Ever since we could make decisions on our own, my mom would let my brother and me choose our birthday cakes. Birthdays were already exciting, of course, because it was a day where we got to be the center of attention, but choosing a cake made it that much more special. At an age where we didn’t even really get to choose what to wear during the day, being able to pick a cake– a cake!– was a big deal. My mom is quite the skilled baker, so we always had a huge variety of options to choose from. While I definitely have a favorite now, I honestly don’t remember choosing consistently as a kid. My brother, on the other hand, was known for his cake choice: cheesecake with fresh blueberries. He requested it every year without fail, and it became such a permanent fixture of his birthday that our mouths collectively started watering in anticipation as the days snuck closer to the Cheesecake Date. I remember it being rich, moist, and somehow dense but still fluffy, and the summer blueberries held a bright sweetness that you can’t get at any other time of the year. In my memory, it really was the perfect cake. But, all of a sudden at age 10, Charlie stopped requesting this cake for his birthday. And then both of us stopped liking cheesecake at all.
I don’t remember it being a sudden change. I have this gap between the sunny haze of childhood cheesecake, when we would run around my grandparents’ back yard with blueberries smeared on our faces, and the new era of cheesecake that we found difficult to like. It isn’t that my mom became a worse baker– no, if anything, her baking skills kept improving as my brother and I grew. My mom kept making cheesecake for family gatherings, and everyone else seemed to love it just as much as they always had. I always just assumed that as my brother and I got older, we grew apart from cheesecake. And since we still had the memories of my brother’s early birthdays, I thought that was okay.
The Revelation happened at last Christmas, when my mom supplied the desserts for our family gathering and made what we assumed was a new thing: ricotta cheesecake. We were immediately in love with it, a perfect specimen of baked good that tasted like magic was somehow involved in the recipe. Then it was revealed to us that she used to make it all the time, since it was her grandmother’s recipe. Next we learned that she stopped making it around the time she discovered lemon curd, because she loves lemon curd and it really goes much better with New York style cheesecake. And it was at that moment that we discovered that a baked good could simultaneously taste like heaven, childhood, and betrayal.
I am sure that you have all guessed the secret by now– my brother and I stopped liking cheesecake around the time our mom switched her cheesecake styles, but we were both too young to realize that they were different kinds of cheesecakes. I promise you, though, that now that I have tasted this cheesecake, I will never be content with going back to anything with a graham cracker crust, especially if it contains– shudder– nuts. Eating this cheesecake was exactly how I remembered cheesecake should be. It was the cheesecake of my memories– creamy, moist, and perfect in every way. Literally every way. There is nothing I would change about this cheesecake, except for the fact that I spent 13 years of my life away from it, never knowing it was out there and thinking that my cheesecake aversion was somehow just a growth deficiency.
Since The Revelation, my brother and I have forgiven our mother. She just didn’t realize that the change had affected us so much. But now that we know that ricotta cheesecake exists, we can’t go through another family gathering without it. I think my mom actually prefers the inferior cousin of the perfect ricotta cheesecake (seriously, how could anything with nuts in the crust even compare), which means that I have had to step in as the ricotta cheesecake mistress in the family. I produce the cheesecakes, and my brother and I are allowed to make up for lost time. It’s a position that suits me just fine.
Big Nana’s Ricotta Cheesecake
This recipe is from my great-grandmother, affectionately called “Big Nana” to distinguish between the two Nanas (the other, of course, was my grandmother). Sour cream and cream cheese are not usually found together in recipes, but when combined they make a substance very similar to mascarpone, an ingredient I imagine was difficult to find in the U.S. when Big Nana was making this cheesecake. The end result is a fantastically creamy yet light cake.
1.5 lb ricotta
1 lb cream cheese
1 pt sour cream
2 cups sugar
6 tbsp corn starch
2 tbsp vanilla
1 very large or 2 slightly smaller spring-form pans (we use one 9-inch and one 6-inch)
Large casserole or baking pan, deep enough to hold the spring-form pans in water.
Preheat your oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
You can mix this cake in either a stand mixer or by hand, though it does take quite a bit of beating to get to the right consistency so the latter also requires a certain amount of muscle.
Add the ricotta to a large bowl and beat until smooth. It should no longer have the small cheese grains normally associated with ricotta– it should actually be smooth, almost like cream with a thicker consistency. Then add the cream cheese and beat well.
Incorporate the sugar into the mixture a little at a time, combining after each addition. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Once everything is well incorporated, add the corn starch and sour cream to the mixture in alternating tablespoons. If using an electric mixer, do this on low speed and be careful when mixing the cornstarch in– the cornstarch is so light that otherwise, you (and your kitchen) might end up wearing a good deal of it! You’ll have more sour cream than corn starch, and so once done alternating, add the rest of the sour cream and beat well. Pour in the vanilla and beat well once more. If using a stand mixer, scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl where ingredients tend to stick, then mix again thoroughly to make sure everything has combined.
If you would like a slightly nicer presentation for your end-product, cut a circle of parchment paper that is the same size as the bottom of your spring-form pan, and lay it into the bottom of the pan before pouring the batter in. It is also perfectly acceptable to serve the cake directly from the bottom of your spring-form pan. Further details about this are below.
Pour the batter into a large spring-form pan, leaving about of inch of space at the top of the pan. There will be a lot of batter– we had enough to comfortably fill one 9-inch pan and one 6-inch pan. Place the spring-form pan(s) into the larger, deep pan and fill the outer pan (not the batter-filled spring-form pans) 3/4 full with hot water. This hot water bath is what allows the cake to cook without a crust.
Put the entire setup into the oven, and bake at 325 degrees Fahrenheit for 1.5 hours. Do not open the oven during the cooking time! This will keep the temperature consistent and allow the cake to set properly. After the hour and a half, turn the oven up to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and cook for an additional 10 minutes to let the cake brown on top. Then turn the oven off, and let the cakes sit inside the oven for an additional hour.
After this time, remove the cake from the oven and from the water bath. Let sit at room temperature for at least two hours, then refrigerate for at least a couple more hours.
When ready to serve, insert a knife gently between the edges of the cake and the pan and move it around the cake edge, unsticking any bits of cake that have become attached to the pan. Once you are certain that the cake is not attached to the pan, open the spring and remove the sides of the pan. If you used parchment paper, make sure the paper is not stuck to the bottom of the pan, then gently but quickly lift the sides of the parchment paper from the pan bottom and transfer the cake (parchment and all) to a serving platter. If you have not used parchment paper, place the bottom of the pan and the cake onto a serving platter, and cut directly from there.
Top with your favorite fruit and enjoy.