cheesecake al limoncello (limoncello cheesecake!)

Italians love cheesecake, like Americans love tiramisu. The difference is that they don't adopt foreign dishes like we do. So whenever the dr bob cooking team is persuaded to do a cheesecake in Italy, it is a big success, but not one which inspires imitation by the locals.

Limoncello is a lemon ("limone") liqueur made in the Italian islands of Capri, Ischia, and Ponza scattered from Naples towards Rome and no doubt in many other places there as well, given that Italy is blessed with both an abundance of lemons and a well known priority for alcohol in its liquid consumable traditions. The team acquired a bottle in Capri years ago with baking in mind, but it never found its way out of the refrigerator where it is always ready to be served in its mandatory chilled state, should we ever remember that it can also be imbibed directly without prior insertion into some labor intensive dessert.

A trip to Naples with a follow-up visit to Ponza reminded us of its potential baking possibilities. Limoncello seemed to be enjoying a wave of popularity in Italy at the time, so when on very short notice a cheesecake was requested, it seemed like a logical choice for a new experiment in the killer dessert department, without having to fuss with actual fresh fruit, obvious choices for which were not readily available. With the amount of cream cheese that materialized in the original Naples improvisation, only a low profile cake was possible. Encouraged by the success of the simple no-frills version, a standard sized normal height three layer version was planned for a big 39-at-one-table-43rd-birthday-party-seafood-based-antipasto-and-pasta- blowout extravaganza on Ponza, with desserts contributed by some of the guests, among which was the dr bob team entry. Finding ourselves somewhat embarrassed by the wave of compliments for our creation, somehow miraculously divided up among most of the guests, we downed a second piece of the mascarpone cream cake (generously cut larger than the first!) to show our enthusiasm for the closest competitor. We survived.

Of course this recipe was inspired by the legendary Mother Wonderful hazelnut cheesecake, but since the local copy of the complete "What, ME Cook?" book was not kept in a prominent and immediately accessible location ("somewhere in the house, but I don't know where," loosely translated from the Italian), we had to go with an extrapolation from the three singles "No Excuses Left Cheesecake," "Simple Soft Touch Cheesecake," and "bob's Converted Lindy's Strawberry Cheesecake" all stashed together in one of the host's few cookbooks, having been obtained by letter in the early days before aggressive book distribution of the entire edition by dr bob vanity press. Naturally never used.

In the expanded version on Ponza, the vague memory of mixing plain yogurt and Fiorello (a mascarpone-creme-frais-like Italian product, see "Cheesecake Supplement for English Speaking Italians") to produce a sour cream substitute for the topping was confronted with the hard reality of availability with only fruit flavored yogurt, so mascarpone, the magic ingredient of tiramisu, took its place.

The cake was actually baked in plug-in-the-wall electric oven just big enough to fit the 22.5cm (9.5in) springform pan borrowed from Annamaria and equipped with a temperature setting, unlike most Italian ovens. We started out a bit high to get going and saved the cake just in time from getting too browned by turning it down to 180 C (about 350 F). Thinking that by using the electric coils both above and below for more uniform heat distribution turned out to be a miscalculation, since the pseudo-sour-cream layer ended up getting broiled, but in spite of its somewhat golden brown highlights, the taste was not affected, as testified to by the army of guests who wiped it out.

ingredients

versione bassa (Napoli) versione alta (Ponza) US version
crust
75g 125g burro fuso 1/4 c =2oz = 4 T = 1/2 stick melted butter
100g 150g Mulino Bianco Grancereale 1 c graham cracker crumbs
50g 50g Saiwa Lingue di Gatto oppure Parmalat Nussli 1/2 c vanilla wafers or hazelnut cookies
0 Cu 2 Cu zucchero 2 T sugar
batter
450g 800g Philadelphia (formaggio fresco) 4 8oz cream cheese
150g 300g zucchero (1.5 tazze) 1 1/2 c sugar
2 Cu 4 Cu farina 4 T flour
1/4 cu  1/4 cu sale fine 1/4 t salt
1/2 cu 1/2 cu buccia di limone 1/2 T lemon zest
3 4 uova 4 eggs
1 Cu 8 Cu limoncello 1/2 c limoncello
topping
150g Fiorello (latticino cremoso) 2 c sour cream
250g mascarpone
3 Cu zucchero (normale o a velo) 1/4 c sugar
1 cu limoncello 1 t limoncello
a piacere spolverata di zucchero a velo
units
Cu = cucchaio = T (tablespoon)
cu= cucchiaino = t (teaspoon)
c = cup (holds 1/4 liter)

instructions (italian)

