Italian Ricotta Cheesecake

This is my favorite ricotta cheesecake recipe. It is moist and creamy and I love the subtle citrus overtones. I will occasionally add orange flower water and candied orange peel. It is optional. Variations of this recipe could include chopped maraschino cherries with some chocolate or lemon zest and almond extract or anise with citron. It is a lovely Easter dessert. Bake it the day before you intend to serve it so it sets up well.

Ricotta Cheesecake
3-1/2 c. whole milk ricotta cheese, drain 30 minutes
3/4 c. sugar
4 large eggs, beaten
1 tsp. vanilla extract
3/4 tsp. cinnamon
zest of half an orange
zest of half a lemon
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/4-1/2 tsp. orange flower water (optional)
1/4 c. chopped candied orange peel (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Boil 5 cups water for a water bath. In a large bowl mix together by hand ricotta and sugar until light. Add eggs and the remaining ingredients and mix by hand until incorporated. Do not over mix. Pour into a 9-inch deep dish pie plate. Place cheesecake into a roasting pan. Place in the oven then pour the boiled water into the pan to reach half way up the sides of the pie plate. Be careful not to splash it into the cheesecake batter. Bake for 45-50 minutes until set. Remove from water bath. Cool on rack. Chill overnight then serve. It is optional to sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar just before serving. Serves 8.


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Pizza Gaina

Pizza gaina (also called pizza chiena or pizza rustica) is a quiche-like Italian savory Easter pie. Traditionally it is made with a bottom and top crust, but I have found that, if we fill up on a heavy savory pie to begin the Easter feast, there is not enough room for the lamb, vegetables, and desserts to follow. I have modified the recipe by eliminating the crust and just baking the filling in a 9×13 pan. It is still rich, but you only need a small piece to be satisfied. If you prefer a more traditional method feel free to encase the filling in a pastry crust.  It is delicious and a great start to celebrate the holiday.

Pizza Gaina

1 (32 oz.) container whole milk ricotta
6 large eggs
1/4 c. milk
pinch of kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/4 tsp. dried oregano
1/4 tsp. dried thyme
1/8 tsp. grated lemon zest
1/8 tsp. onion powder
1/8 tsp. garlic powder
pinch of Aleppo pepper or red pepper flakes to taste
1/2 c. grated parmesan cheese
8 oz. whole milk mozzarella, diced (1-1/2 c. diced)
1/3 lb. thinly sliced and rough chopped boiled ham (1-1/2 c.)
1 c. thinly sliced and rough chopped Genoa salami
1/4 c. thinly sliced and rough chopped pepperoni
1 Tbsp. chopped sundried tomatoes in oil
1/4 c. chopped fresh Italian flat leaf parsley

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9×13 glass baking pan. In a large bowl whisk together the ricotta cheese and eggs until smooth. Whisk in milk. Add salt, pepper, and spices. Mix well. Add parmesan and mix. Add mozzarella and cold cuts. Mix well. Fold in sundried tomatoes and fresh parsley. Pour into prepared pan. Bake 40 minutes until set. Serves 12.

Pizza Gaina filling ready for the oven

Baked Pizza Gaina

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Pasta with Breadcrumbs

This is a very simple and fast pasta dish. I make my own breadcrumbs out of stale baguettes, then put the crumbs in jars and freeze.

1/2 lb. angel hair pasta
1/2 c. extra virgin olive oil
5-6 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 c. plain breadcrumbs or more to taste
salt and pepper to taste
3 Tbsp. chopped fresh Italian flat leaf parsley
1/4-1/2 c. pasta water

Bring a 6-quart pot full of water to the boil. Add some salt. Add angel hair and cook 5 minutes or until al dente. While the pasta cooks, warm the olive oil in a frying pan on medium heat. Add garlic and cook 1-2 minutes until soft and fragrant. As garlic begins to turn color stir in bread crumbs and some salt and pepper. Cook 2 minutes. Add 2 Tbsp. of the parsley. Add cooked pasta and enough pasta water to keep it moist. Cook 1 minute. Pour into serving bowl. Top with remaining parsley. Serves 4.

