
1/4 teaspoon fine grain salt
Heavy cream, if needed
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whip attachment, beat the butter on high speed until creamy. Mix in the powdered sugar a little at a time until thick. Add the vanilla and mascarpone cheese. Beat at high speed until well combined, about 30 seconds. Do not overbeat. If mixture is too thick to spread, mix in heavy cream a tablespoon at a time.
Place a cake layer on a cake board or serving plate. Top with half of the ricotta filling and spread evenly. Top with a second cake layer; spread remaining ricotta filling on evenly. Top with the third cake layer. Cover the outside of the cake with the mascarpone buttercream. Refrigerate while you make the ganache.
Chocolate ganache frosting
2 cups (12 oz.) semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup (240 ml) heavy cream
1/2 cup (43g) sliced almonds
In a large microwave-safe bowl, add the semisweet chips and heavy cream. Heat the mixture in the microwave at 100% power for 1:00 to 1:30 seconds, or until the cream is hot but not boiling. Let the mixture stand for 1 minute and then whisk until a consistent shiny ganache is achieved. Refrigerate until the mixture is thick and easily spreadable like buttercream. Transfer the ganache to a piping bag with a 1/2-inch plain round piping tip.
Decorate: Pipe chocolate ganache around the bottom half of the cake in an undulating pattern, creating a smooth rising and falling outline (almost like drawing the outline of a mountain range). Fill in the outline with more ganache; smooth using a bench scraper or offset spatula. Immediately pat sliced almonds onto the ganache.
Place the six filled cannoli on top of the cake radiating from the center so that the edges of each cannoli touch each other in the top center of the cake (a cannoli flower!). Transfer remaining ganache to a piping bag fitted with a large star tip. Pipe swirls of ganache between the cannoli on top of the cake. Sprinkle leftover sliced almonds and mini chips on top of the piped ganache. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Serve slices slightly chilled or at room temperature. Cover leftovers with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator.