When I was growing up in New York, my mother made a version of light, fresh-tasting cheesecake that my family loved. After I became older and moved away from home, I would often order what was called “New York Style” cheesecake in restaurants, hoping for a dessert that that would come close to the memory I had of my mother’s heavenly version.
What I came to realize over the years was that “New York Style” cheesecake is not at all like the cheesecake that my used to make while we were living in New York. I could not understand why the restaurant cheesecake served to me often had an off flavor (can you say artificial ingredients?) and a texture that was heavy, and even gooey or sticky.
Of course, as I discovered when I finally asked my mother for her recipe, the reason the cheesecake I had at home was so different from what I found in restaurants was the type of cheese my mother used. The ricotta cheese that my mother would get freshly made from the Italian deli after church every Sunday yielded a delicious, light, and almost crumbly cheesecake, gently held together by a few fresh eggs, flavored lightly with vanilla and given a fresh taste with a bit of lemon zest. Which is not to say the other, more creamy versions made with cream cheese are not good if made with fresh ingredients. They are just not Italian ricotta cheesecake!
The Italian crust my mother makes for her ricotta cheesecake also yields another subtle layer of flavor. The method used to make the Italian version of a smaller fruit “crostata” or “tart” transfers to the thicker cheesecakes made in Italy. A “pasta frolla,” or “sweet pastry” crust lines the bottom of the tart and a lattice crust nicely decorates the top of the tart, and a true Italian cheesecake will have a lattice crust! The crust for this cheesecake is flavored with a bit of lemon zest and brandy, which nicely compliments the taste of the fresh ricotta.
I modified the traditional lattice crust for Valentines Day by cutting an open heart into the top lattice crust. After baking the cheesecake, I let it cool a bit and then I spread some good raspberry jam into the center of the heart for color and a little extra flavor.
Making the Italian ricotta cheesecake in the recipe below was even more fun for me than usual because I was able to use my new time-lapse photography software for my cell phone. If you want to see the video of my home cooked Italian ricotta cheesecake in the making, just click on the link below for the magic of Instagram!
My family loved this cheesecake as an early Valentines Day present. I hope your loved ones will too! -Kathryn Occhipinti
(Makes One, 9″ Cheesecake)
Pasta Folla for the Crust
2 cups flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cups unsalted butter
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
3 Tbsp brandy
1 tsp grated lemon zest
2 1/2 lbs. fresh ricotta cheese*
1/2 cup sugar
1 Tbsp flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp lemon zest
2 large eggs beaten lightly
Before starting to make the cheesecake, set an oven rack into the lower third of your oven and preheat your oven to 350°.
Assemble the Springform pan and lock the bottom in place. (If you don’t have a Springform pan, you can use a deep dish pie pan.)
For the crust:
In a large, wide bowl, mix the flour, sugar, and salt together with a fork.
Cut in 3/4 cup unsalted butter with a pastry cutter or your hands, running your thumb across your fingers to create small, flat, “flakes” of butter (method shown in Instagram video).
Add the lightly beaten eggs, brandy and lemon zest.
Mix together with a fork gently and then your hands gently until the dough comes together to form a disk.
Pull off pieces of the dough and use this to line the bottom of a 9″ Springform pan. Reform the remainder of the dough into a disk and refrigerate in plastic wrap 30 minutes.
Pop into the oven and bake 8 – 10 minutes at 350°, or until lightly brown and set, but not cooked through.
Take out of oven and let cool before filling.
For the filling:
Using a large spoon or an electric mixer on low, gently mix together the ricotta cheese, sugar, flour salt, vanilla and lemon zest.
Add the 2 beaten eggs and mix gently to combine.
Pour the filling into the pre-baked, cooled crust in the Springform pan.
Take out the disk of reserved dough from the refrigerator. Roll the dough out on a floured board.
Cut one side of the rolled out dough into 4 long strips and place each strip onto the periphery of the filling to create the four sides of a square. Cut out a heart the size to fit into the center of the square. (You can cut the heart out of paper at first until you get the right size and then use this as a stencil to trace when cutting the dough if you are not comfortable cutting the heart free hand. And if it doesn’t work the first time, just put the dough back together and try again!)
Place the cheesecake in the oven and bake at 350 degrees about 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until set and lightly brown on the edges.
Complete the Cheesecake:
Let the cheesecake cool a bit.
Sprinkle all over with powdered sugar.
For a special occasion such as Valentines Day, spread a thin layer of raspberry jam into the cheesecake, in the center of the heart and/or between the lattice crust.
Top with fresh raspberries if desired.
Let set in the refrigerator overnight or at least 3 hours before enjoying!
*How to Find Good Ricotta Cheese
Today, I live near two small grocery store chains that make ricotta cheese fresh daily, and I would advise using this ricotta cheese instead of the mass produced (and preservative filled) ricotta cheese found on the shelves in most grocery stores. If you have access to good, farm-fresh milk, it is actually easy to make your own cheese – but that is the subject of another blog!
— by Kathryn Occhipinti
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD, is the author of the
Conversational Italian for Travelers series of books and a teacher of Italian for travelers to Italy in the Peoria and Chicago area.
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Italian Ricotta Cheesecake for Valentines Day