IMG_1435The best things in life happen when you say yes. I don’t know any great things that have happened because someone said no. And, of course, read the end of Ulysses if there’s any doubt about the ultimate nature of yes. The below is from my friend Claudia who will be opening Citizen Pie in Cleveland this fall along with her partner, Paulius of the Velvet Tango Room.—MR

The Great Ricotta Cheesecake Experiment of August 2015

By Claudia Young

One spring afternoon, four months ago, someone suggested, that we open a Neapolitan pizzeria. And of all the things that one might say in response to that—“We’ll have to think about that!” or “What an interesting concept, we’ll get back to you!” or “No”—we said “Yes.” Just like that.

I wanted to make a culinary contribution to the menu all my own. And one of my favorite desserts since I was a young girl growing up in Forest Hills, NY, is ricotta cheesecake. It’s as Neapolitan a dessert as one might find anywhere in Campania. Lidia Bastianich served it at Buonavia on Queens Bouelvard, six blocks from the apartment where I grew up back in the 1970s. And just four miles down the road in Corona, Park Side restaurant, a then (still?) Mafioso hangout right across from the bocce ball courts and the Lemon Ice King, had a version I couldn’t resist (along with a fetching owner who coolly played down my ardent teenage stares).

All these years later my ideal ricotta cheesecake is a bit on the dry side and not too sweet. It has little cubes of Italian citron and is served beside a double espresso. But in my baking of fourteen cheesecakes in three weeks I have met with some questionable concerns from the people of Cleveland. Two words: cream cheese. At first I was resistant, but being part of a successful venture is to understand what your patrons want. And, well, Gina DePalma insists that it’s OK, so in that I take a small degree of solace.

Cheesecake baking is a forgiving business. I can attest to that as I pulled number thirteen (coincidence?) out of the oven thinking it was set and tilted the pan slightly only to have a third of the batter spill all over my counter. I quickly scooped it up, put it back in the pan and threw it right back in the oven and honestly it wasn’t much worse for wear (albeit not a winning beauty). Still, it surprised the hell out of me as I had assumed it was a goner.

3unbaked torta2

One critical factor is to drain your ricotta well. Excess moisture is problematic. With all the Italians insisting on a good rest in a colander—even overnight—I couldn’t understand why gently wringing it out in a linen or finely woven cotton cloth wouldn’t solve the problem à la minute. And it did, perfectly. And just one more thing, which for you is most likely intuitive but because I am so ridiculously impatient, I implore you to leave the form on the base until it has cooled down. I cracked a canyon down a perfectly nice cheesecake. Again, still tasted great, but not pretty to behold.

Michael asked me to offer a couple of recipes that I made during the Great Ricotta Cheesecake Experiment of August 2015. The following two are not my own, but I love them and they were instructive. They are very different from each other and really, very different from anything I had ever tried before. One incorporates semolina in the form of a porridge, making the cake almost pudding-like, and the other a hunk of ricotta salata, which I found irresistible because of the resulting texture and the forward salt edge.

The final contender? I think I’ll keep that one a trade secret, at least for a while—but it’s the result of a total of 30 pounds of five different brands of ricotta and suffice it to say, it has cream cheese in it and it’s a truly wonderful, crowd-pleasing showstopper, baked low and slow in a water bath with a well-considered ratio of ricotta to the stuff in the silver box. It still retains the flavor and enough of the texture that I love combined with a creamy mouthfeel to please a pizza lover’s inclination to leave a little room for dessert.

NOTE: if at all possible, find a ricotta free of any added gums such as carrageenan—they’re optimal for baking cakes.

 

2cut semolina

Migliaccio

(semolina and ricotta pudding/cake)

Adapted from Arthur Schwartz, Naples at Table: Cooking in Campania

Arthur is as well versed in southern Italian food as perhaps any American could ever be, and he recently took time with me on the phone to talk about Naples and Salerno, where he spends his winters. I was compelled to buy his book and I am so very glad that I did. I love custards and puddings, so this was going to be an obvious favorite for me. His version calls for farina, as the Italian immigrants who came over were hard pressed finding semolina, but now it’s quite common and I love it, so in turn I subbed it for the farina!

  • Butter for coating the springform pan
  • ¼ cup finely crushed amaretti cookies or sweet biscuits of your choice (Lorna Doones work)
  • 7 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 2 pounds whole-milk ricotta
  • 1¼ cups sugar
  • Grated zest of an orange
  • Grated zest of a lemon
  • 3 tablespoons orange liqueur
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 cup water
  • ¾ cup uncooked semolina flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ⅓ cup finely chopped candied citron*
  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F/177°C.
  2. Butter a 9-inch springform pan and coat all sides with the finely crushed amaretti cookies. Put the pan in the freezer until ready to use.
  3. Drain the ricotta by putting it in a linen towel and squeezing gently.
  4. In a large bowl, beat the eggs until foamy. Beat in the ricotta, sugar, orange and lemon zests, and liqueur.
  5. In a medium saucepan, combine the milk and water and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Add the semolina in a fine stream, stirring constantly; whisking it adds too much air. Stir in the salt and cook, stirring, until thick and creamy, about 3 minutes. Allow to cool for 5 minutes or so.
  6. Stir the cooked and slightly cooled semolina into the ricotta mixture, then stir in the citron. Pour into the prepared pan.
  7. Bake until the top of the cake is golden and a sharp knife inserted in the center comes out clean, about 1 hour 10 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.
  8. Transfer to the refrigerator for at least 4 hours before serving. To serve, run a thin-bladed knife around the outside edge of the cake. Remove the springform sides, and serve the pudding/cake off the base.