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Zeppole are Italian cream puffs traditionally served on St. Joseph’s Day (March 19th). The dough can be fried or baked, I prefer the baked version. Zeppole can be filled with ricotta cream or with a thick, piped custard filling. Below is the recipe for the thick custard filling, adapted from the blog Ciao Chow Linda. My favorite filling is a lighter custard that you can make by preparing the thick custard filling and then folding in a cup of sweetened whipped cream. The photo below has the lightened custard. You will have more custard than you need for the cream puffs. 


Cream Puffs
1 c. water
1/2 c. unsalted butter
1 Tbsp. sugar
pinch of salt
1 c. flour
4 large eggs, beaten

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a 2-quart saucepan combine water, butter, sugar and salt. Bring to a rolling boil. Stir in the flour, mixing vigorously over low heat until mixture forms a ball. Remove from heat and add eggs gently, stirring constantly until mixture is smooth. Pipe dough through a pastry bag or drop walnut-size scoops of dough onto the prepared pan. You should have 12 cream puffs. Bake for 25-30 minutes until puffed and golden. Remove from oven and let cool on a rack.

Custard Filling
4 c. whole milk
5 (3 inch long) strips of lemon peel (peeled with a peeler)
1/2 vanilla bean
3/4 c. granulated sugar
8 large egg yolks
1/2 c. cornstarch
2 Tbsp. flour
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1/4 tsp. vanilla extract
1 c. sweetened whipped cream (optional)
Confectioners sugar for sprinkling

In a 4-quart stockpot combine milk and lemon peel. Scrape vanilla bean and add seeds to the milk as well as the vanilla pod. Turn heat to medium low and bring the milk to a simmer. In a separate bowl whisk together sugar and egg yolks until pale and thick. Add cornstarch and flour to the yolks and whisk until smooth. Add about 1/2 c. of the hot milk mixture to the yolk mixture, whisking constantly. Return the yolk mixture to the hot milk and cook, whisking constantly to prevent burning until the mixture has thickened. It will take 5-7 minutes. Remove custard from heat, then whisk in the butter. Stir until the butter has melted. Let sit 5 minutes, stirring a couple of times to prevent a skin from forming. Strain the thick custard using a spatula to force the custard through the sieve. Then add vanilla extract. Place plastic wrap directly on custard surface and chill until cold, about 4 hours. At this point you can fill a pastry bag with custard and pipe it into a split cream puff, or you can fold the sweetened whipped cream into the thick custard and then spoon it into the cream puff. Sprinkle with confectioners sugar. Serves 12.

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Italian Romanesco Broccoli with Pickled Peppers

Romanesco broccoli is a cross between a cauliflower and broccoli. It is quite stunning with its spiky buds and lime green color, and milder than cauliflower with a slightly nutty flavor. It is delicious simply boiled and dressed with a lemon vinaigrette, but if you add a bit of mild, sweet pickled pepper it is even better. I love the pickled cheese peppers that we bottle in the fall. They are wonderful in salads or sandwiches, or served alongside Italian sausage. Recently I have been adding them to vegetable dishes such as this one, where the peppers shine. If you don’t have your own you can buy bottled pickled peppers, sweet or hot, in the grocery store. 

Italian Romanesco Broccoli with Pickled Peppers
1 head Romanesco Broccoli, cut into florets
1/3 c. chopped pickled red peppers

Lemon Vinaigrette
1/3 c. extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp. white wine vinegar
1-1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard
1/4 tsp. lemon zest
2 tsp. fresh lemon juice
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste

Bring a 4-quart pot full of water to the boil. Add a bit of salt to the water. Add Romanesco broccoli, cover and cook about 7 minutes until fork tender but not mushy. Drain. Place in a serving bowl. In a separate bowl combine all lemon vinaigrette ingredients and whisk until smooth. Pour vinaigrette over broccoli and toss. Add chopped pickled peppers and toss. Taste then add salt and pepper if needed. Serves 4.

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Crumb Cake

Crumb cakes are very popular on the East Coast. We almost always had a crumb cake in the house when I was growing up because my dad and brother loved it. My son, like his grandfather, loves crumb cake and has become the crumb cake baker in the family. This recipe is very moist and flavorful, and is adapted from Carol Walter’s book Great Coffee Cakes, Sticky Buns, Muffins and More.

