Waking up to a soft, drizzling rain yesterday was an invitation to bake. Like most of you, I have been avoiding my oven and any kind of real cooking at all. Instead, we subsist on the simplest of summer meals: tomato sandwiches, bowls of berries topped with Greek yogurt, slices of intensely ripe Tuscan melon, and everything else thrown on the grill.
Fresh ricotta and huckleberries are the perfect mid-August breakfast.
But the rain was comforting and chilling, and I longed to turn on my oven. I needed to bake a Ricotta Cheesecake. After all, I had friends coming for dinner, and there was a big batch of homemade raw milk ricotta setting up in the fridge, begging to be turned into something wonderful.
Milk + Lemon = Heaven. That's the formula for homemade ricotta, a phrase coined by Alana Chernila, author of Homemade Pantry, 101 Foods You Can Stop Buying and Start Making.
I wanted to make a ricotta cheesecake reminiscent of the cannoli my grandmother used to make, and the ones I had tasted in Palermo, Sicily. Cannoli--crispy fritters stuffed with sweet ricotta and candied orange, the ends sprinkled with tiny chocolate chips--are said to have originated in central Sicily where my grandparents were born. Nonna always came to visit toting a box of freshly made cannoli stuffed with homemade ricotta.
Cannoli from Palermo, Sicily are said to be the best in the world; here Nick samples the real deal.
Tackling Nonna's cannoli recipe was out of the question on this cool summer day. Cannoli tubes would need to be located, and a pastry bag. I would need to make pastry dough, chill it, form it around the rings, and then deep fry. I had just enough enthusiasm to whip up this ricotta cheesecake, with all the flavors of a true Sicilian cannoli, but not all the work.
I've been making my own ricotta for years, using all sorts of milk, and it couldn't be easier. But I prefer the über-fresh Paradise Springs Farm
raw milk, from just over the hill in Teton Valley. The fresher the milk, the better your ricotta will be. And milk doesn't get any fresher than Paradise Springs milk, unless, of course, you have your own cow.
(To read more about the raw milk controversy and my recipe for making a big batch of homemade ricotta
, check out my article in the new issue of Teton Family Magazine
, online now and about to hit the shelves any day.) To make a small batch of ricotta, you'll find the recipe here
Raw milk from Paradise Springs Farm is not homogenized, so it has a thick layer of cream on top.
Dairy farmers Mike and Tibby with their beloved Lily. Photo by Susan Lykes.
Once you've transformed your fresh milk into a heavenly ricotta, you will have the happy problem of what to do with all that luscious cheese. Fresh ricotta spread on a fig jam-smeared piece of toast is the perfect breakfast for me. But lately we have been gorging on the fat, sweet huckleberries picked from the bushes on Teton Pass, served on a pillow of fresh ricotta that has been sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar.
Ricotta cheesecake is lighter than the cream cheese-laden variety. You don't have to make your own ricotta; just find a good whole milk brand at the grocery store (like Bellwether Farms at Jackson Whole Grocer, or ask at the Aspens Market deli). Drain it over a fine mesh sieve for 30 minutes, and it will be ready to be folded with eggs, a splash of Amaretto liquor, some cream cheese (to help it firm up), orange zest and a few secret extracts.
Fiori di sicilia is an extract with the aroma of Sicily: bitter almonds, oranges, lemons and vanilla. Available online at King Arthur Flour, or locally at Jackson Hole Grocer.
What else could you make with a fresh batch of ricotta? Sure, you could make a summery lasagne--layering grilled eggplant and zucchini with fresh pasta sheets smeared with fresh ricotta, goat cheese, and herbs.
Or whip up a batch of Summer Gnocchi,
and serve with a simple sauce.
You could make My Mom's Manicotti
--spinach crepes rolled around a ricotta filling, baked in a pool of marinara. (Recipe coming soon.)
Or my favorite use of fresh eggplant--Eggplant Rollatini--slices of eggplant baked or fried, folded around ricotta and pesto, baked drenched in marinara and, topped with handfuls of shredded basil.
Me and my eggplant rollatini. Photo by Susan Lykes.
Or you can make this Sicilian take on cheesecake, like a cannoli without the crunch.
For a printable version of the recipe, click on the file below it.
Amaretto Ricotta Cheesecake
This ricotta cheesecake is light and not too sweet. The Sicilian flavors of almond, citrus and vanilla are subtle and fragrant. Plan ahead: the cake needs to set up in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours. For the crust:
For the filling:
- 8 0z. graham cracker, chocolate wafer or amaretti cookie crumbs
- 6 tablespoons butter, melted
- 1.5 pounds (about 3 cups) whole milk ricotta cheese, freshly made or store-bought, drained over a fine mesh sieve for about an hour
- 1 8 oz. package cream cheese, at room temperature
- 1/3 cup amaretto
- 4 large eggs, at room temperature
- ½ teaspoon almond extract
- ½ teaspoon fiori di sicila extract or orange extract
- zest of 1 orange
- ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 ounce dark chocolate, for grating on top
Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan, and wrap the outside with foil.
In a food processor, pulse the cookies until they are crumbed. Add the melted butter and pulse until combined.
Pour the cookie crust into the bottom of the pan, and press evenly on the bottom and about 1 inch up the sides. Chill the crust while you make the filling. (If using amaretti cookies, bake the crust for 10 minutes and 350ºF and cool before filling.)
In a clean food processor, mix the ricotta, cream cheese, and amaretto until perfectly smooth.
Add the eggs, one at a time, until combined.
Add the almond extract, fiori di sicula extract or orange extract, orange zest and salt, and process until combined, scraping down the sides of the bowl.
Pour the ricotta mixture into the pan. Make a water bath: place the springform pan into a large roasting pan and fill with enough water to come halfway up the side of the cheesecake pan.
Bake for 1 hour on the middle oven rack, or until it passes the jiggle test: The center will jiggle slightly, and the sides will be firm.
Transfer the cake to a rack and cool for 1 hour. Refrigerate until thoroughly chilled, at least 8 hours or up to 2 days. When ready to serve, release the sides of the pan, and transfer to a plate. Grate dark chocolate over the top and serve.
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A generous grating of dark chocolate is the only topping this cheesecake needs.