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When I was growing up, my mother never cooked cauliflower. What we knew of it, we didn’t like. When I’d encountered it at other people’s homes, it was boiled long enough to bring out the sulfur smell and was drenched with a sauce of Velveeta cheese. It took many years for me to realize cauliflower didn’t have to be like that.

It was when I started doing some Indian cooking, and discovered the many interesting ways that cuisine uses cauliflower, that I became curious about the vegetable. I now know that, when not overcooked, it has a wonderful ability to bond with all kinds of other flavors. I still don’t serve it often, because an average-sized whole cauliflower is a lot for a two-person household to get through. But I do choose it occasionally. Here are the simple ways I dealt with the head that I brought home this week.

 

Day 1: Warm cauliflower salad

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I took about a third of the florets off the head, steamed them for seven minutes, until they were just tender. I also chopped ½ cup of celery, ¼ cup of onion, and ⅛ cup of Tuscan pickled peppers.
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While the florets were still warm, I tossed them gently in a bowl with the chopped vegetables, extra-virgin olive oil, my own wine vinegar, salt, and pepper. I had to be careful with the vinegar because my Tuscan peppers were very strongly pickled.
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The mixture made a pleasant, light vegetable starter for a weekday dinner. In spring or summer, I also add a few thinly sliced radishes and some of their tiny leaves to this salad; but I never buy radishes in November.

 

Day 2: Cavolfiore fritto

In principle, I follow Marcella Hazan’s recipe for breaded and fried cauliflower, though it’s such an easy process that it hardly needs a recipe. This evening I took off half the remaining florets from my head of cauliflower, steamed them for only five minutes (since they’d be getting more cooking later), and let them cool. I dipped them first in an egg beaten with salt, then in dry breadcrumbs.
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Beloved Spouse then stepped up and fried them for me, in half an inch of very hot olive oil. It took only about a minute on each side for them to turn richly golden.
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While the steaming and breading can be done an hour or more in advance, once the florets are fried, they need to be eaten right away to be at their best.
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This time they were, as always, crisp, crunchy, and delicious – an excellent accompaniment to broiled lamb chops. Actually, they would work well with almost any un-sauced meat or fowl.

 

Day 3: Cauliflower soup

I dedicated the rest of my cauliflower to a favorite soup. The original recipe is from Alfred Portale’s Twelve Seasons Cookbook. There it’s called a vichyssoise, to be served cold. I make just the basic soup, leaving out several of the recipe’s garnishes, and I like to serve it hot.

To make a small enough soup for the amount of cauliflower florets I had left this week, I chopped ¼ cup of onions and thinly sliced ⅓ cup of leeks.
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I sauteed those two vegetables in a tablespoon of olive oil, then added the florets and a cup of chicken broth from a bouillon cube.
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This cooked, covered, for 20 minutes, until the florets were tender. Then I pureed everything in a blender. I tasted and added salt and pepper, and the soup was ready to reheat at dinner time.
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This simple soup is just amazingly good. In a blind tasting, you probably wouldn’t guess it was cauliflower; you’d distinguish only a generic vegetal sweetness. And it’s such a rich puree you’d think it must be at least half butter and cream. I’m sure the dressed-up version – with sauteed cauliflower slices, a dose of olive oil, and a sprinkling of chopped chives – would be excellent too, but I’ve never felt the need to try it.

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There’s nothing complex in these cauliflower dishes, especially compared to those in typical Indian recipes, but each is very tasty, and together they show the versatility of the vegetable I once disliked. We live and learn, eh?

With only four days in Naples on our Italian trip earlier this month, there was no way Beloved Spouse and I could eat as many of the region’s foods and culinary specialties as we’d have liked. So we focused on – and feasted on – the many excellent kinds of fresh fish and shellfish available there. The beautiful Bay of Naples may not be the pristine pool it once was, but the local seafood remains spectacular in variety and flavor. Here are the dishes we enjoyed.

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Crudo

The word crudo means raw. Appetizer plates of raw fish are very popular in Italy. This one consisted of tender, paper-thin slices of baby octopus and salmon, lightly dressed with olive oil, lemon, and salt, and served on a bed of wild arugula. The interplay of the succulent octopus, the silky salmon, and the mildly bitter arugula was superb.
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Impepata di cozze

Years ago we knew cozze impepata as Neapolitan street food. Sidewalk vendors tended huge drums of boiling salt water heavily flavored with black pepper. They’d suspend a big bunch of mussels over the drum in a perforated dipper, pour water over them until they opened, and dump them onto a paper plate to be eaten with the hands. In this day’s restaurant dish, the mussels were steamed in their own broth, with garlic and oil as well as pepper. Each way, the glory of the simple preparation depends on very fresh, sweet, wild-harvested shellfish. And lots of pepper.

