I almost threw it away. I almost threw it away. I was going to write a sob story about how I ruined my cheesecake and wasted $24 worth of fresh ricotta cheese… but then it rocked my world. I thought I would have to re-bake my second cake in a row– I hope these things don’t come in threes. Fortunately, I was able to salvage it… and I might even make it like this next time on purpose!
This week’s Baked Sunday Mornings recipe for Orange Almond Ricotta Cheesecake from Baked Elements ended up being a sleeper hit. Imagine my amazement when, even after a potentially catastrophic ingredient mishap, this cake was loved by me and many tasters! I generally despise almond-flavored things, so this cake was not on the top of my list to make, but I was highly curious about ricotta cheesecake– nary a cheesecake has been made in my kitchen without good ol’ Philadelphia cream cheese! In Italy, cheesecake is usually made with either ricotta or mascarpone cheese– I was eager to try this traditional Italian cake, as I have a deep affinity for Italy and its unparalleled cuisine and fresh ingredients. This particular recipe is derived from Matt Lewis’ Italian grandmother’s cake. The combination of creamy ricotta, bright orange zest, toasty almonds, a little unsolicited vanilla (in lieu of almond extract), and yes, amaretto for more almond flavor was, quite frankly, just splendid. Although the texture of my cake was somewhat compromised by my mistake (more on that in a minute), this was not a deterrent to anyone tasting it…
The first thing to decide on is cow’s milk versus sheep’s milk ricotta. The book recommends sheep’s milk for its nuttier flavor, which was my preference, but unfortunately I couldn’t find it on short notice, so I went with Bellwether Farms ”whole milk ricotta”, made from the milk of Jersey cows. (Don’t worry, they are not New Jersey cows– it’s just the name of the breed.) Where’s a girl gotta go for a little sheep ricotta ’round these parts?
No matter, the cow’s milk cheese was delicious– I had visions of lasagna, manicotti, and cannoli… *shiver* The ricotta is rich, creamy, fluffy, and a touch sweet; if you have never tasted fresh ricotta, I cannot stress enough how urgently you need to procure a basket of this Italian wonder– there’s nothing quite like it. Ricotta, literally translating to “recooked” in Italian, is made from whey, the liquid left over after straining curds to make hard cheeses. It can be used in sweet or savory dishes, and I fully plan to utilize it more frequently now that I’ve become better acquainted with its loveliness. Using fresh ricotta is pretty essential to the flavor and texture of this cake. Despite the prohibitive cost, it really is worth it– the pre-packaged kind will not yield the same results. (The culinary school where I’ll be attending pastry school soon has a cheese-making class, and I fully plan to make my own ricotta someday in the future.)
The cheesecake takes a bit of planning ahead because you have to drain the ricotta overnight in a sieve lined with paper towels or cheesecloth. Despite this, it’s really quite an easy cake, though it looks fancy and complicated. Once your cheese has been drained, make the graham-almond crust by grinding down the graham crackers and toasted almonds in a food processor, then adding dark brown sugar (always a promising ingredient), followed by melted butter. This mixture gets pressed into a tall pan with a removable bottom; I used my trusty springform pan. I recommend using a flat-bottomed measuring cup or glass to get a flat and even crust. Bake it for about 10 minutes to achieve initial toastiness.
The filling is very simple to assemble: pulse the ricotta in a food processor until smooth, then add the egg yolks, sugar, flour, orange zest, amaretto (I went a little easy), and almond extract (I subbed vanilla because it’s my lover), and pulse again until combined. Everything was going along swimmingly, though it was late and I was rushed…
And then I realized in horror *after* pouring the smooth, velvety, delicious filling into the crust that I had forgotten to add the egg whites. I had never made a cheesecake in which you separate the eggs, beat them to stiff peaks, and fold them in after everything else, like a chiffon cake; I guess I was on cheesecake autopilot. I presume that this step would have given the cake height and a light texture… but the egg whites sat sadly in their mixing bowl. I considered trying to pour the filling back into a bowl so I could go back and add the egg whites, but I was afraid the crust would just fall out of the pan along with it, which would have meant complete cheesecake destruction.