La Crosta
Sbriciolare i biscotti, mischiarli col burro, e premerli nel fondo della teglia col lato toglibile (24cm circa), e 2.5 cm lungo il lato nella versione alta. [Si puo' mettere un po di buccia di limone anche nella crosta. Biscotti del tipo "digestivo integrale" vanno bene qui.]
L'Impasto
Sbattere il formaggio e lo zucchero insieme finche' l'impasto diventa soffice. Poi aggiungere le uova, una alla volta senza sbattere troppo, e poi gli altri ingredienti di questo gruppo. Versare l'impasto nella teglia e metterlo nel forno gia' a temperatura media (circa 180 C) per un ora circa finche' il centro della superficie della torta non diventa solida.
Il Topping
Versione bassa: Lasciarlo raggiungere la temperatura ambiente e metterlo nel frigo per almeno 2 ore se non di piu'. Cospargere la superficie con zucchero a velo quando si serve.
Versione alta: Togliere la torta dal forno per riposare 10 minuti. Mischiare bene gli ingredienti dal gruppo 3 e spalmarli sulla superficie della torta e rimetterla nel forno per 10 minuti circa. Lasciarla raggiungere la temperatura ambiente e metterla nel frigo per almeno mezza giornata.

instructions (usa)

crust
Crumb the cookies, mix with the graham cracker crumbs and melted butter, and press the mixture in the bottom and about an inch up the sides of a 9.5in springform pan.
batter
Beat together the cream cheese and sugar until smooth and fluffy. Add in the eggs one at a time without excessive beating to avoid removing the air, followed by mixing in the remaining group 2 ingredients. Pour into the pan and bake at 350 F for about an hour until the center of the surface is somewhat solid.
topping
Remove from the oven and let rest 10 minutes. Mix together the sour cream, sugar, and limoncello and spread evenly over the top. Bake another 10 minutes, remove and let cool to room temperature. Refrigerate at least half a day before serving.

notes

  1. NO FAT CREAM CHEESE
    With the millennium drawing near, America's obsession with fat has finally led market forces to provide us with no fat cream cheese and sour cream to neutralize our nutrition guilt factor when consuming totally unhealthy rich desserts like this. [Note, however, that the nonfat product PHILADELPHIA Free, which is packaged exactly like the killer cream cheese version, does not have the words "cream cheese" written anywhere on the package.] We decided to go with the fake stuff twice already on this particular cheesecake. Both times the batter looked rather grainy compared to the smooth consistency of the real thing, but after baking it seems to turn out fine, except possibly for the baking time. One hour just doesn't seem to set the center of the cake, making a clean geometrical wedge serving presentation improbable. Maybe increasing baking time by 15 minutes will do the trick. We also chose low fat sour cream. The nonfat version is also acceptable here. Of course full fat products won't kill you if this is an occasional treat. Go for it.
  2. GARNISHING
    When recipes say to reserve a few berries, nuts, whatever, for garnishing (translation: cute food presentation decoration for the eye and not the stomach), we ignore the advice. Perhaps we are partly guilty of a "garnishing is for wimps" mentality, kind of like the anti-nut attitude of our early baking days. [See apple bavarian torte, for example.] This time our sister-in-law foiled our no-frills unveiling of the cheesecake to our guests by commandeering the cake and placing 1 split strawberry with greens unhinged open at the greens in the center and 4 more pairs of separate split halves with greens at 8 equally spaced locations at the perimeter, with 4 blueberries filling each of the 8 gaps in between and 4 more at the tips and sides of the center split strawberry. Even we were impressed enough to take several photos [see the illustrations] of the spectacular result, perfectly blending the red, white, and blue of the US of A with the bianco, rosso e verde dell'Italia [white, red, and green of Italy]. But not enough to do it ourselves of course.
  3. PS
    This recipe would not have been possible without two wonderful friends, Laura of Napoli and Emanuela of Rome, two women who have touched bob's life in very different ways with lasting impact.

