Bright lights, big city

Leah Eskin

Home on the Range

February 26, 2012


New York was a rough town, dense with debris and muggers. I learned this from young-adult novels in which thugs roamed the island, terrorizing kittens. So I was circumspect about my first visit, at 14.

My older brother and I took a taxi from the airport; it hurtled across the nightscape, stopping at Broadway and 112th, where I stumbled out, a convert. New York was a swirl of lights and crowds and energy. The streets beat out a vibrant rhythm, one I'd never heard in Iowa.

Uncle Howie dropped me on the back seat of his tandem bicycle, and we cruised down the West Side, stopping for hot jazz, warm bagels and cold cheesecake. It was all thrilling, except the cheesecake, which was overwhelming: too dense, too rich, too tall. I could see why it stands for New York.

Back home my brother drew a soaring cityscape and two street-level dots, marked "me and you."

After my brother moved to 26th Street, and before I moved to 26th Street, I visited him. He sliced up a low pale disk he'd bought in Little Italy. He said it was cheesecake.

This cheesecake was entirely different: almost crumbly, with a bright fresh-milk flavor. It was speckled with crisp almonds and plump blueberries. I had no idea that ricotta, in place of cream cheese, could convert the heavy cake into fluffy pie. It was another New York revelation. One of many to come.

Ricotta cheesecake

Prep: 45 minutes
Bake: About 45 minutes

1-2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
3 ounces amaretto cookies (or sub 8 full graham crackers)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut up
1 pound (or 1 15-ounce package) whole-milk ricotta cheese
3 eggs
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons flour
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Zest of 1 lemon, finely grated
½ cup slivered almonds
1 cup blueberries
1-2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar

Brush melted butter across the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan. Set the pan on a rimmed baking sheet. Heat oven to 300 degrees.

Drop cookies and cut-up butter into the food processor. Pulse to crumbs. Pat crumb mixture into the bottom of the prepared pan.

Bake crumb crust until fragrant, slightly darkened and crisp, about 10 minutes for cookies, 15 for crackers. Set aside.

Scrape ricotta cheese into the (clean) food processor. Swirl completely smooth, 1-2 minutes.

Crack eggs into the bowl of a sturdy mixer. Beat on medium-high, using the whisk attachment; slowly cascade in granulated sugar. Beat until thick and pale, about 4 minutes. Add prepared ricotta, flour, vanilla and zest. Beat just until combined.

Pour ricotta mixture over crust. Bake until just set (still a bit jiggly in the center), about 30 minutes.

While cheesecake is baking, spread nuts on a rimmed baking sheet. Slide into the oven and toast golden, about 4-5 minutes.

When cheesecake is done, scatter nuts and blueberries over warm cake. Gently press in. Chill completely. Dust lightly with confectioners' sugar before unmolding and serving.

Leah Eskin is a Tribune special contributor e-mail her at leahreskin@aol.com