For a culinary traveler, food is always the number one topic when meeting locals and/or fellow travelers. When I’m able to share favorite recipes with others, it is an added bonus. This happened one evening in Rome, in an apartment overlooking the Campo dei Fiori. Two newly-made friends from Rome and I had a potluck of both Italian and American flavors.
In Stefania’s cozy and narrow kitchen, we cooked favorite dishes from our own countries. Stefania made an appetizer of feta, tomatoes and oregano, Giancarlo made his version of Cozze Napoletane (Neapolitan-style mussels), and I made an American lemon cheesecake. We helped each other and chatted while passing pans and ingredients, chopping garlic and herbs, sautéing, steaming, mixing, and even drinking a little wine in between the work. Pans and utensils clinked, sauces simmered, and the scents from the cooking drifted and mingled together like our mixed-language conversation, bonding together flavors and friendships.
We brought the dishes to the living room and dined while sitting on throw pillows. We used crostini and our hands as utensils to eat the mussels. Talk and wine flowed freely. The dinner ended with each of us having a slice of lemon cheesecake and a shot of limoncello, made by Stefania’s mom. Both had us feeling full and happy. The food was unpretentious, casual, yet it was delicate, full of flavor, and satisfying. It was one of my most memorable dining experiences in Rome. I want to share each of the dishes with you, yes even Stefania’s mom’s homemade limoncello.
Today, I’m sharing the lemon cheesecake. When someone asks me what American dessert I like the best, I don’t take long to answer; it’s cheesecake or chocolate chip cookies. Our cream cheese is best for making the dessert so creamy and dense. I’ve tried using other cheeses, but nothing works as well as U.S. cream cheese. The lemony flavor lightens it up, well just a bit. Since lemons never seem to be out of season in Italy, I made a lemon cheesecake. And, I was able to find Philadelphia brand cream cheese at the supermarket in Rome.
This recipe uses Meyer lemons, (because I just picked well over 300 from our tree) but you can also use regular lemons. I’ve added notes on adjusting the recipe for regular lemons below. There are a few easy tricks to making this cheesecake perfect: 1) It’s important that the cream cheese is at room temperature before creaming it, or you may have lumpy instead of creamy cheesecake. 2) Cook the cheesecake in a water bath to help it bake more evenly and prevent cracking and browning on top. 3) Don’t overbake the cheesecake. It should still jiggle slightly in the center when you remove it from the oven. The cake continues cooking even after it’s removed and will set once it’s cooled.
I would love to hear from you on your culinary travel experiences. What dish from your country do you most like to share with others?
(makes one 10-inch cheesecake)
For the crust:
1 3/4 cups graham cracker crumbs
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
7 tablespoons butter, melted
For the cheesecake:
2 1/2 pounds (1.14 kg) Cream Cheese, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
3 tablespoons lemon zest (from about 4 lemons)*
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1/3 cup heavy cream
2 egg yolks
1/2 cup Meyer lemon juice*
About 1 cup lightly-sweetened whipped cream, optional for garnish
4 to 5 lemon slices, halved, optional for garnish
*If using regular lemons, reduce the zest to 2 tablespoons and the lemon juice to 1/3 cup.
Preheat oven to 375ºF and butter the bottom of a 10-inch spring form pan
Mix together the graham cracker crumbs, sugar and melted butter. Press into the spring form pan, going up the side of the pan only 1/4 inch. Bake about 8 minutes, until lightly browned. Cool completely.
Decrease oven temperature to 325ºF
In a stand mixer, cream the cream cheese until it’s smooth. Add the sugar and lemon zest and mix together. Add the vanilla extract, cornstarch, and heavy cream and stir until combined. Add the eggs and yolks one at a time; mix each in before adding the next. Stir in the lemon juice. Pour the cheesecake filling into the spring form pan on top of the cooled crust. Bake in a water bath for 60-70 minutes. The outer edges should be set and the center will still jiggle a little when you move it. (The cake continues cooking after it’s removed from the oven.)
Cool for 15 minutes, then remove the spring form rim. Cool completely, then place into the refrigerator for at least 8 hours, overnight is best. You can garnish with the whipped cream and lemon slice, if you like. The cheesecake also goes very well with lemon granita. Enjoy!
Update: To ensure that no water leaks into the cheesecake while it's baking, wrap aluminum foil around the outside of the spring form pan. Don't fill the water bath until you've already placed the cheesecake in the oven, and only fill it to halfway up the side of the spring form pan.