Ricotta Cheesecake, with homemade ricotta

I know many people who aren’t the biggest cheesecake fans, and personally, I never really fell in love with it either. They (generally New York cheesecakes) were always a little too rich, too dense for my taste. That all changed when in Italy, a waiter highly recommended their cheesecake to us. I originally wanted to go for the tiramisu (it seemed a lot more Italian to me than cheesecake), but thank god I listened to the waiter. The cheesecake was light, with a fluffy but smooth texture, unlike anything I’d had before. I immediately demanded kindly asked our waiter what the cheesecake was made of, and he told me “ricotta”.

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So that was the secret. Ricotta cheese. Here I was, thinking cream cheese was the only way to make cheesecake.

That was two years ago. Up until know, I’d never successfully made a cheesecake (nor had one) like the one in Italy. I had tried making a cheesecake with store-bought ricotta in place of cream cheese – it turned out dense, wet, and grainy. I tried beating the egg whites. Nothing worked and I was still here without my cheesecake. On a trip to New York, I made sure to pay a visit to Veniero’s, whom I heard made a killer ricotta cheesecake. On the day of, I was so excited I got cheesecake for breakfast. Yes, for breakfast. And it was a horrible let down. Like the cheesecakes I made, it was wet and grainy, and had none of the light fluffiness the Italian cheesecake had.

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At this point, I thought my only option was to fly back over to Italy and demand the waiter give me the recipe. Per favore. But before such drastic action was taken, I thought back to the store-bought ricotta. The ricotta itself was grainy. Instead of using store-bought ricotta, I tried the cheesecake again using homemade ricotta (which is incredibly easy) and voila, out of the oven came this large, fluffy, cheesecake. Sure, it shrank a little coming out, and the surface was covered with cracks, but it was glorious in my eyes. And it tasted even fluffier than it looked (if you haven’t noticed, fluffy is the keyword here). Finally, after two long years, I was reunited. And that darn store-bought ricotta has been at fault all along – Veniero’s, take note.

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Ricotta Cheese, adapted from the Smitten Kitchen

Makes 1 cup of ricotta

3 cups whole milk

1 cup heavy cream

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons lemon juice or white vinegar

1. In a saucepan, mix the milk, heavy cream, and salt. While continually stirring, bring the milk up to 185 F. The milk should be almost simmering.

2. Remove the pan off the heat, and add in the lemon juice/vinegar. Stir to mix, then let the mixture sit for a couple minutes. You should be able to see the cheese curds and whey separate (and if this is your first time making cheese – I know, I felt like I belonged in the Swiss Alps, yodeling and herding cows up the mountains, too).

3. Line a colander or bowl with cheesecloth, and pour in the mixture. Strain out the whey by either letting it sit in the colander for about an hour or so (if you’re using a colander), or hang up the cheese curds by the ends of the cheesecloth and let gravity do it’s work. I made a contraption out of a fishing pole and two chairs, with a bowl underneath the cheese to catch the whey. It should be the right consistency in about 1-1.5 hours. Now, you can either eat this ricotta (I wouldn’t blame you if you did), or you can go ahead and make the cheesecake, which I highly recommend. If not using the ricotta immediately, store in an airtight container in the fridge for 3-4 days.

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Ricotta Cheesecake

Makes 1 8-inch cheesecake

1 package cream cheese (8 ounces), room temperature

8 ounces ricotta cheese, room temperature

4 eggs, separated and at room temperature

3/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup sour cream or plain yogurt

1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon vinegar

Preheat oven to 350 F

1. In a mixer using the paddle attachment, cream together the ricotta and cream cheese until smooth. Add in the egg yolks, one at a time. After mixing thoroughly, add the yogurt, 1/2 cup sugar, lemon juice, and cornstarch. Mix well.

2. In another clean bowl, beat the egg whites and vinegar until large bubbles form. Slowly add in 1/2 cup sugar, and continue beating until soft peaks form.

3. Fold in 1/3 of the meringue with the cheese mixture until fully incorporated. Add in the rest of the egg whites, folding gently without deflating the meringue but thoroughly. Pour the batter into an 8-inch springform pan. Wrap the bottom completely aluminum.

4. Place a larger baking pan (one that the 8-inch pan can fit into comfortably) that is filled halfway with water into the oven first. Then, place the 8-inch pan into the waterbath, making sure no water can get into the cheesecake. The waterbath helps minimize the cracks on the surface of the cheesecake.

5. Bake for 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes. If the cheesecake is browning too fast, turn the heat down to 300 F. As another measure to minimize cracking, let the cheesecake cool in the oven, with the door slightly ajar.