 

Spaghetti alle vongole veraci

This version of spaghetti with clam sauce, from the harborside restaurant La Bersagliera, may be my absolute, all-time, life-long favorite dish of pasta. I order it every time I’m there. Those tiny two-tube clams, the vongole veraci, have more luscious flavor and more intense sweetness here than in any other place and any part of Italy that I’ve ever had them. There’s not much else to the dish – olive oil, parsley, garlic, salt, and a touch of hot pepper – but either the clams from this locality or the way this kitchen handles them produces something purely magical.

 

Scialatelli con frutta di mare

Here are those marvelous mussels and clams again, in another kind of presentation. Scialatelli are fresh egg pasta, cut into a shape like thickish spaghetti but with a softer texture and milder flavor.  The lightly cooked pomodorini – cherry tomatoes – added a bright touch of sweet vegetable acidity to the rich shellfish flavors.

 

Mezze paccheri con coccio

It’s a Naples tradition to serve large tubes of paccheri pasta in a sauce made with chunks of the fish locally called coccio. It’s a kind of gurnard: a big-headed, bottom-feeding fish with large side fins like wings, a relative of our Atlantic sea robins. In America, sea robins are usually considered trash fish, but that whole family can be quite delicious, as Neapolitans know.  Another piscine relative is France’s rascasse, considered indispensable to bouillabaisse.

 

Frittura di paranza

The heap of small fishes on this plate included anchovies, tiny mullets and whiting, and possibly a sardine or two. Each was thinly coated in a tasty batter and fried to a perfect crunchiness. Lemon juice and salt brought out the best in them. Absolutely fresh fish and a really good hand at the fryer are what make this dish: It’s not “fishy” at all.

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Grigliata di calamari e gamberi

The big grilled squid mantle you see here was very tender, meat-sweet, and quite rich, its flavor heightened by exposure to the flame. The two shrimp were also excellent; I’d have been glad of a few more of them. The little mixed salad alongside made a nice contrast of texture and flavors.

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Spigoletta al forno in sale

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A spigola is a European sea bass, which can be a very large fish. Our smaller spigoletta probably weighed about two pounds when whole. Baked to perfection in a salt crust, it was a splendid fish: moist, rich, sweet, tender. (I know: I keep using the same words to describe these dishes. That’s because they were all like that – utterly delicious examples of their kind.)
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Looking at these dishes all together, it’s obvious that there’s nothing exotic or complicated in their preparation or presentation. Given the right ingredients, they’d all be easy to turn out from an American home kitchen. But oh, those ingredients! It’s nearly impossible to get fish and shellfish so fresh, so fine, and so flavorful here. The opportunity to indulge in them would, all by itself, have made my trip to Naples worthwhile.

I’m not doing any cooking this week. When this post is published, Beloved Spouse and I will be in Naples, being cooked for – deliciously, we hope – by some of our favorite eating establishments in that city. Here are several we’re eager to revisit. When we’re home, I hope to have some mouth-watering food photos to share.

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Capasso is a fine little pizzeria at the San Gennaro city gate. Handy for a lunch after a visit to the archeological museum.

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Ciro a Santa Brigida is a classic, elegant Neapolitan restaurant in the city center, just off the Via Toledo.  No cucina creativa or moderno here.

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Small and tucked away in a quiet neighborhood, Masaniello hadn’t been found by the tourist trade last time we were there. We hope it has stayed that way.

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Bersagliera, right down on the harbor, serves marvelous fresh fish and shellfish.

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Umberto is a full restaurant making traditional Neapolitan dishes, including excellent pizzas. It’s large, bustling, casual, and cheerful.

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Any time we need just a little refreshment, Gambrinus is our go-to cafe and bar for espressos, pastries, ice cream, aperitivi, or digestivi.

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P.S.  There’ll be no post next week, because we’ll still be in Italy: in Rome, by then. I’ve already written posts about many of our favorite Roman restaurants, so no point in repeating myself again. If you’re interested, look here, here, here, and here.  If I discover anything new and wonderful, I’ll report it when we return.

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Lemon Chiffon Pie

My recipe this week comes with a big backstory. This pie came about because I’d finally persuaded Beloved Spouse that our apartment absolutely had to be painted, before flakes of the cracked 10-year-old paint job began falling off the walls. He hated the disruptions it would cause (we’d be living there the whole time), but he capitulated. Shortly before we descended into the abyss, I laid in a supply of calming medications.