Crumb Cake
Crumb Topping
1-1/2 c. flour
3/4 c. sugar
1-1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. fine sea salt
2/3 c. unsalted butter, softened

In a large bowl combine dry ingredients. Cut in butter to make large size crumbs. Set aside.

1/2 c. unsalted butter, softened
3/4 c. sugar
1-3/4 c. flour, sifted
1 Tbsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1 large egg
3/4 c. milk
2 tsp. vanilla extract
confectioner’s sugar for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9×13 metal baking pan, then line it with parchment paper. In a mixing bowl beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy. In a separate bowl sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. In a third bowl mix together the egg, milk and vanilla. Add dry ingredients to butter mixture alternately with the milk mixture. Mix well. The batter will be thick. Pour batter into the prepared pan and sprinkle crumb topping evenly over the batter. Bake 30-40 minutes, rotating pan half way through baking, until an inserted toothpick comes out clean. Cool on rack. Sprinkle generously with confectioner’s sugar to serve. Serves 10-12.


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Fresh Pita Bread

Ocassionally, when we have an evening with no plans, we will make some Middle Eastern dips and some fresh pita to go along with it for dinner. Fresh pita is so moist and delicious that I wonder why I was ever content with what we buy from the grocery store. The recipe is adapted from one in Bernard Clayton’s New Complete Book of Breads. It takes a bit of time but is very well worth the effort. The bread lasts a couple of days in a ziplock bag and freezes well, too.

Fresh Pita Bread
2 Tbsp. Instant yeast (I like Saf Instant)
2 Tbsp. granulated sugar
2 c. warm water
1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil
1-1/2 tsp. kosher salt
5-1/2 c. 00 flour or all purpose

In a mixing bowl combine yeast, sugar, and water. Whisk to dissolve yeast and let sit 5 minutes to foam. Add oil and salt. Turn the mixer on low and add 2 c. flour. Mix well. Add 3 more cups of flour, a little at a time. Mix well for 1 minute. Take the remaining 1/2 c. flour and spread a bit of it on a flat surface. Turn the pita dough out onto that surface. Add a bit of flour to the dough and knead for a minute. Let the ball of dough sit for 5 minutes, then give it one final knead for a minute. Divide the dough in half, then take each half and roll into 10 balls, sized just smaller than a golf ball. You will need a little flour to prevent them from sticking, but don’t use very much. Place the 20 doughs balls 1 inch apart on the floured surface. Cover with a large tea towel to rise for 45 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place the rack in the center of the oven. Cut foil into 12 roughly 7″x7″ squares. You will be cooking your individual pitas in the oven directly on the foil. Take one risen dough ball and roll out on a lightly floured surface with a rolling pin to a 6-inch circle, about 1/4 inch thick. They may not be perfectly round but that will come with practice. Place rolled-out dough circle on a piece of the cut foil. Repeat with 5 more dough balls. When you have 6 pita on foil place the 6 foil packets directly on the oven rack and bake for 5-7 minutes until puffed and pale. You can leave them a minute longer if you want the pita to take on a slightly brown tone. While they are baking prepare 6 more pitas and place on the remaining pieces of foil. Remove the baked pitas from the oven when they are done, then slide them off the foil and onto a rack to cool slightly. (They may loose some of their puffiness as they cool, but this is to be expected.) Put the next batch of 6 pitas into the oven and, while they are baking, roll out the next 6, placing them on the original six pieces of foil. Continue in this manner until all the dough is used. Serve warm. Makes 20 individual pita breads.


Posted in Appetizers, Breads, Dairy-free, Grains, Vegetarian | 1 Comment

Triple Vanilla Creme Brûlée

Crème Brûlée is one of my favorite desserts. I like a strong vanilla flavor in custard, so I add not just a vanilla bean, but vanilla sugar and extract. It is a great Valentine’s Day dessert. The recipe is adapted from The New Professional Chef by The Culinary Institute of America.