2010 update: limoncello cheesecake

After coasting many years on a reputation built on distant memories of rarely produced cheesecakes for Italian friends, a few Italian friends demanded action in the summer of 2010, which saw two successive cheesecake events in Sabaudia on the coast south of Rome. Our 1996 limoncello cheesecake had been on the web for 12 years already, and by 2010 this obvious limoncello application found many implementers worldwide, even a few who discovered our pioneering recipe [the self-proclaimed cheesecake goddess for example], and some inadvertently ripping us off without any credit [anthony bourdain food essay contest applicant, bob comment, she graciously replied], but sharing is why we do this so we were flattered by this act of appreciation for our creation.

Our double header Italian cheesecake experience led us to conclude the optimal configuration for this recipe is instead a half recipe in a full 9 or 10 inch pan (23 to 26 cm diameter) to lower the cheesecake layer to a reasonable height in comparison with the crust and topping layers. The full recipe even with narrow slices is still pretty heavy on the stomach, so this change also lightens up the dish and makes it easier to slice and serve. And by this time recipe ready hazelnuts were also easy to find in Italy so there was no need for the hazelnut cookie substitution in the crust, and since we have traditionally been using toasted hazelnut crumbs for garnish on the topping for a decade in the US, we have updated the recipe slightly to conform to this new reality. And that old advice about slowly incorporating the eggs one at a time seems a bit irrelevant here with the half cup of limoncello that liquifies the batter anyway. We dropped it.

Furthermore pressing crumbs up the side of the pan is hard to deal with, so we only do flat bottoms now with any cheesecakes. Somewhere along the way we also realized that tracing the bottom of the cheesecake pan on parchment or waxed paper and cutting out the circle and putting it curled side down on the bottom of the locked springform pan, with the bottom upside down so the rim points down, makes it easy to cut in place without damaging the pan or easy to slide off onto a flat plate for more elegant presentation, or to leave at an away from home destination without the pan. We always do this now. Dental floss can then be used to precut small slices, sawing down first in half, then quarters, then eighths, and then the remaining wedges in thirds in the higher full recipe mode to guarantee small serving slices (24). The lower half recipe slices can be wider. The crust should also only be about 3/16 in (0.5 cm) thick to cut easily so some adjustment of the crust quantities might be required depending on the actual configuration used (9, 9.5, 10, 10.5 in; 23, 26cm). Finally leaving the cake in uncut self-serve mode is dangerous since people tend to mutilate the cake and take overly generous slices.

Although we suggest the half recipe in a full sized pan, some of you may want to do the full recipe anyway, which only differs in the middle cheesecake layer. On the other hand a full recipe can also be poured into two full sized pans, with appropriate extrapolation of the crust and topping layers by the ratio of the surface areas (ratio of the squares of the diameters). Standard packaging of ingredients is another consideration for these choices.  In Italy Fiorello comes in 100g packages while mascarpone comes in 250 g packages (or 500g). We used a 5/4 batter scale up (5 x 200g Philadelphia, 5 eggs, etc) plus 3 Fiorello packages and 1 250g mascarpone package to make topping for 9.5 and 10.5 (23 cm and 26 cm) pans, which maybe was a bit shy of what covers easily, but we made it work. For 1 full recipe in a full pan we had tried 2 Fiorello package and 1 250g mascarpone package, but that was a bit much, so 125g of the latter would be a better solution with the 2 Fiorello packages, but then you have leftover mascarpone. Resist throwing it all in if you want a lighter total product. Italy also seems to have a new version of Philadelphia cream cheese called Philadelphia Yo (how ironic, Philly speak by accident) marked "best for desserts" made from lowfat yogurt (it comes in 200g packages). We used that and it was fine.

ingredients

versione a meta versione intera US half version US  full version
crust    
125g 125g burro fuso 4 T 1/4 c =2oz = 4 T = 1/2 stick melted butter
125g 125g Mulino Bianco Grancereale 3/4-1 c 3/4-1 c graham cracker crumbs
75g 75g sbriccioli di nocciole 1/2 c 1/2 c hazelnut crumbs
2 Cu 2 Cu zucchero 2 T 2 T sugar
batter    
400g 800g Philadelphia (formaggio fresco) 2 8oz 4 8oz cream cheese
150g 300g zucchero (1.5 tazze) 3/4 c 1 1/2 c sugar
2 Cu 4 Cu farina 2 T 4 T flour
1/8 cu 1/4 cu sale fine 1/8 t 1/4 t salt
1/4 cu 1/2 cu buccia di limone (facoltativa) 1/2 T 1 T lemon zest (optional)
2 4 uova 2 4 eggs
4 Cu 8 Cu limoncello 1/4 c 1/2 c limoncello
topping    
200g 200g Fiorello (latticino cremoso) 2 c sour cream 2 c sour cream
125g 125g mascarpone  
3 Cu 3 Cu zucchero (normale o a velo) 1/4 c sugar 1/4 c sugar
1 cu 1 cu limoncello 1 t limoncello 1 t limoncello
for all versions: spolverata di bricciole di nocciole = sprinkling of toasted hazelnut crumbs
units
Cu = cucchaio = T (tablespoon)
cu= cucchiaino = t (teaspoon)
c = cup (holds 1/4 liter)

