An original take on a traditional Italian cheesecake.
I’ve always been a fan of cheesecake—at least, the more familiar American-style, made with cream cheese and a graham cracker crust. The richness, the dense texture, the combination of tart and sweet…
I’m really not sure what took me so long to get with the program, but it was only around a decade ago that I discovered the Sicilian rendering of cheesecake—similar, yet unique, to what most of us imagine when we think cheesecake—and realized that “cheesecake” goes back a lot farther in history than I believed. In fact, the first cheesecakes have roots going back as far as 4000 years, starting in ancient Greece. From there, renditions made their way through Roman times and around Europe before landing in the US, to become what most of us call cheesecake today.
This lesser-known version employs many of the same techniques and ingredients as what we might call a New York cheesecake, with the most apparent distinction being the use of ricotta cheese in lieu of cream cheese. The resulting cake is lighter in texture than a NY-style cake, and the flavor has less of a tart bite made with the naturally sweeter cheese. The Italian adaptation also traditionally contains lots of flavorful citrus zest and sometimes cinnamon.
It’s tough to say if I enjoy the ricotta-based more than the more familiar American version. Honestly, I prefer not to compare the two at all, so I’ll just say that I love them both in their own right. Yet, as I get older and have increased my awareness of what I put in my body, I have found a new appreciation for all cheesecakes in general; they are among the simplest desserts in which you can modify ingredients and reduce sweeteners without messing up the fine balance of reactions and processes that are the chemistry of baking.
And for that reason, they are one of my go-to desserts whenever I have a hankering for something special and sweet.
For this recipe, I wanted to elevate the traditional ricotta cheesecake to make it just a little more special and celebratory for the holidays. Most recipes I’ve come across do not contain a crust of any sort, but I wanted to add another element of flavor and crunch to the creamy cheese filling. I love nuts and citrus together, particularly pecans, so I choose them as my base.
But the real star here was the spectacular addition of seared apples, with flavorful, nutty browned butter and a touch of coconut sugar. The fruit still kept a bit of crunch, and was served warm with the rich caramel from the pan. The topping took the cheesecake from awesome to incredible! Definitely worthy of the most special of celebrations.
This doesn’t need a special occasion to be enjoyed, of course. Making it as an everyday treat would brand the occasion special, but it is nice to have an excuse.
The cake is best served warm, rather than chilled, for optimal flavor and texture, so I suggest serving it the day of baking, or, if made in advance and refrigerated, removing it from the fridge and bringing to room temperature.
Celebration Torta di Ricotta with Warm Browned-Butter Caramel Apples
Makes one 10-inch cake; 12-14 servings
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: approximately 1¼ hours
Special equipment: 10-inch springform pan and parchment paper
2 cups pecans, finely ground in food processor
¼ cup inositol powder (or ¼ cup coconut sugar)
3 tablespoons melted butter
2 lbs. ricotta cheese
3-4 tablespoons maple syrup
3-4 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons lemon zest
1 teaspoon orange zest
2 tablespoons vanilla
1 pinch salt
5 large eggs
Browned Butter Apples
4 tablespoons butter
4 apples, assorted types, peeled or unpeeled, cored and sliced
¼ cup coconut sugar
1 teaspoon lemon juice
½ teaspoon cinnamon
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 pinch salt
2 tablespoons cream
- Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease a 10-inch springform pan and line bottom and sides with parchment paper.
- Combine ground pecans with inositol powder (or coconut sugar) and melted butter. Press mixture over bottom and the lower 1/3 of the sides of the prepared pan. Bake until fragrant and lightly toasted, about 10-15 minutes, then cool on rack for about 10 minutes
- Meanwhile, combine ricotta cheese with honey, maple syrup, eggs, citrus zest, vanilla, and salt until smooth. Set aside.
- Pour ricotta filling into pan over slightly cooled crust. Place on a baking sheet and into the oven. Bake 30 minutes, then turn pan 180 degrees and continue baking until puffed and just cooked, with a slight jiggle, about 45-55 minutes total. If top starts to brown too much, cover with a layer of parchment and foil to keep it from burning.
- Once cooked, transfer to a rack and let cool in the pan for about 30-45 minutes, then remove sides and let cool to room temperature. Transfer to a serving plate and keep at room temperature or wrap and refrigerate for later use.
- While cake cooks, prepare apples: Melt butter in a shallow pan until golden-brown and nutty-scented. Add apples and sear until lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Add coconut sugar and let melt. Cook for a few minutes for mixture to caramelize. Add lemon juice, vanilla, cinnamon, salt, and cream. Simmer for a minute or two. For best results, serve warm. You can cool the apples, then refrigerate, and warm back up on the stove to serve.
- Cut cake into wedges and serve with apples and caramel spooned on top.
Image by Briana Goodall.