Triple Vanilla Creme Brûlée
2 c. heavy cream
1/4 c. granulated vanilla sugar, divided plus extra for topping
1/2 large vanilla bean
5 large egg yolks
2 tsp. vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Boil 4 cups water for the water bath. Place 4 large ramekins (or 8 small ramekins) in a roasting pan and set aside. Place cream in a 2-quart sauce pan. Add half the sugar to the cream. Scrape the vanilla bean seeds into the cream, then add the vanilla pod to the cream. Bring cream mixture to a simmer. In a small bowl combine egg yolks with the remaining 2 Tbsp. granulated sugar. Beat well. Pour a little of the hot cream into the eggs, whisking constantly. Pour egg mixture back into hot cream. Return to the stove and cook 1 minute until the custard coats the back of a spoon. Strain custard mixture into a bowl and whisk in vanilla extract. Pour custard into ramekins. Place roasting pan with filled ramekins in the oven. Pour boiled water into the roasting pan so the water comes half way up the sides of the ramekins. Bake 25-30 minutes until custard is set on the edges but still quivers slightly in the middle. Remove ramekins from pan and let cool on a rack. Chill uncovered at least 4 hours. When ready to serve sprinkle 1/2-1 tsp. granulated sugar on top of each custard. Using a kitchen torch, caramelize sugar to form hard coating. Serves 4.


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Pear and Pecan Salad with Key Lime Vinaigrette

This is a lovely, refreshing winter salad. The key lime vinaigrette compliments the pears, and the crunch of the pecans adds nice texture. If you need a salad for your Valentines Day meal, try this. I use key limes or Mexican limes for this recipe because they have a more floral flavor. If you only have access to Persian limes, use just half of a lime.

Pear and Pecan Salad with Key Lime Vinaigrette
3-1/2 c. torn Romaine lettuce
3-4 green onions, thinly sliced
1 large pear, peeled and cubed
juice of 1 key lime
1/2 c. toasted pecans, chopped
1/4 c. sliced or cubed fresh mozzarella cheese
small sprig of fresh thyme
salt and pepper to taste

Begin by toasting the pecans at 350 degrees for 8-10 minutes until fragrant and toasted. Place Romaine lettuce and green onions in a bowl. Squeeze lime juice over the pear cubes and toss. Add pears to the lettuce. Sprinkle with pecans. Add cheese. Sprinkle with thyme leaves. Salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle with key lime vinaigrette and toss. Serves 4.

Key Lime Vinaigrette
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp. rice vinegar
zest and juice of 1 key lime
1/4 tsp. sugar
kosher salt to taste
freshly ground black pepper to taste

Place all vinaigrette ingredients in a small bowl and and whisk until smooth.


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Ras Malai (Indian Cheesecake)

Every year my husband teaches the Ramayana, an Indian epic, in one of his courses. At the end of the reading he serves his students some Indian food, including this homemade version of Ras Malai. It is delicious. The recipe is adapted from Beyond Curry by Hemalata Dandekar.

Ras Malai (Indian Cheesecake)
1 (32 oz.) container whole milk ricotta cheese
1 c. sugar
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
a pinch of sea salt
2 Tbsp. shelled unsalted pistachios, crushed in a mortar and pestle

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a bowl mix together ricotta, sugar, vanilla and salt until smooth. Pour the mixture into a 9×13 glass baking pan. Bake for 40 minutes until bubbling and set. Make the cardamom cream sauce while the cheesecake is baking. Remove cheesecake from oven. Cool 10 minutes on a rack then cut into 24 squares. Gently drizzle cooked cardamom cream sauce over the ras malai. Use all of the sauce even if it looks like too much. It will soak into the cheese. Tastes best when allowed to chill overnight so the flavors can mature. Sprinkle pistachios over ras malai just before serving. Serves 12-15.

Cardamom Cream Sauce
1 c. half and half
1 c. heavy cream
1/2 c. sugar
a pinch of sea salt
1/2 tsp. cardamom seeds (out of the pod), crushed in a mortar and pestle
5 strands saffron

In a saucepan combine half and half, cream, sugar and salt. Crush cardamom in a mortar and pestle until it is roughly ground, not a fine powder to yield 3/4 tsp. roughly ground cardamom. Add cardamom and saffron to the cream mixture. On medium low heat bring to mixture a boil and let simmer uncovered for about 15 minutes or until it has reduced by a fourth. It should be slightly thickened and very pale yellow.



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