*Citron is very fragrant citrus fruit with a thick rind that is cooked in sugar, diced, and used as a confection. The pulp is dry and not suitable for culinary purposes, at least not in Italy. American versions used in fruitcakes are just awful, so if you’re going to use it, which I highly recommend that you do, find a good Italian version on Amazon or Market Hall Foods.

 

5cut torta2

Torta di Ricotta con Canditi

(Ricotta Cheesecake with Candied Fruits)
adapted from a recipe by Anna Tasca Lanza

Thanks to Elaine from The Italian Dish for turning me on to this delicious version— loved it! The ricotta salata is a surprising addition and I was blown away. This recipe also calls for pistachios, pine nuts, and raisins, but to me, these detracted as opposed to added to the finished product. Baked, soggy nuts are not my thing, and the golden raisins ran interference with the rest of the add-ins, in my not-so-humble opinion.

  • Butter for coating a springform pan
  • ¼ cup finely crushed amaretti cookies or sweet biscuits of your choice (Lorna Doones work)
  • 2 pounds part-skim ricotta (I used whole, drained or gently squeezed in a towel)
  • ½ pound finely crumbled ricotta salata
  • 1½ cups sugar
  • 7 large eggs
  • Grated zest of an orange
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ⅔ cup good-quality chocolate (55–72%), cut into small pieces
  • ⅓ cup candied orange peel
  • ½ cup candied citron peel
  • 1 teaspoon flour and pinch of salt to coat and separate the mix-ins
  1. Preheat the oven to 325°F/163°C.
  2. Butter an 8- or 9-inch springform pan and coat all sides with the finely crushed amaretti cookies. Put the pan in the freezer until ready to use.
  3. Drain the ricotta by putting it in a linen towel and squeezing gently.
  4. Combine the cheeses, sugar, and eggs  in a food processor and pulse till thoroughly combined, six or seven pulses— do not overmix.
  5. Add flour and salt to the chocolate pieces and candied peels to coat them so they do not stick together. Gently combine the chocolate and candied peels into the cheese mixture.
  6. Bake until the center is barely wobbly, about 1½ hours. Turn off the oven and leave the cheesecake in for another 10 or 20 minutes; remove from the oven and allow to cool. Once cooled, place in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours before serving. To serve, run a thin-bladed knife around the outside edge of the cake. Remove the springform sides, and serve the pudding/cake off the base.

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© 2015 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2015 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.

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17 Wonderful responses to “Cheesecake”

  • Kathy

    I find it very odd that the guest author made no mention of the real genius behind Citizen Pie: Chef Vytaurus Sasnauskas. Without Chef V, there would be no platform for Ms. Young to espouse her own kitchen “genius.”

    • Sam Watershed

      This piece is about Cheesecake (see title). What is odd (albeit predictable) is that you used this as an opportunity to lash out at someone you don’t like. Odd but not surprising. You remain a sad little woman, “Kathy” as you have evidenced here.

      • Kathy

        Huh? Why so nasty and rude? I am a fan of Chef V, is all. Did you get out of the wrong side of bed this morning? I’m not sad. But you are very angry about something, I guess. Gee whiz.

    • Jason

      That’s KAY RYAN! I’ll bet 5 grand!
      BWHAAAA HAAAAAA
      What a loser! Fake name and all just like the good old days! Sorry Claudia. She’s a lunatic!

  • Ben

    Nicely done Claudia. I can’t imagine the hours it took to come up with your final version which I cannot wait to taste. And thanks to Michael for giving you the platform do so. I apologize for not realizing that this was some kind of contest and not a forum for a unique and individual take on the research, testing, and final triumph of what will assuredly be a culinary masterpiece.

  • ruhlman

    Thanks for your post, Claudia, maybe we can another when Citizen pie opens and perhaps I can also interview chef V on the nature of the Neapolitan pizza.

  • Yveala

    yum, yum, and more yum – your passion always inspires me so thanks for spreading your delicious greatness…. as much as i’ll try to duplicate; i can’t wait for Citizen Pie to open for the real thing!

  • Diane

    Nicely done, Claudia, on the guest blog and the dedication to perfecting the ricotta cheesecake.

  • Nancy

    I love southern Italy and ricotta cheesecake. Great post! Thanks for the recipes!

  • Chad Thompson

    It is amazing the things you learn about a “recipe” when you go on a bender. I have done similar events with fried chicken and your eyes get opened as to what is REALLY important and where you can add subtle flairs.

    Your cheesecakes adventure sounds incredible, Claudia. I hope to try your Trade Secret the next time I am in your neck of the woods!

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