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|The Food Table||
Ancient Cheese Cakes
The history of cheese based cakes or pies begins in the most ancient times. The earliest versions of cheese pies incorporated various grains or meats or cheese. To finish the dish, ancient recipes called for honey as a sweetener.In the Greco-Roman world cheese cakes were so important that they were often used in religious rituals. Today, the ritual of the cheese cake centers on the sinful delight of its rich, dense and calorie loaded texture. In America cheese based pies or cakes are the star dessert of almost every Greek diner and Jewish deli. What Jewish deli does not offer the traditional New York cheese cake made from Philadelphia Cream Cheese? The Greeks have “sifnopitta,” made from delicate Greek cheeses. In the Italian American kitchen, cheese cakes of various kinds mark the end of Lent and the celebration of Easter.
But now it’s summer and I have a yen for a ricotta cheese pie. Classic Italian Easter pies do not seem appropriate. For one thing, they are too heavy for summer. For another, Easter pies belong only to that special time of the year. Then came one of those moments of serendipity. I was out at a local farm picking raspberries. In the row next to me I heard a mother tell her little girl, “we’ll take these home and make a raspberry cheese cake for pop-pop’s birthday.” That was it. That was the answer. I knew what I had to do.
For some time I’ve been thinking about a way to create a mixed marriage between the Italian and Greek use of ricotta type cheeses and the texture of Jewish deli style cheese cake. The first question was what kind of cheese to use. I did not want a commercial product. I did not want to use Philadelphia Cream Cheese. Still, while I wanted to have a ricotta type base I wanted a denser texture. The answer came from my local favorite Italian provider, Carlino’s.
Carlino’s makes their own ricotta impastata. Ricotta impastata is a very high quality cheese that has been drained of all excess water and has a very dense and creamy texture. I know of only a few places that carry it. If you don’t have it in your area, buy the very best ricotta you can find and that has the least amount of water. When you get it home, set it out on cheese cloth and a sieve and let drain all the water that remains. While free of excess water, ricotta impastata may actually be too dense to use alone. To give the impastata a bit more creaminess I decided to mix about one third the total amount with mascarpone.
The second question was the crust. The traditional Italian pie uses a pasta frolla, a very light and flaky rolled pastry dough. But, to use a pasta frolla would immediately identify this cheese cake with Easter. An Easter pie at any other season would not do. I wanted a cheese pie that had no association with a particular holiday. There was only one solution. I would borrow the Jewish deli American Graham cracker crust. Since I was using raspberries to finish the cheese cake, it also struck me that adding cocoa to the crust would be a perfect complement to the berries.
. Since I first put this recipe together, I found a similar recipe by Lidia Bastianich. For her crust Lidia uses crushed amaretti cookies. If you can find them amaretti make an excellent crust. If not, try any other type of plain Italian cookie or even any other plain commercial cookie that has a dry texture. Serve the cheesecake with a purée of summer berries or with a simple dash of slightly warmed honey.
Cheeses and sugar
Blend the ricotta and the mascarpone.
Add the cup of sugar,
Line the pan and fill
Pack the cookie and butter crust on the base and sides of a spring form pan or a tart pan.
Set the pan in the refrigerator for about 15 minutes to allow the butter to harden around the crumb.
Pour the cheese mixture into the pan and bake at 400 for about forty minutes. The pie is done when it begins to crack.
Add the five eggs, one at a time and mix thoroughly.