Light and Springy, Creamy and Great Cheesecake

I created this cake around Easter/Passover from my Everyday Dorie column for The Washington Post, but here’s the best part about the cake: It’s good anytime!

While you might think Easter’s all about colored eggs and chocolate, lamb, bunnies and baskets full of sweet things, I think it’s about cheesecake.

I have no idea when the association came to me and why it stuck. But really, does anyone need a reason for cheesecake? And certainly, no one needs an excuse to make one. All you need is a foolproof recipe.

Having grown up in New York, I’ve been making it the same way for years: really tall, really rich and creamy. Then, a couple of weeks ago, perhaps in the season’s spirit of renewal, I tinkered with my original recipe, one made with cream cheese and sour cream. What began on a whim finished as a quest. I was searching for a cheesecake that would be as impressive and as satisfying as my standby, but I wanted a different texture: something a little lighter, a little less dense, and with more spring, sponge and fluff.

I got all that by adding ricotta to the mix, specifically by swapping some of the cream cheese for a lot of ricotta. Mixing the two cheeses gave the cake the richness and creaminess that are the hallmarks of the genre plus the lightness I was looking for. I also added grated lemon and orange zest and a full tablespoon of vanilla extract, ingredients that round the flavor of eggs and make anything rich seem magically less so. Those additions might explain why my more moderate friends around the table cut thin slices and then went back for seconds. Like many seducers, the cake is not what it seems.

Takeaway tips

Making cheesecake is for the patient. It needs a long bake, a long cool and a long chill; making cheesecake with ricotta is for the very patient, because the ricotta must drain before you use it. If you’ve never drained ricotta before, you’ll be surprised at the amount of liquid it gives up — liquid that, if it weren’t removed, would spoil the texture of your cake.

In the ideal cheesecake world, you’d wrap the ricotta in cheesecloth, make a kind of hobo sack and let it hang overnight, its weight providing the pressure needed to push the liquid out. I don’t have a ricotta-hanging hook in my kitchen, so I do what you’ll probably do: Wrap the cheese, put it in a strainer, set the strainer over a bowl and then weight the cheese down with a heavy can of something. (Last week I used a jar of half-sour pickles.)

Don’t skip that step.

Because I’m a checks-and-balances kind of baker, I’ve added cornstarch to the batter. It’s there as an in-the-background sopper-upper, slurping up and absorbing any excess moisture from the ricotta and helping to ensure the cake has a gorgeous texture.

So here’s what you should know

You’ll need a 9- or 10-inch springform pan for this batter, which will firm up and almost always rise above the rim of the pan, then settle down.

Beat, beat and then beat some more. By the time you pour the batter into the pan, the cream cheese and ricotta should have gone from solid to something resembling liquid satin. This is a great job for a stand mixer, although you can make it with a handheld mixer. (I learned to make cheesecake with a spoon and elbow grease and have never made it that way again.)

The cake bakes slowly in a water bath called a bain-marie; it’s a roasting pan filled with hot water. This is the gentlest way of baking such a big cake made with such delicate ingredients. Once the cake is baked, it has to hang out in the turned-off oven for another hour. This is a must: Cheesecakes don’t like sudden shifts in temperature.

And then it has to hang some more. The cake needs to come to room temperature before it’s chilled. You could serve it at room temperature, but cheesecake is better chilled; overnight is best. That it can be frozen only makes us love it more.

I typically serve cheesecake plain. Call me silly, but I love the simplicity of its looks. But hey, it’s a holiday, so think about crowning it with berries. Or, if you’d like, serving it with a sauce: berry, chocolate or caramel.

This cake could work for Passover next month, too: Just use kosher-for-Passover potato starch instead of cornstarch in the batter and matzo meal instead of graham crackers or bread crumbs for lining the pan; this cheesecake doesn’t really have a crust. And any time of year, you can make it gluten-free by choosing a different crumb.

Photograph by Deb Lindsey. This story appeared in my Everyday Dorie column in The Washington Post.

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Light and Springy, Creamy and Great Cheesecake

16 servings

MAKE AHEAD: It’s important to drain the ricotta for 6 to 12 hours; you can’t get the wonderful light, slightly spongy texture otherwise. Overnight would be best. And it’s also best to give the finished cake a bunch of time to chill. In other words, this is a plan-ahead cake.

  • For the cheesecake
  • 2 pounds whole-milk ricotta
  • Unsalted butter, for greasing the pan
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons graham cracker crumbs or plain dried bread crumbs (see headnote)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 orange (may substitute 2 clementines or other small oranges)
  • 24 ounces (three 8-ounce packages) cream cheese, cut into chunks
  • 1/4 cup cornstarch, sifted (see headnote)
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
  • For the optional topping
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons honey
  • 12 ounces blueberries, raspberries or blackberries, or a combination

For the cheesecake: Line a strainer with a double thickness of dampened cheesecloth. (Use a big piece; you want a lot of overhang.) Place the lined strainer over a pot or bowl, spoon in the ricotta and draw up the sides of cheesecloth to cover it. Put a plate on top of the ricotta, then place a large can or bottle on top of the plate to put pressure on the cheese. Let it sit on the counter overnight (or refrigerate). When you’re ready to bake, remove the weights, unwrap the cheese and pat it dry.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Grease the springform pan with some butter and dust it with the crumbs. Wrap the exterior of the pan with a double layer of aluminum foil, bringing the foil as high up the sides of the pan as you can. Set out a roasting pan that’s large enough to hold the springform pan.

Combine the sugar and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a large bowl if you’re using a hand mixer) and finely grate the rind of the lemon and orange over it. (Save the fruit for another use.) Use your fingers to rub the zest into the sugar until the sugar is moist, fragrant and colored. If you’re using a stand mixer, attach the bowl and the paddle. Toss in the cream cheese and beat on medium speed, scraping the bowl occasionally (do this throughout the process), for 4 minutes. Add the drained ricotta and beat for 4 minutes more. All this beating gives the cheesecake its light texture. Stop the mixer to add the cornstarch, then beat on low speed to incorporate it. Add the eggs one a time, beating on medium speed for a minute after each one goes in, then add the vanilla extract and beat just to incorporate. Pour and scrape the batter into the springform pan, using a spatula to level the top.

Seat the springform pan in the roasting pan, then transfer to the middle oven rack. Pour hot water into the roasting pan until it comes halfway up the sides of the springform pan. Bake for 90 minutes (for a 10-inch pan; 15 minutes longer if using a 9-inch pan) without opening the oven door, then turn off the oven, prop the door open with a wooden spoon and allow the cake to rest in its water bath for 1 hour. The cake probably will have risen above the rim of the pan; it will settle down as it cools. The surface also may have cracked; that is not a problem.

Remove the roasting pan from the oven. Carefully lift the springform pan out of the roaster – there might be hot water in the foil, so pay attention! Remove and discard the foil, place the springform pan on a wire rack and let the cheesecake come to room temperature. The center of the cake may still be jiggly, and that’s fine. Once the cake has cooled completely, refrigerate it for at least 6 hours or, better yet, overnight.

Remove the sides of the springform pan. If the cake has stuck to the sides — it probably won’t, because this is a well-behaved cake — warm the pan with a hair dryer or a dish towel soaked in hot water and then wrung dry. Place the cake, still on the pan’s base, on a platter.

For the optional topping: Warm the honey very briefly in a microwave or over low heat, just to liquefy it — it shouldn’t be really hot — and then brush a very thin layer over the top of the cake. Arrange the berries decoratively atop the cake, or mix them together and pile them on top of the cake. Drizzle a small amount of honey over the berries to give them a shine.

To serve, use a long knife to cut the cake, dipping the knife in hot water and wiping it dry between cuts.