I started off thinking this was a Valentine’s post, with a heart-shaped sensuous cheesecake, topped with ruby-red cherry sauce. It still is, but I have to digress for a moment and talk about the Olympics. It is more connected and less random than you might think. When I was researching the origin of the cheesecake I found out, thanks the internet, that this favorite cake (which I think is really a custard, but now I digress in my digression) dates back to about 250 bc, where a Roman politician first wrote down the recipe. I am sharing it with you, because the translation is hysterical and I can only imagine the range in results with such crude instructions:
“Recipe for libum (cheesecake) – Bray 2 pounds of cheese thoroughly in a mortar; when it is thoroughly macerated, add 1 pound of wheat flour, or, if you wish the cake to be more dainty, ½ pound of fine flour, and mix thoroughly with the cheese. Add 1 egg, and work the whole well. Pat out a loaf, place on leaves, and bake slowly on a warm hearth under a crock.”
It goes on to talk about covering it in honey and poppy-seeds if you so desire. Even the “dainty” version sounds a bit severe to me. The editor who translated this couldn’t help themselves and added a note at the end that reads…”These recipes cannot be considered alluring.” They were, however, hearty and fed to the ancient Olympians during the games to keep them well fueled. Oh, how far we have come from the times when you had to “bray” (grind) cheese to get it soft enough. This rather utilitarian version of the cheesecake may have satisfied the ancient Romans, but today we are going for something a little bit sexier.
My cherry cheesecake is made with ricotta and a touch of honey, as a nod to the original Romans, but that’s as far as the similarities go. Just a touch of flour is used as a slight binder, but not so much as to ruin the luxurious texture. I whipped the egg whites and folded them into the cheese batter to keep it lighter than some of my denser, custard-style cheesecakes. The crust is crushed ginger cookies and the cherry topping is made with a hint of vanilla, cardamom and ginger extracts. This cake would keep any Olympian going, but it’s romantic enough to serve to your sweetheart on Valentine’s day.
Ginger cookie crust:
One 5.25-ounce box Anna’s ginger cookies or equivalent amount of graham crackers
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/4 cup (half stick) unsalted butter, melted
3 large eggs, separated
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 cup honey
Zest of one lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract – click to make your own
1 teaspoon ginger extract (optional)
1 pound cream cheese, room temperature
1 pound ricotta – click to make your own
1/4 cup sugar
24 ounces frozen sweet cherries
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon cardamom extract
2 tablespoons water or sweet white wine
1 teaspoon lemon juice
To make the crust: preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly grease a 9 x 2-inch cake pan (you can use a springform pan, but you will need to wrap the bottom in foil to bake it in the water-bath) or a 9-inch heart-shaped pan.
In a food processor chop up the cookies until powdery. Mix in the sugar, butter and salt. Pour the cookie crumbs into the pan and press them tightly into the bottom of the prepared pan. Bake for about 10 minutes, just until it sets and smells toasty. Allow to cool while you make the batter.
In a stand mixer beat the egg yolks, flour, cornstarch and honey until lightened, about 1 minute. Add the lemon zest, extracts, cream cheese and ricotta to the egg mixture and beat on medium speed until it is smooth and creamy, about 2 minutes.
In a separate bowl beat the egg whites and remaining sugar to glossy, stiff peaks. Stir 1/3 the whites into the cheese batter. Fold another 1/3 of the whites into the batter. Gently fold the remaining whites into the batter.
Spread the cheesecake batter over the ginger crust and smooth the top. Place the cake pan in large baking dish.
Pour hot water into the baking dish so that it goes half way up the side of the cheesecake pan. Carefully place it in the oven and bake for about an hour. If the cake is not done at the end of the hour (you will know by carefully touching the top to see if it feels set up. If it needs more time, reduce the heat to 300°F and bake for another 15 minutes, then check to see if it is done. The speed of the baking will depend on the type of pan you use and how hot the water is when you pour it into the pan. It can take up to 1 1/2 hours. This style cheesecake will crack a bit.
Remove the cake from the oven when it is set, but leave it in the water-bath until it has cooled to nearly room temperature. To prevent large cracks in the middle of the cake, run a sharp paring knife around the edge of the cake to separate it from the pan. Once the cake is cooled, place it in the refrigerator for at least 5 hours.
To make the cherry cheesecake topping: In a saucepan cook together the cherries, sugar, cornstarch, extracts and water (or wine). Cook over low heat until they come to a boil and the cornstarch turns translucent. Transfer to a bowl and place in the refrigerator to cool and thicken.
Remove the cheesecake from the pan by putting the pan over low heat on the stove for several seconds, then run the paring knife around the edge, cover the pan with plastic wrap and invert the pan onto a flat plate. If the cake won’t come out easily, quickly remove the plastic and place it over the heat again. It should slip right out. Click here to see a post removing the cheesecake from the pan. Once it is out, invert the cake onto the serving platter.
Spoon the cooled cherries over the cheesecake and serve or keep in the refrigerator until ready to cut.
Happy Valentine’s Day!