As Italians, we really enjoy our holidays and all the wonderful foods that go along with them, especially “i dolci”, the desserts. As a family tradition for most holidays, my wife makes an “Italian cheesecake” we call “Torta di Ricotta delle Feste”, Italian Holiday Cheesecake. The basic recipe was given to my mother by my dad’s aunt, and then from my mother to my wife. I remember my aunt and mother making this cheesecake for every major holiday, and as a kid it was always one of my favorite dolci, and still is. Often times my friends would visit or we would have non-italian company join us for the holidays and when this cheesecake was served, the reaction was always the same: “Wow, that’s delicious! What is it”? And we would always respond: “It’s Italian cheesecake”; and I just took for granted it was. So many years later, we still describe it as Italian cheesecake when asked; but lately I started wondering: “what exactly makes this Italian and not just another cheesecake”?
This question led me to research the answer by looking at as many recipes as I could find described as “Italian Cheesecake”, and there are a lot of them! As I examined these recipes, I started formulating the basic criteria of what does and doesn’t make an Italian cheesecake “Italian”. I concluded that by far most versions, according to my newly formed definition, should not be called Italian. Consider the ingredients for the following very typical example, A New Yorker’s Real Italian Cheesecake:
10 sheets graham crackers, sheets ground in a food processor to texture of fine crumbs (should be a little over 1 cup total)
1⅛ tablespoons sugar
4½ tablespoons melted butter
24 ounces ricotta cheese
16 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 cup sugar
6 tablespoons flour
8 ounces sour cream
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
Would you call this Italian? I would say no because:
- First of all, I consider eggs, flour, sugar, butter and vanilla extract to be universal ingredients; so, OK.
- However, graham crackers are not Italian and cannot be found in Italy as such. While substitutes may exist, for example Lazzaroni’ s Pain Croûte, which is vaguely similar but more of a French biscuit; so not really the same as graham crackers. Strike one.
- Likewise, cream cheese is not Italian. Yes, you can find Philadelphia brand cream cheese in Italy, but they use it to make “Cheesecake al Philadelphia” and other American style preparations. Cheesecake al Philadelphia is described as “Torta conosciuta anche con il nome New York Cheesecake, perché si tratta di un dolce tipico della città di New York”; “A cake also known as New York cheesecake, because it is a typical dessert of the city of New York”. Strike two!
- Then there is sour cream. In Italian, sour cream is know as “panna acida” and can be found in Italian grocery stores. However, sour cream is considered to be of both French and Nordic origin, and are considered to be popular there, in Eastern Europe and the United States; but not so popular in Italy. As a matter of fact searching Google for “panna acida” yields many more methods for making it homemade when needed, rather than for the few commercial versions available. Strike three.
This leaves us with ricotta, and finally something Italian. But it’s the only ingredient of Italian origin on the list. While I think it’s a good idea to add ricotta to the recipe in lieu of more cream cheese to make it lighter, it’s not enough in respect to the other main ingredients to call this an Italian Cheesecake. It’s really just a variation of the typical New York Cheesecake. So what would make this Italian?
To answer that question, I came to the conclusion that for a recipe to be considered to be Italian the main ingredients must be those of Italian origin or those traditionally used in Italy in the manner described to produce the recipe. Though substitutions can be made outside of Italy using other ingredients of the exact type that may be more readily available locally. Thus, in the example above graham crackers, cream cheese and sour cream automatically eliminate this as an Italian Cheesecake.
So, what would have made “A New Yorker’s Real Italian Cheesecake” Italian?
- First of all for the crust, I would use a traditional Italian short piecrust called Pasta Brisé, which is derived from the French Pate Brisée, instead of a crumb crust. Alternatively, this could be made without a crust.
- Secondy, I would use the same quantity of mascarpone, an Italian cream cheese which is readily available in the US, instead of “American” style cream cheese.
- Lastly, I’d leave out the sour cream altogether and maybe add one more egg. In this case, the sour cream only adds more fat and calories and really does not contribute to any more creaminess or enhance the flavor profile; but the additional egg would add less calories and maintain the creaminess.
There you have it, something you could call a “Real Italian Cheesecake”. But if you ask me, it’s not really a very exciting cheesecake; to the contrary, it’s actually quite boring.
Well, this brings us back to my Torta di Ricotta delle Feste. This is a crustless cheesecake and though it only uses ricotta cheese, this cheesecake is very creamy due to the six eggs used in the recipe; and I consider this to be a “real” Italian cheesecake. The main ingredients are ricotta, chocolate, almonds, Maraschino cherries and orange or lemon zest, as you prefer. Consider:
- Ricotta of course, is Italian.
- Chocolate may also be considered a universal ingredient, but there are many traditional Italian types. The recipe calls for mini chocolate chips which are called “gocce di cioccolato” in Italian, and in Italy several brands are available including Perugina. In lieu of an Italian brand, use your favorite local brand. Or, if you prefer, you can coarsely chop a bar of your favorite chocolate, Italian or otherwise.
- Almonds, known as mandorle in Italian, are indigenous to southern Italy and Sicily and are traditionally used in all kinds of desserts. If you prefer, you can substitute hazel nuts, known as nocciole, which are also indigenous to Italy and popularly used in Italian desserts and confections.
- Maraschino cherries were first made in Italy in the early 1800’s. The typical bright red Maraschino cherries found in American supermarkets work well. But for a real treat, use the original Luxardo Maraschino Cherries from Italy, which can be purchased online.
- Lemons and oranges are also indigenous to Italy and used throughout in both baking and cooking. Sorrento lemons are grown on the Amalfi coast, Capri and Sicily; and Tarocco oranges are the favorite table orange in Italy and are grown throughout the south and on Sicily. Of course, barring access to these, locally available lemons and oranges are just fine to use.
So there you have it, my justification as to why my Italian Cheesecake “is” and so many others found online and in home recipe boxes “aren’t”. Do you agree with me or not? Let me know, I’m really interested in hearing your thoughts and opinions too.
- 2 pounds ricotta cheese, drained
- 1 cup sugar
- ⅓ cup all-purpose flour
- 6 eggs
- ½ cup mini chocolate chips or favorite chocolate bar, chopped
- ½ cup slivered almonds
- 1 6 oz jar Maraschino cherries, drained and halved
- 1 tsp. orange or lemon zest, your preference
- 2 tsp. vanilla extract
- Preheat oven to 325 degrees and set rack in the middle of the oven.
- Butter and flour a 9-inch round spring form pan and tap out excess flour. Place on a rimmed baking sheet.
- In a medium bowl, sift together the sugar and flour.
- In a large bowl, combine the ricotta, the sugar and flour mixture and vanilla and gently mix to combine.
- Add eggs one at a time and mix to combine.
- Add the chocolate chips, almond, Maraschino cherries and vanilla and mix until all ingredients are well incorporated.
- Pour batter into the prepared spring form pan and bake in the center of the oven for about 55 minutes until a light golden color. Make sure the center is cooked when a sharp knife inserted into the center comes out clean.
- Remove from the oven and run a sharp knife around the inside of the pan to loosen the cheesecake from the sides and then cool completely on a wire rack. Remove from the spring form pan, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled, at least 2 hours.