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Each evening when the painters had gone, we’d creep out of whichever room they’d left for us to inhabit that day, pick our way through heaps of clumsy equipment and masses of shrouded furniture, and take our daily dose.
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Life went on like this for three. whole. weeks. But eventually the work came to an end, and we found ourselves – livers intact but psyches slightly dented – in a bright, cheerful apartment with smooth walls of a lovely lemon chiffon color. I decided to celebrate our survival by making a lemon chiffon pie.
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I’d never made a lemon chiffon pie, so I turned to the recipe in Bernard Clayton’s Complete Book of Pastry. It gave lots of advice on handling gelatin fillings and offered a choice of three kinds of pastry crust. The easiest one was said to be crumb crust – which I’d also never made before – so I bought a box of graham crackers and set to work. Having done so, I can’t say I agree about the easiness.

Turning those grahams into “1½ cups (6 ounces) fine crumbs” was a piece of work, especially because my weighed-out 6 ounces of crackers came nowhere near 1½ cups of crumbs. What to do – go with the weight or go with the volume? I chose volume and kept feeding crackers into the processor until I achieved it.
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I mixed the crumbs with ½ cup of sugar and ½ cup of melted butter, poured them into a pie dish, and shaped the crust. That wasn’t so easy either. Grumbling to myself that I’d have had a normal short pastry crust all done by now, I pushed and pressed those slithery crumbs around and around until they finally looked like a bottom pie crust.

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Into the refrigerator it went while I made the lemon custard. I softened an envelope of unflavored gelatin in ¼ cup of water. I grated a teaspoonful of lemon rind and squeezed two big lemons to obtain ½ cup of juice. I separated three eggs. I mixed the yolks in ½ cup of sugar in the top of a double boiler and cooked until it thickened a bit.
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Then I had to stir in the gelatin, lemon juice, and rind, and put the mixture into the refrigerator “until slightly thickened.” There I made my big mistake. With all Clayton’s warnings about working with gelatin, he neglected at this point to say Don’t let it firm up too much. Duh! I left it too long.

As a result, when I’d whipped the egg whites and tried to fold them in, they wouldn’t. The semi-solid gelatin wanted nothing to do with the whites. I had to practically cut the gelatin part into little pieces, smush them against the sides of the bowl with a spoon to soften them, and even go right in with my (very clean) fingers and squeeze the lumps to break them up.
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When I gave up, the filling still wasn’t fully smooth but it was the best I could do. I put it into the crumb crust and chilled it again. The recipe also called for a topping of sweetened whipped cream, but from finger-licking samples of crust and filling that I’d taken, I knew the pie was going to be plenty sweet enough for us, so I skipped that. (The filling looks white below, but that’s a peculiarity of the light at the time. It was pale yellow.)
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When sliced, the pie still looked awfully messy – crumbly crust and bumpy filling – but you know what? It tasted just fine! On the tongue, the texture defects were unnoticeable. The filling was very sweet, very lemony, and exactly the color of our newly painted walls.
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This was not what I’d call a pie to be proud of, but as a family dessert to commemorate the end of our painterly tribulations, it was a worthwhile experiment. And it was one more episode in my ongoing culinary education.

When you’ve got a good recipe, it can be tempting to try to turn it into another good recipe, just by varying the ingredients. Some of those times, you may wish you’d left well enough alone. Other times you may get a dish that keeps the best of the original and embellishes it with something new. I managed to do that recently.

For an upcoming dinner, I was thinking of a large piece of moist-cooked meat. La Tavola Italiana, my first cookbook, has a very pleasant recipe for braciolone – a rolled stuffed flank steak braised in a small brown sauce – that I hadn’t revisited in years. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of braciolone recipes, owing to the many possible variations on both meat and filling. My filling was a modest one: just small amounts of prosciutto, parsley, grated pecorino, raisins, and pignoli, with bread crumbs and raw egg to bind.

This time, I envisioned my dish as a pork roll braised in tomato sauce. I had a nice 1½ pound piece of butterflied pork shoulder to use for it, which isn’t large as braciolone cuts usually are, but I’d be feeding only three people that evening, and it would be enough. I pounded the meat as thin as it would go.
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Pulling things out of the refrigerator for the stuffing, I was suddenly gobsmacked. I had no raisins or pignoli! How was that possible? I always have raisins and pignoli.