6. If everything fails, and the surface of your is covered in rifts and cracks, you may choose to serve your cheesecake, battle scars and all, with a fruit sauce on the side, or you can cover it up with some artfully placed fruit. I went with the former, and decided upon a raspberry coulis. (Which was secretly just raspberry preserves piped onto the plate. Shh)

Classic Italian Pizza, homemade

Gusta Pizza, Florence.

Home to the best pizza I’ve ever tasted.

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We happened upon this place while utterly lost in Florence, after having attempted to visit the Pitti Palace, which was closed unfortunately. Gusta Pizza is located in an alleyway two blocks behind the palace and the guys at Gusta Pizza unfortunately spoke absolutely no English. I had my handy dandy Italian phrasebook with me, but it was absolutely useless. I tried my hand at a couple sentences, but they only shook their heads in confusion. We resorted to pointing and gesturing wildly at the menu, which worked out wonderfully. They were extremely patient with us, and my dad was so happy he bought one of the chefs a beer. Now this pizza was a little different from the pizzas you get around here. It was cooked in less than a minute in a stone oven, and it was topped with leafy greens and parmesan before serving. It was beautiful and utterly delicious. And I was determined to make it at home.

The first thing I did when I got back was get a pizza/baking stone. Best investment ever, if you ask me. While it’s no brick oven, the temperature gets much higher than with a regular baking pan and the crust tastes much better as a result.

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For the pizza itself, I decided to just make a simple pizza margherita, and top with arugula, parmesan, cherry tomatoes, and parmesan, like they did.

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For the dough, I actually doubled the amount given below to make two large pizzas. The size depends on how thin you roll it out, and I prefer it to be on the thin side. First, shape the dough into a round ball (by pushing the edges into the middle of the bottom) so that it is smooth on the surface. Then, on a lightly floured surface, use your fingers to push the dough down into a flat disk. At this point, you can use whatever fancy pizza dough stretching technique you may possess, but I broke out the rolling pin. I lightly rolled out the dough, alternating between stretching it with my hands and rolling it out. No need to squish the thing to death, but go ahead and pop the large air bubbles if there are any. If the dough keeps on going back to its original shape and the darn thing just won’t stay stretched out, let the dough rest for 10 minutes to relax the gluten and try again. Patiently.

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I don’t have a pizza peel, so I used the back of baking sheet with some parchment. The pizza goes onto the baking stone with the parchment, and is removed around 5 minutes into baking.

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I often find that the tomato sauce made with fresh tomatoes actually doesn’t turn out that great. Instead, I like to use the canned San Marzano tomatoes from Italy. It can be found at Trader Joe’s for 3.99.

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At first, I used this kosher shredded mozzarella from Costco (called Natural & Kosher) and it did not turn out at all. Somehow, the cheese just separated into a gooey mess under the high temperatures. I now stick with the ball mozzarella, which has more moisture and fares much better in the high temperature.

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Classic Italian Pizza

makes one pizza

pizza dough 

1 1/2 cups bread flour (240 grams)

2/3 cup warm water (157 grams)

1 teaspoon instant dry yeast

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons olive oil

1. In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast and sugar into the water. Set aside.

2. In a larger bowl, or in a mixer, add the flour and salt. Stir in the water and oil a little at a time, and knead until smooth and elastic.

3. Place dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover, and let it rise at room temperature for 2-3 hours.

4. Roll out the dough to its proper size and now it’s ready for toppings.

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the rest of the pizza

1 can of tomatoes, preferably San Marzano

pinch of salt and pepper

half a ball of low moisture mozzarella

olive oil to drizzle

tossed arugula

sliced prosciutto

5-6 cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered depending on size

parmesan, shaved or chunks

1.Preheat your oven with the baking stone inside to as high as it will go. Mine went to 550 F.

2.Blend the canned tomatoes until smooth. Squeeze the extra liquid out first, to prevent the sauce from becoming too wet. Add in the salt and pepper to taste. There is no need to make this too salty, since the prosciutto and parmesan to be added later are really salty.

3. Spread the sauce onto the dough evenly. Top with mozzarella. For one pizza, I only used up half a ball.

4. Get the pizza onto the baking stone (I used parchment paper). Bake until the bottom is at least golden brown or even slightly charred, and the cheese is bubbling. At 550 F, it takes me 7-8 minutes.

5. Top pizza with the arugula, tomatoes, prosciutto, and parmesan. Serve immediately. This pizza should be eaten fresh due to the toppings. Take it from me – it’s not very good the next day…