Just in time for Mother's Day...the Dessert Formerly Known as Sinful. This is my version of cheesecake, without all the guilt but definitely with all of the flavor. I love cheesecake, in all of its many manifestations, but usually feel as if I've ingested an entire cheesecake after just one slice. I am also one of those strange individuals (any compadres out there?) who enjoy the crust almost as much as the creamy topping...I have texture issues. I'm kind of picky about the cheese mixture as well, so I'm not a fan of the super dense, super thick versions that are out there. I prefer nearly a one-to-one ratio of cheese topping to crust. I just think it is a better balance of flavors, not to mention better portion control.
This recipe can be varied in any number of ways. I present three versions here. Plain, almond and strawberry, and orange marmalade with a cocoa nib crust. Coconut would be fabulous, as would citrus or a sprinkling of fresh berries prior to baking. The variations are only limited by your imagination. The basic recipe will take you there. I use real cheeses as well. Not that I mean to be soap-boxing again, but have you read the ingredient list on those little silver packages lately? Stabilizers...guar... and carob gums, oh my!
Although this recipe calls for a few more ingredients than a traditional cheesecake, the end result is lighter and more delicate but still delivers that subtle, creamy tang that cheesecake lovers crave. It's just a more blithe, breezier version of its former self. After you've eaten a piece, you know you've had dessert, but without all the gastric expansion issues or mischief played upon your blood sugar. I've kept the sugar to a minimum, so make sure to taste the cheese mixture prior to baking to see if the sweetness level is to your liking, keeping in mind that the crust and any toppings will add some sweetness as well. As I've preached before, I try to keep the added sugar to as low a level as possible, letting the natural sweetness in the fruit or other ingredients shine.
The crust is based on ground nuts which I think is so much more interesting than graham cracker crumbs. The nuts provide a nutrition and texture boost that plain cracker or cookie crumbs can't match.
But I do admit to having a nostalgic soft spot for the crunchy sweet stuff which could definitely be substituted in if you so desire. An imperative for the nut crust is to toast the nuts prior to grinding to intensify the flavor. Also, just about any nut could be used. I've had equal success with pecans, walnuts or a mixture. I try to match the best flavors between the nut and whatever I'm adding to the cheese mixture.
The marmalade topping is a breeze to throw together--about 2/3 of a jar of your favorite marmalade and a splash of orange flower water (yes, I'm addicted) which really brightens the flavor. My favorite right now is the blood orange marmalade from World Market. Any jam or fruit preserve would to. I swirled in four tablespoons of the marmalade into the cheese mixture and used the remainder for the topping. The flecks of orange that run through the cheesecake mixture are quite lovely (which you can't see here under all that marmalade).
If you are in the mood for some extra creamy goodness, swirl a couple tablespoons marmalade or other fruit jam with a small container of mascarpone cheese, and top the tart with that, if it makes it that far, I mean, have you tasted the stuff?...it could be a dessert all on its own! I prefer the mascarpone and marmalade mixture to the straight preserves as I find it tones down the sweetness and you don't need to use so much marmalade--an option to consider if you are trying to cut out some of the sugar. Or, just serve the jam mixture on the side.
Other topping ingredients....
These little lovelies were just calling out to me at the grocery store. Does food talk to you too? Something along the lines of 'love me, squeeze me, take me home'....? Ah, how I love spring and all the berry goodness it brings! These were simply too gorgeous to pass up (and actually inspired me to make the cheesecake). Funny how my brain works sometimes...decide on the topping first, then I need something to put under it. Strawberries, cream and almonds...just made for each other.
The strawberry topping is simply macerated strawberries, rose flower water and a smidge of pomegranate molasses. The orange flower water (for the other recipe), rose flower water and pomegranate molasses should all be available at your local Middle Eastern, Indian or Mediterranean market. I actually found the pomegranate molasses as Whole Foods. You could, of course, skip those ingredients and just stick to the strawberries and sugar, but the two special ingredients make the topping, well, special. Just like with the orange flower water, the rose flower water provides a very subtle but exotic flavor, and seems to pair so well with any berry. The pomegranate molasses gives a punch of intensity to the other flavors...I find myself using it in many desserts involving berries. Be forewarned though, the pomegranate molasses has just a hint of brown to it, so will definitely tint whatever you might choose to mix it with. I usually only use about two to three teaspoons and find that this amount is just right for most applications.
The other fabulous thing about this recipe (really a cheese tart I suppose rather than a cheese cake) is that is bakes in a minimal amount of time, meaning you could easily pop one in the oven mid day and still have it cooled and ready for dessert by dinner. The thin layer of cheese mixture sets up quicker and cools back down quicker than a traditional cheesecake recipe. So, let's review: lighter texture and better portion size (that is, of course if you don't eat three pieces at a sitting...just sayin'), better-for-you ingredients, quicker baking and cooling times, and fabulous taste. What's not to love?!! If you don't have a special mom to make this for, make one for yourself. I know you deserve it.
Simple, but never boring. Sometime less is definitely more.
Cheesecake Redux a.k.a. Cheese Tart
1 cup ricotta cheese (I use full fat)
5 ounces goat cheese
4 ounces mascarpone cheese
1/4 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup toasted sliced almonds (or nut of choice), cooled
3-4 tablespoons sugar, to taste
2/3 cup whole wheat pastry flour
2 tablespoons melted butter
1 tablespoon almond oil
1 egg yolk
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a food processor, grind the cooled nuts, sugar and flour until ground fine or to desired texture. Add the other wet ingredients and pulse until completely incorporated. Press into the bottom of an approximately 9-inch pan. I've used this recipe for both springform and regular tart pans (with and without the removable bottom) and had equal success getting the first piece out of the pan, although I prefer the pan with the removable bottom. Press the crumb mixture into the bottom of the pan and bake for approximately 12 to 15 minutes or until very lightly browned at the edges. While the crust is baking, prepare the cheese mixture.
In a large mixing bowl, slowly beat together the three cheeses with the sugar until completely smooth. Add the egg and mix in well, then add the vanilla, making sure to scrape down the beater and the sides and bottom of the bowl. Pour into baked crust and return to the oven for approximately 17-20 minutes or until no longer jiggly in the middle. Remove to a cooling rack and when cool place covered in the refrigerator. Serve plain or with toppings of choice.
Almond and Strawberry Version:
Make the basic recipe above, with the only substitution of almond extract for the vanilla. De-stem and slice one pint of strawberries. Sprinkle two tablespoons of sugar over the berries and allow to stand at room temperature for one hour. Stir in one teaspoon of rose flower water and 2 teaspoons of pomegranate molasses. Place in the refrigerator, stirring every so often until berries are soft. Serve with the cheesecake.
Chocolate Orange Version:
1/2 cup cocoa nibs
1/2 cup toasted sliced almonds
3-4 tablespoons of sugar, to taste
1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour
3 tablespoons cocoa powder
2 tablespoons melted butter
1 tablespoon almond oil
1 egg yolk
In a food processor, grind the cocoa nibs with the nuts, sugar, flour and cocoa powder until fine. Follow the remaining steps for the basic crust recipe above. You could easily substitute your favorite chocolate crumb crust as well.
Orange Cheese Mixture:
Follow the basic recipe above, but add:
1 tablespoon orange flower water
1/4 cup orange marmalade of choice
1 tablespoon grated orange peel
Follow the baking instructions as above.
Add the remaining jar of marmalade to a small sauce pan and stir in 1 tablespoon orange flower water. Warm over low heat while cheesecake is baking. I personally find this a little too sweet and prefer the topping on the side.
Try it, enjoy it, and let me know what you think!