Cheesecakes are a built-in guilt trip. Loaded with fat and all the other no-no's a modern diet decrees be eliminated, cheesecakes are nonetheless almost the irresistible dessert. Truthfully, it should be illegal for anything to taste as good as a well-designed cheesecake.
Don't try to fool yourself into thinking that just a thin slice won't be too fattening. It's a fact of life: A REAL cheesecake, one filled with all those wonderful rich ingredients that make up its smooth and creamy texture and flavor, is loaded with calories.
Take that Italian masterpiece, the Neopolitan pastiera, a cheesecake/tart usually served around Easter. It is a mixture of softened wheat berries, ricotta, fruits, eggs and flavorings. The ingredients are mostly healthful, with just a few that could add up to a bit of trouble for someone watching their cholesterol and fat intake. After all, ricotta cheese certainly isn't anywhere near as fattening as the cream cheese usually used in cheesecakes. And just think of all that highly desirable fiber provided by the wheat berries.
So a good pastiera should be the perfect answer for the person looking for a low-calorie cheesecake, right?
Wrong! It may be lower in calories and fat than many of the ultrarich cheesecakes that abound in top-drawer restaurants or are made from secret family recipes that have withstood the test of time, but it is still a totally decadent indulgence.
And that's just how one should view a cheesecake--as a rich indulgence. One that is either worth the guilt trip it causes, or isn't. The decision is yours. But if you're going to sample one of these creamy desserts, enjoy it. Put your conscience in your pocket, savor every bite and make up for your lapse of fortitude the next day.
With the holidays soon to be upon us, a cheesecake can be a good choice for a festive dessert. They have that one looked-for attribute that every frantic cook needs; they can, indeed must, be made ahead. And by and large, most cheesecakes go together quickly and easily.
One exception to this rule is a very special pastiera from La Mela, a small storefront-type restaurant on Mulberry Street in the Little Italy section of New York City. Nancy Zaslavsky, a Los Angeles-based graphics designer, talked about La Mela at a dinner party one night and urged me to pay it a visit the next time I was in New York. So I did, and quickly discovered that the moment you finally get a table in the place you can forget about ordering what you want. Mimmo or Pepi, both ebullient hosts, immediately take you in hand and bring you what they think you need. It sounds dicey, I know, but the meals I've had there and those served to equally startled diners at tables near us each time were wonderful examples of good, simple Neopolitan food.
The pastiera was memorable and Pepi gladly shared the recipe. Unfortunately one of the ingredients turned out to be a major problem. Pepi's recipe called for "grain wheat," which we finally discovered is really whole wheat berries. But ordinary wheat berries really don't produce a satisfactory end result. Finally, we got the answer to our problem from two excellent sources. Albert Vera of Sorrento, a well-known Italian deli on Sepulveda Boulevard in Culver City, told us he carries what we needed under the name "peeled wheat grain." Sorrento has the product most of the time.
Still another source, Carlo Middione, in his book "The Food of Southern Italy" (William Morrow, $25), explains that the whole-wheat berries used in this Italian dessert should be the berries of soft spring wheat. Otherwise the berries will harden a day or so after the pastiera is made. He suggests that you can get good results when soft spring wheat berries aren't available by substituting cracked wheat or even barley. We haven't tried his substitutions, but they should work.
If a more traditional cheesecake appeals to you, some of California's top chefs and good home cooks have shared their recipes with us also. Joachim Splichal, who with his wife, Christine, recently opened Patina on Melrose Avenue, gave us an elegant recipe for a cheesecake made with hazelnuts and brown sugar and topped with a crispy filo and almond crust. This is one of those desserts that's almost too pretty to cut into.
Jim Dodge, author of the award-winning cookbook "The American Baker" (Simon & Schuster: $24.95), gave us a recipe for a wonderful cheesecake made with ricotta and encased in a tender, flaky crust.
Still other professional chefs who have shared cheesecake recipes with us are Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger of City Restaurant. These two well-known young chefs and authors of the cookbook "City Cuisine" (William Morrow, $19.95) gave us a recipe right in line with the season as it combines pumpkin with cream cheese and flavors the mixture with pumpkin pie spice, cinnamon and ginger juice. The result is ideal for a Thanksgiving dessert.