But no, I’d used them up and neglected to replace them. Their sweetness and crunch are important to the dish, and it was too late to dash out to a store. What to do? Well, desperate times require desperate measures: I smeared the surface of the pork with a thin layer of Indian mango chutney.

In case there might be need to mitigate that “uncanonical” flavor, I added some minced mushrooms and onion, softened in olive oil – which I had been considering using anyway – to smaller quantities of the remaining stuffing ingredients. Then I got ready to roll.
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I have to say I’m terrible at rolling and tying meat. If I clumsily try to wind a single piece of string around the cylinder, it never stays closed, so I have to strangle it with individual ties. Nor can I ever manage to fold in the ends of the roll so the stuffing can’t leak out during the cooking. Here I had to sew the ends closed with a darning needle and heavy thread. My braciolone wound up looking like the victim of a bad auto crash.
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Well, it wasn’t pretty, but neither was it the worst-looking roll I’d ever achieved. I tenderly carried it to a casserole and browned it in olive oil. Predictably, some of the stuffing immediately started to escape.
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Once the meat was browned I removed it to a plate, deglazed the pan with white wine, added eight peeled and chopped plum tomatoes and let them soften a bit, then returned the meat.
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My braciole cooked covered, being turned and basted occasionally, until it was perfectly tender – about an hour and a quarter. Long before then it had been perfuming the kitchen with gorgeous aromas. The sauce was pleasantly nubbly from the escaping bits of stuffing that had merged with the tomatoes and meat juices. The meat was pretty messy to slice for serving . . .
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. . . but it was excellent. All the flavors harmonized beautifully. There was a just-detectable hint of the sweet chutney spices, which complemented the natural sweetness of the pork. Really, pork and tomatoes love each other: The pork enriched the sauce and intensified the flavor of the now-melted tomatoes, and the tomatoes drew out even more succulence from that tender, juicy cut of pork. That’s why I always make at least a little more of this dish than we need for dinner: It’s even better the next day.

The NY Times food section has got my dander up again. Headlines on an October 4th article promise a “method for keeping eggplant Parmesan crisp and delicious,” thus “solving the puzzle of eggplant Parmesan.” Now, there’s a solution looking for a problem! Crispness is a totally wrong characteristic for this dish.

Author Julia Moskin found a problem, though. She tells us that, up to now, she had never made an eggplant Parmesan that she didn’t regret. Many recipes, mostly American, that she’d tried made it come out tough, slimy, mushy, or sludgy. However, she concedes that good Italian versions of eggplant Parmesan exist – so why didn’t she make them rather than abandon an entire range of great traditional recipes for the sins of some bad ones?!

It’s because she wants her eggplant to be crisp, like a crusty breaded veal cutlet. So she set about to solve the puzzle of “in the real world, how to put crunchy eggplant, juicy tomato sauce and melted cheese together on one plate.”
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Well, in the real or any other world, I have no objection to a dish of breaded and fried eggplant with marinara sauce and mozzarella alongside. But for heaven’s sake, don’t call it eggplant Parmesan!

As for making the real thing, there are perfectly easy ways to prevent problems like mushiness or sludge. Don’t coat the eggplant slices with both a thick batter and breadcrumbs, don’t over-fry them, don’t drown them in sauce, and don’t bake the dish for too long a time. But also, don’t expect the eggplant to retain any crispness: That’s like asking for a crisp, crunchy ratatouille.

Having vented this, my latest culinary annoyance with the Times (others are here and here), I decided to soothe my spirits by making a genuine parmigiana di melanzane. I’ve already written here about one favorite version; this time I chose one that’s a little different, from my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen.

In many ways the two recipes sound as if they’d be very similar. Mostly the same components: eggplant, tomato sauce, onion, basil, grated parmigiano, mozzarella. Mostly the same procedures: making a simple sauce of plum tomatoes, salting or soaking thinly sliced eggplant, lightly frying it in olive oil, layering it in a baking dish with the other ingredients, and baking it.

But the two versions produce dishes with quite different effects, starting with the way the tomato sauce is made. My earlier one, more typically, softens a little onion in olive oil, stirs in pureed tomatoes and basil, and sautés until the sauce thickens. This one uses no oil – just softens halved tomatoes in a pot with onion and basil (no water), puts them through a food mill, and simmers until thick. Then the sauce is mixed with beaten raw egg.

