For all those special people in your life – make a special Italian cake for Valentines Day!
My family’s favorite cheesecake recipe is now online for anyone who’d like to try a light, delicious cheesecake made Italian-style, with ricotta cheese – just as the Romans did way back when they invented this dessert.
I’ve already shared the recipe with my Conversationalitalian followers on Instagram, so if you’d like to see how to make the cheesecake with its special crust step by step, just click here:
The full method for this recipe is being simultaneously posted on the Learn Italian! blog for my website, www.learntravelitalian.com, where all authentic Italian recipes for the home cook that I personally use are found. Below is an excerpt. Click on the link to print off the entire method and enjoy!
When I was growing up in New York, my mother made a version of light, fresh-tasting cheesecake that my family loved. After I became older and moved away from home, I would often order what was called “New York Style” cheesecake in restaurants, hoping for a dessert that that would come close to the memory I had of my mother’s heavenly version.
What I came to realize over the years was that “New York Style” cheesecake is not at all like the cheesecake that my used to make while we were living in New York. I could not understand why the restaurant cheesecake served to me often had an off flavor (can you say artificial ingredients?) and a texture that was heavy, and even gooey or sticky.
Of course, as I discovered when I finally asked my mother for her recipe, the reason the cheesecake I had at home was so different from what I found in restaurants was the type of cheese my mother used. The ricotta cheese that my mother would get freshly made from the Italian deli after church every Sunday yielded a delicious, light, and almost crumbly cheesecake, gently held together by a few fresh eggs, flavored lightly with vanilla and given a fresh taste with a bit of lemon zest. Which is not to say the other, more creamy versions made with cream cheese are not good if made with fresh ingredients. They are just not Italian ricotta cheesecake!
The Italian crust my mother makes for her ricotta cheesecake also yields another subtle layer of flavor. The method used to make the Italian version of a smaller fruit “crostata” or “tart” transfers to the thicker cheesecakes made in Italy. A “pasta frolla,” or “sweet pastry” crust lines the bottom of the tart and a lattice crust nicely decorates the top of the tart, and a true Italian cheesecake will have a lattice crust! The crust for this cheesecake is flavored with a bit of lemon zest and brandy, which nicely compliments the taste of the fresh ricotta.
I modified the traditional lattice crust for Valentines Day by cutting an open heart into the top lattice crust. After baking the cheesecake, I let it cool a bit and then I spread some good raspberry jam into the center of the heart for color and a little extra flavor.
My family loved this cheesecake as an early Valentines Day present. I hope your loved ones will too! For the recipe, click HERE-Kathryn Occhipinti
March is the month for showing thanks to fathers in Italy. “La Festa del Papà” takes place on March 19, the day dedicated to San Giuseppe, or St. Joseph, father of Jesus Christ in the Christian religion.
Many Catholic churches in Italy and America, as well as Italian-American societies, host special ceremonies and parades to give thanks to St. Joseph. In my community in and around Chicago, this is a much-loved holiday that seems to bridge the generations between young and old. I’ve had the honor of celebrating St. Joseph’s Day many times, sometimes with two or three different Italian clubs each year!
The traditional St. Joseph’s Day celebration is completed with an afternoon feast, which is centered on a “St. Joseph’s Table”*—a large, three-tiered table with a statue of St. Joseph in the center surrounded by platter upon platter of special foods. Because it is the Catholic season of Lent, the traditional dishes for the St. Joseph’s Table do not contain meat. But that does not stop the Italians from creating a wonderful feast of pasta, fish, and special pastries to celebrate St. Joseph and all fathers of Italy.
Below is a bit of history about the day that I have found during my research on the topic. And, of course, because much of the focus of this holiday is on the special foods to be made for the feast, a Sicilian recipe for Sfinge—fried dough balls—is found at the end of the blog post.
*Featured image of a St. Joseph’s Table courtesy of azenofmyown.blogspot.com.
La Festa di San Giuseppe
Il 19 di Marzo
St. Joseph is honored with a special day by many countries of the world that practice Christianity. In Italy, it is said that the people from Sicily hold St. Joseph in special regard because they believe that their prayers to St. Joseph ended a drought that had caused a severe famine during the Middle Ages.
Legend has it that the drought in Sicily one year was so severe that the only vegetable left growing in the fields was the fava bean. The Sicilian people prayed to St. Joseph and promised they would honor him with a great feast every year if he ended the drought. They survived on fava beans until their prayers were answered and the rains came. From that time on, as promised, Sicilians all over the island have dedicated a feast in honor of Saint Joseph. The tradition has continued to today, and the St. Joseph’s Table, as it is now called, has grown into a feast rich in delicious and symbolic foods.
The St. Joseph’s Table should have three tiers, representing the holy trinity of Catholicism. In the center is a statue of St. Joseph. Fava beans are always included—in a bowl by themselves or as part of a dish. An ancient peasant food thought to have been introduced to Sicily by the Romans called “Maccu” (a soup of dried, crushed fava beans, fennel, and olive oil) was included in the past, as “Maccu di San Giuseppe,” but it is rarely seen today in Italy. Today, many Italian Americans have fava beans blessed at church and carry them for good luck for the rest of the year.
