I’ll let you in on a little secret. Even though I grew up in an Italian family where more than half of my relatives, including my father and grandparents, were actually from Italy, I had never heard of mascarpone until I was an adult and discovered it for myself. Shocking, isn’t it? But, it’s true. For some reason none of the cooks in my family ever used the stuff. How could this be? Well, the only answer that I can come up with is that none of them were big bakers, and mascarpone is more commonly used in sweet dishes. Also, since my family came from the southern half of the boot, most of the food out of their kitchens was tomato and olive oil based. Except for ricotta and fresh mozzarella, very little of anything creamy was ever used in cooking.
My grandmother was diabetic, so she really never served much in the way of desserts outside of fresh fruit platters and some sfogliatelle or cannoli picked up from one of the neighborhood pastry shops. I guess she figured why make luscious desserts that she couldn’t enjoy herself, especially when there were so many excellent bakeries within walking distance. And, because she didn’t bake or make lots of sweets, none of her four daughters ever did either. They bought their cakes, tiramisu and pastries too. I guess you could say that our entire family did its part to keep the local bakeries in business. Heck, I’d probably do the same thing if I had access to all of those wonderful Italian treats! Sadly, here in my neck of the woods that is not an option. If I want to enjoy authentic, mouthwatering Italian delights, I have two options. The first is to buy them at the one and decidedly “meh” Italian bakery in town. The second is to make them myself. Sometimes, I choose option one, but most of the time I go the DIY route.
Even though the cooks in my family leaned towards the savory side of food, there were some notable exceptions. There were always homemade cookies and struffoli at Christmas time, and Pizza Rustica and Pastiera di Grano for Easter. There was also this Italian Ricotta Cheesecake that made an appearance every so often. I remember my mother poring over her Polly-O cookbook while churning out her version of cheesecake – Italian-style. This cheesecake bears little resemblance to the super rich and dense variety that most of us are familiar (and maybe a little obsessed) with. Instead of cream cheese, the primary ingredient in this cheesecake is ricotta cheese. Using ricotta makes for a much lighter and fluffier cake, but also one that has a significantly less smooth and creamy texture. Honestly, I was never the biggest fan of my mother’s ricotta cheesecake, but my father loved it. He wasn’t a big dessert guy, and this cake was one of the few he truly enjoyed. So, when I think of it, I think of him. That’s why I wanted to share it with you. And, that’s also where the mascarpone comes in.
As I mentioned, I am not overly fond of the traditional ricotta cheesecake. I mean I like it, but it doesn’t send me to the moon. The flavors are lovely, but there’s just a slight graininess and wetness about it that puts me off. When I conceived the recipe for this cheesecake, one of the things I wanted to achieve was smoother, creamier consistency – more like its New York-style cousin. Adding cream cheese didn’t work because I felt it gave the cake too much of a sharp edge. The flavor profile of an Italian cheesecake should be subtle, mellow and a little lazy, reminiscent of sunny afternoons enjoying la dolce vita in the Italian countryside with the scent of Sicilian orange blossoms wafting by on a breeze. Nope. Cream cheese wasn’t the answer. But, mascarpone was another story. Its silky, luxurious quality with the barest hint of sweet cream was exactly what my cheesecake needed! So, in this recipe I have swapped out a pound of the regularly used ricotta for mascarpone.
Besides the ricotta, another signature ingredient found in an Italian ricotta cheesecake is orange flower water. Orange flower water is a clear, perfumed distillation of fresh bitter orange blossoms that is widely used in Mediterranean dessert dishes. It is incredibly fragrant and its flavor is quite distinctive. It is more floral than citrusy. You can try using orange extract instead of orange flower water, but there really is no substitute. It’s available at most Italian and Middle Eastern markets, as well as online.
Oh, how I wish you could have been in my kitchen while my cheesecake was baking! I’m pretty sure that the heady aroma of vanilla and orange blossoms would have made you swoon. I did. And, if you had been there, you would have also gotten to taste this dreamy confection. It was marvelously smooth and rich, and yet lighter in texture than I expected it to be. The mascarpone didn’t weigh it down. It pulled the rest of the ingredients together and enhanced them. This will definitely be my “go to” ricotta cheesecake recipe, now and forever. I only wish that I could have shared a slice with my father. I know he would have loved this version just as much as Mom’s.
Italian Ricotta Cheesecake
1 teaspoon softened butter
1/2 cup finely crushed amaretti cookies (optional)
2 pounds ricotta cheese
1 pound mascarpone cheese
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
6 large eggs
2 egg yolks
2 tablespoons fresh orange zest
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 tablespoon orange flower water
Powdered sugar, for dusting
Preheat the oven to 325 F.
Drain the ricotta in a colander lined with cheesecloth set over a bowl for about 30 minutes to an hour. This drains out the excess liquid in it, making for a denser cake.
Butter a 9-inch springform pan. Coat pan with crushed amaretti, if using, swirling it around to get an even coating. Pour out any excess crumbs. Place prepared pan on a baking sheet.
Using an electric mixer, beat the ricotta, mascarpone and sugar together until smooth. With the mixer on medium-low, add the eggs, orange zest, cream, vanilla and orange flower water and mix until completely homogenized.
Pour batter into the prepared springform pan and bake for 1½ hours. Turn off the oven and let the cake rest inside for 30 minutes.
Remove cake from the oven and let cool to room temperature on a wire rack. Run a sharp knife around the perimeter of the cake to loosen it and unmold. Chill the cheesecake in the fridge for several hours or overnight.
Serve with a dusting of powdered sugar.