instructions (usa)

crust
Crumb the cookies and toasted peeled hazelnuts, mix with the graham cracker crumbs and melted butter, and press the mixture in the bottom of a 9.5in springform pan, lined with parchment or waxed paper, with the bottom upside down so the rim is pointing down. [If you buy unroasted hazelnuts, bake them for about 10--15 minutes until golden brown to bring out their flavor prior to food processing into crumbs. Even if preroasted, maybe it was insufficient.]
batter
Beat together the cream cheese and sugar until smooth and fluffy. Add in the eggs one at a time, followed by mixing in the remaining batter ingredients. Pour into the pan and bake at 350 F (175 C) for about an hour until the center of the surface is somewhat solid, but to achieve the desired golden brown rim around the edge, it may take 10 or 20 extra minutes (watch carefully). Test by sticking a tooth pick into the center, it should come out clean if the cake is down. Watch to avoid brown spots towards the end. Every oven is a bit different. The ideal finish is a uniform golden brown surface.
topping
Remove from the oven and let rest 10-15 minutes. Mix together the sour cream, sugar, and limoncello and spread evenly over the top, leaving perhaps a half inch of the golden outer rim of the cheesecake visible for a more elegant product (see illustrations), even if you have to use less sour cream topping so it won't spill all the way to the edge. Sprinkle sparely with toasted hazelnut crumbs. Bake another 10-15 minutes, remove and let cool to room temperature. Refrigerate at least half a day before serving.

notes

  1. Annual Sabaudia Cheesecake Party. One of our good friends Daniela decided to use bob's former cheesecake addiction as an excuse for a summer party of a large extended circle of relatives and friends available in late summer in the Italian beach town of Sabaudia.
    In our final 2010 cheesecake party prep, we were left alone in the kitchen with no lemons as we realized too late, and no usable ripe lemons on the tree behind the house. So no lemon zest was used, but limoncello is a strong lemon flavor, so there is not really any need for the zest in this recipe. In fact we never use it any more to make sure the filling is perfectly smooth. We repeated our experience in 2011 as a dr bob cooking school workshop with 3 young helpers, splitting the batter into two parts proportional to the pan size to make one limoncello and one hazelnut cheesecake, and then in 2012 with 6 youngsters who did most of the work, adding a dark chocolate hazelnut spread from Venchi as a surprise layer sitting on the crust below the batter as a surprise ingredient in the slightly larger hazelnut cheesecake. This variation was a big hit, which bob floss cut into 32 small wedge pieces, so much so that the limoncello cheesecake went very slowly afterwards. In 2013 we exported just enough guavaberry liqueur to do our guavaberry lingonberry cheesecake, and in 2014 we tried an experiment with the pistacchio variation of the hazelnut cheesecake.
  2. Even if one uses whole hazelnuts that have already been toasted, once they are crumbed the crumbs for the topping must themselves be toasted to give them flavor. The easiest approach is just to toast them carefully in a pan on a stove. Be careful not to darken them too much. Whole Foods definitely has hazelnuts, which are the number one nut in Italy like walnuts are here in the states.
  3. In Italy, look in the supermercato for 200g packages of Vincenzo Caputo Nocciola di Giffoni IGP: sgusciata, tostata, pelata. 100g packages of  Il Fiorello Locatelli (crema di latte) seem to be in most supermercati but seem to have no corporate home on the internet.
  4. Limoncello is a terrific product from the Sorrento and Amalfi coasts and nearby islands, which are a great place to visit as well.
  5. Here are illustrations of the various versions of limoncello cheesecake including cutaway and slice views.
limonclo.htm: 6-oct-2014 [what, ME cook? 1984 dr bob enterprises]