Breadcrumbs are also a popular component of the St. Joseph Day feast, and they are said to represent sawdust. This serves as a reminder that St. Joseph is the patron saint of workers and supported his family by working as a carpenter. Breadcrumbs can be found in many Sicilian dishes, and for St. Joseph’s Day, they are popular in stuffed artichokes or in pasta con sarde.
Treats from the bakery abound on the St. Joseph’s Day table, because St. Joseph is also the patron saint of pastry chefs. Every region has its own special “San Giuseppe” breads and desserts. Breads are made into the shape of a staff or a cross. Fried pastries are very popular. “Sfinci” is a small, fried dough ball (fritter) sprinkled with sugar. Larger puff pastry balls called “zeppole” are piped with custard or cannoli cream and are often topped with a maraschino cherry.
The table is also decorated with many types of citrus fruits. And red is the color to wear for good luck at your Festa di San Giuseppe! When you greet people at the festa, say, “May St. Joseph always smile upon you.”
After the celebration, as part of the tradition, the table is broken down, and all food that is left is wrapped and distributed to various charities, so those less fortunate may also partake.
Traditional Sfinge di Ricotta from Sicily
Below is an excerpt from the site Visit Sicily about the wonderful Sicilian treat, Sfinge di Ricotta, which is traditional for La Festa di San Giuseppe. They are simple to make—a puffy, fried dough ball, or fritter, sprinkled with sugar—and delicious!
The recipe of “Sfinci” is one of the oldest, typical Sicilian recipes. Sicilian people, as all southerner people, go crazy for frying and during Carnival they prepare thousands of yummy recipes. These Sicilian cookies are small pieces of fried dough enriched with nuggets of raisins or ricotta cheese and then fried in hot oil.
There are several variants, some of these also add boiled potatoes in the dough. This is the most classic version with a simple mixture of water, sugar, flour and ricotta cheese. Try them, they are delicious, you will not stop eating!
500 g (whole milk ricotta cheese [about 15–16 oz.])
200/250 g flour (2–2.5 cups)
2 spoons of sugar (teaspoons)
1 teaspoon baking powder
Place all ingredients together in a bowl (eggs and ricotta in a well in the center of the dry ingredients) and mix them with a mixer or by hand until you get a dough with a solid and firm consistency. (Start with 2 cups of flour, and add the rest as needed).
Let stand for about 20 minutes.
Then take the dough with the tip of a spoon and push it with your finger in a saucepan filled with boiling oil. (A small, deep pot works well for this step. Use only small bits of dough and try to form a small ball as you roll it off the spoon. Test the oil by putting one piece of dough in and watch it cook. Moderate the oil so it does not get too hot, so the center of the dough will have time to cook.) Let them cook until they have a goldish aspect.
(The pieces of dough will form a puffed ball (fritter) as they cook. When one side is finished cooking, the ball will flip by itself to the other side. When the other side has finished cooking, the ball will flip again. Let the fritter cook a few more seconds after the second flip and then remove it with a slotted spoon.)
(Drain fritters on a paper towel and while still hot roll gently in sugar. Then remove them to a serving bowl and sprinkle with more sugar if desired.)
Sprinkle them with sugar and serve.
*Volumes are approximate and additional directions in parenthesis are added to the original recipe by the author.
While researching “La Festa della Donna,” which takes place on International Women’s Day every March 8, I came across a bit of history about the origins of this special day for women. Although the holiday in Italy today is a lovely early springtime celebration, made complete with bright yellow mimosa flowers and a light, airy yellow cake, the origins are a bit more serious. I thought I would share what I have learned about the origins of the day in this blog.
Read on after the short history of International Women’s Day for a brief description of how Festa della Donna is celebrated in Italy today and how to make a mimosa cake for the special women in your family.
Since the turn of the century in the 1900s, a history had already developed of commemorating “the woman” with “women’s days.” On these days, women held special gatherings and marches, usually in an attempt to bring women’s and children’s rights to the forefront.
An excerpt from an article titled “International Women’s Day History” from the University of Chicago describes how these early “days of the woman” turned into a celebration of women around the world, now called “International Women’s Day”:
In 1975… the United Nations (UN) began celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8. Only two years later, in December 1977 the General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming a “United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace to be observed on any day of the year by Member States, in accordance with their historical and national traditions.“
In Italy, mimosa flowers are in bloom in central Italy on March 8 and were chosen as the symbol of this holiday by the Italian Women’s Association. Mothers, wives, sisters, and teachers can expect to receive small bouquets of these flowers from the men in their lives. Also, in most Italian cities, the Italian government grants free entrance for women to museums, and galleries may even host special exhibitions about women in history or dedicated to female artists. In the evenings, many restaurants offer special discounts for women, many who dress in yellow for the occasion and go out to celebrate with their families or significant other.
Finally, no celebration is complete in Italy without a special food to enjoy, and in this case, there is a special “mimosa cake”—a light, airy yellow sponge cake with a topping made to look like the small blooms of the mimosa flower. Most of the cakes I have seen are round, but I found a beautiful sheet cake version on YouTube that I’d like to share. It is from the Fatto in casa da Benedetta blog, and Benedetta has a book of recipes that has been available since last year (click on the link if you are interested in the book).
The cake is a bit complicated, and descriptions are in Italian, but the video gives clear directions. The end result is delicious and looks beautiful! I hope you enjoy!
From the cook:
Questa torta è dedicata a tutte le Donne
che ogni giorno rendono il mondo un posto migliore.