- Sticky, Gooey, Creamy, Chewy - http://stickygooeycreamychewy.com -

La Tavola della mia Famiglia: Italian Ricotta Cheesecake Recipe

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 [1] at Christmas time,  and Pizza Rustica [2] and Pastiera di Grano [3] 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 [4] 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 [5].

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.