Also, the two recipes use different proportions of the ingredients. For the same quantity of eggplant, this one (on the right) uses only half as much sauce (not counting the egg), and half as much of each cheese. That produces a dryer dish, as these two photos of the layering processes show.
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Baking time is different, too. The earlier version bakes at 350° for only 20 minutes, uncovered. The newer one goes into a 350° oven, covered, for 30 minutes, then is uncovered and baked 10 more minutes at 400°.
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Eggplant parmigiana always needs to cool somewhat before being eaten, to let the flavors blend. This one sat for a full half hour, and in fact it tasted even better as the portions cooled further on our plates. As you can see, on the right, below, it’s still much “eggplantier” than the earlier version, but the vegetable is beautifully permeated with all the other flavors.
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The portion on the right is also considerably dryer and more concentrated than the other one. The cheeses aren’t as prominent, serving more as an accent and slight binder here. The egg itself is unnoticeable, having merely done its job of smoothing and thickening everything else.

Both these versions of eggplant parmigiana are totally delicious. Neither one needs anything to make it great again; they’re great just as they are.

A Quirky Cheesecake

The culinary world must contain an infinite number of cheesecake recipes. The cheese component of any one version may consist of only cream cheese, only cottage cheese, only ricotta, or some combination of those, in widely differing proportions. Similarly variable are the indicated quantities of eggs, sugar, sour cream (if any), and flour vs. cornstarch.

While I’ve never had a cheesecake I didn’t like, I’m not a frequent baker of the things. For many years, if I felt like making a cheesecake, or Beloved Spouse asked for one, I’d go straight to the recipe on the back of the Argo cornstarch box. (Yes, Virginia, Argo once came in a modest cardboard box with a cheesecake recipe on the back. Now it’s in a bulky plastic bin, and the recipes on it are for generic gravy and play clay for kids. O tempora, o mores!)
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Fortunately, I copied out the Argo cheesecake recipe for myself long ago. It calls for a pound each of cottage cheese, cream cheese, and sour cream; plus sugar, cornstarch, eggs, melted butter, lemon juice, and vanilla. I generally make a half recipe’s worth and skip its graham cracker crust entirely.

My refrigerator never normally contains sour cream, cream cheese, and cottage cheese or ricotta at the same time, though at times it has at least some of one or two of them – usually left over from other uses. So I got into the habit of varying the half recipe’s proportions of those three according to what I had on hand, and buying the remaining item or two. For example, some of the variations I’ve made notes on are:

  • 1 pound ricotta, 1 cup sour cream, 2 ounces cream cheese
  • ½ pound ricotta, ½ cup sour cream, 5 ounces cream cheese

I’d adjust the other dry and wet ingredients to achieve a reasonable looking batter and proceed to bake the combination according to the recipe. Every one of my mongrel combinations turned into an actual cheesecake, with a decent texture and a pleasant flavor.

Thus encouraged, this latest baking day, I went way out on a limb. Clockwise from the sour cream in the picture below (the only thing I had to buy) are 6 ounces of cream cheese, 4½ ounces of sheep’s milk ricotta salata, and 2½ ounces of regular ricotta from buffalo milk.
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Now, ricotta salata is a fine addition to many good dishes, but it’s not used in desserts. This salted and pressed variety of ricotta is dense, crumbly, and lightly salty. I chose to use it in part from an urge to clear my refrigerator of small leftovers and in part out of curiosity, to see what I’d get by blending this firm, dry, sharpish cheese with my remnant of soft, sweet, creamy buffalo ricotta, which was just about swimming in its own whey.

I whomped the ricottas together in my heavy-duty mixer, then worked in the cream cheese, 2 beaten eggs, and ⅔ cup of sugar. When that was well mixed I added 2½ tablespoons of cornstarch, ½ teaspoon of vanilla, and 1½ teaspoons of lemon juice. That gave me just a quart of not-very-thick batter. I’d have liked to bake it in a deep dish, but the only suitable sizes I had were shallow pie dishes. One of those would have to do.
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The dish went into a 325° oven for one hour, then sat in the turned-off oven for two more hours. The cheesecake firmed and puffed up nicely.
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It was a really quirky tasting cheesecake – not unpleasant, but only slightly dessert-sweet. It seemed to be approaching a savory baked custard, like a crustless quiche. I must admit the texture was a bit grainy. I really should have pushed the ricotta salata through a fine sieve before beating it into the fresh ricotta. Not sieving is a shortcut I often take with my cheesecakes. Sometimes it doesn’t seem to matter; this time it did.
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The cheesecake was as usual quite rich. Its savoriness made it go well with a glass of white wine. There was enough of it to last us for several days, and its texture seemed to smooth out somewhat with time. Still, it’s not an experiment I’m likely to repeat.