This article is brought to you by our friends at Electrolux as part of an ongoing series focusing on seasonal ingredients. Today: A festive cheesecake that dips its toes in the bitter Italian digestif.
If it wasn't clear from the shelves at your local spirits store, or the cocktail menu at your favorite bar, or even the place where you stock up on cookbooks, amaro—that Italian bittersweet liqueur known for its herbal, spiced, and citrused flavor—has become a staple at bars in the U.S. these days. (Let's all take a moment to say thanks for this development.)
Amaro translates to "bitter" in Italian, and is consumed as a digestif after a large, lush meal. It's one of my favorite liqueurs to mix into other cocktails and also drink on its own.
Let me briefly tell you how I came to love this drink: I used to work at this Italian restaurant in Brooklyn, Frankie's 457 Spuntino. As all my friends will tell you, this is my favorite restaurant in Brooklyn, and its decidedly Italian-American dishes are at the top of my, and my husband's, comfort food list. There is very little I'd rather do in an evening than sit at their cozy bar, flanked by cavatelli, red wine, and Caesar salad (which is so good it's a Genius Recipe!). At Frankie's, the bar is lined with amaro of all kinds and when friends of the restaurant, or the errant celebrities, come to eat, the really big bottle of Amaro Averna inevitably is taken down and ceremoniously poured into teeny glasses without a drop spilling. It is magic.
There, too, is a very simple and very excellent ricotta cheesecake on the dessert menu. After a shift, or stopping by for dinner on an off-night, we'd finish our food, share a piece of cheesecake, and sip on amaro well past 11 P.M. The flavors work so well with one another—the savory-sweet of ricotta and the bitterness of amaro—that it seemed natural to want to stitch them up together as one. (Can you tell I've been dreaming of this cheesecake for a while?)
There are bottles upon bottles of amaro you could choose for this dessert, but it really depends on your tastes—and, of course, what's available. Where I live in the Midwest, it's not as easy to find specific bottles, but I uncovered the likes of Cynar—an earthy amaro made with artichokes—and Lazzaroni locally. In New York or other major cities, you'll have your pick. Erik Lombardo, a contributing writer who heads up the cocktail program at New York City’s Marta, has detailed a few styles in the past:
If you’re adventurous, try Fernet Branca—drinking it is like being punched in the face with a boxing glove crammed with camphor, eucalyptus, ginger and an alpine meadow. For a softer, less 50 Shades of Amaro experience (but with a similar flavor profile), try Braulio. Think of it as a Fernet that’s gone to finishing school.
If your tastes lean toward warmer flavors, go for Averna—a dark, rich amaro reminiscent of guilty-pleasure, flat coca-cola swimming with lemon peels. Notes of clove and smoke round it out, making a satisfying sweet/bitter contrast that will cleanse the palate while making room for that third helping. Amaro Nonino Quintessentia is another fantastic amaro with notes of bitter orange peel and Christmas spices, and a smooth and silky texture that was pretty much born to appear on the holiday table.
The amaro, whichever you choose, provides a much-welcome boost in flavor to simple ricotta cheesecake—a wow-and-what?! factor, one that tastes altogether novel and familiar.
For the crust, I should let you know that I have this unhealthy obsession with Anna's Ginger Thins, those red-packaged, wafer-like spiced Swedish cookies that have been made since 1929 (the box screams "Sweden's Most Loved Pepparkaka!"). Those are what I used, because that's the best part of writing your own recipe—you can do with it what you'd like instead trying to patch a different one to your preferences. (Regular gingersnaps'll work, too! But please, please try to source Anna's if you can.)
As with any cheesecake, you're going to want to take it out of the oven while it's still dancing a bit in the middle when you shake it—the cake will firm up as it's chilled. The whole things settles into this beautiful burnt sienna color, and when you serve it, add a few extra shavings of orange zest on top.
The result is a faintly sweet, slightly bitter and boozy, citrusy cake, lined with a sandy, Christmas-spiced crust—just inventive enough to break from tradition without getting too wild.
For the crust:
- 8 ounces gingersnap cookies, crushed (2 cups crumbs)
- 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 7 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
For the filling:
- Two 8-ounce packages cream cheese, at room temperature
- 1 1/2 cups ricotta
- Kosher salt
- 3/4 cup sugar
- Zest of 1/2 an orange
- 1/2 cup amaro, or more to taste
- 4 large eggs, at room temperature
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