I looked back and forth between the poured filling and the bowl of egg liquid for a good two minutes; I had reached a cheesecake impasse. Reluctantly, I decided to bake it as-is… that is to say, with no egg whites. This was uncharted cheesecake territory for me– I had no idea what to expect; would the cake rise or sink or crack or blow up?? The recipe says that the cake is likely to puff up and sink like a soufflé; there was no soufflé-ing to speak of. I kept checking it periodically, but there was just no rising at all…
After about 50 minutes, the surface of the filling was picking up significant golden color, but it was clear that the center of the cake was still completely liquid. With a heavy heart, I pulled it out and chocked it up as a loss. I thrust a fork into it, and immediately below the wrinkly surface skin, it was, in fact, molten. I must say that it was delicious… but it wasn’t cheesecake. *sigh*
I left the cake pan out on the countertop overnight and went to bed; I had been defeated by the Italian cheesecake. However, the next morning, I nudged it gently, out of curiosity… and, to my great surprise, it had firmed up considerably! It was still not “firm”, mind you, but much denser than expected. I was not at all pleased at the prospect of spending another $24 on ricotta, plus another box of graham crackers, etc., so just for kicks, I put the pan in the fridge to chill the cake.
All day at work I wondered if the cake would be edible, all whilst plotting a trip to A.G. Ferrari, a local Italian market, for some real Italian ricotta– maybe sheep’s milk, even! However, I decided to postpone my shopping excursion until I could investigate the viability of the first cake…
As soon as I walked through the door that evening, I pulled out the cake. The surface was still wrinkly-looking, but good god!, it seemed to have firmed up enough to cut! I had haphazardly stuck a fork into the top of the cake the night before, so the surface was pretty messy. However, I was able to cover up the disfigurement with sliced almonds and confectioners’ sugar– couldn’t see a thing.
The cake unmolded beautifully– it was visually rather gorgeous, I must say. Then the moment of truth: I plunged my knife into the cake… and out came a clean slice of cheesecake! I couldn’t believe it– the thing was edible after all. I wished that I had left it in the oven for another 5-10 minutes to firm up the centermost part, but it was otherwise cooked through.
I was so curious to try it– how different would it be from American cheesecake made with cream cheese? My first bite was a burst of flavors and textures: orangy, nutty, creamy, crumbly! The ricotta filling had a slightly different texture than expected– I am struggling to find the right word to describe it. I want to say “grainy”, but it wasn’t. I think it would suffice to say that you can discern infinitesimal granules of the ricotta texture, compared to a perfectly smooth cream cheese-based cheesecake. This may not sound terribly appetizing, but I assure you that it is not a bad thing at all– just different. My cake filling was pretty squat and dense because there were no egg whites to lift it up, but I actually really enjoyed it that way; I may or may not add the whites next time. While I seem to be focused on the filling, I would be grossly negligent if I didn’t mention the utterly fabulous graham-almond crust! The honey-tinged crackers and toasted nuts mixed with butter gave the cake a wonderful honey perfume that complimented the citrusy cheese filling perfectly and filled my apartment with sweetness.
This recipe made me wish I had an Italian grandmother too; she would be proud! (Except she might scold me for forgetting the egg whites.) As is often the case with Baked Sunday Mornings, I was delighted to discover a new and wonderful type of cake, and I encourage you to give it a try. Ricotta cheesecake is special– it is perfect for a family gathering, a holiday, a festive brunch… or for when you return home from a visit to Italy and inevitably experience culinary withdrawal. It will certainly be a permanent addition to my baking repertoire, and a loving homage to Italy. You can find the recipe for Orange Almond Ricotta Cheesecake at Baked Sunday Mornings, and make sure to check out my baking homies’ cakes while you’re there.
© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2013.