This is my interpretation of the dessert made popular by Americans in recent years. But fresh cheese desserts abound since ancient times all around the Mediterranean. Ricotta-like cheese, mixed with honey, dried fruit, and nuts was used for some of the first sweets our ancestors enjoyed on special occasions. Apicious the Roman cook and author, describes such a sweet in his book written the 1st century AD.
Both in Greece, in southern Italy, and in Sicily, ricotta-based sweets are very popular, especially around Easter time. Unfortunately, the current American version that uses packaged ‘cream cheese’ and has been adopted by bakers all around the world, is far from the delicious, if less refined-looking traditional cheesecakes from which I was inspired to make this one.
Serves 12-15 (two logs)
Sunflower oil, for the pans
300 grams soft, creamy feta cheese (not aged), crumbled
1 2/3 – 2 cups sugar
600 grams Myzithra, Anthotyro or Ricotta cheese –preferably sheep’s milk
3 tablespoons corn starch
3 tablespoons cream, or full-fat milk
Zest of 2 untreated lemons (or 1 lemon and 1 orange or tangerine)
1/2 package (250 grams) kataifi (shredded phyllo pastry)
4 tablespoons melted butter or sunflower oil
1/2 cup almonds flakes
2 cups kumquat, blood, or bitter orange preserves, or any good marmalade
Oil two cake pans and preheat the oven to 320º F (160º C).
In the bowl of a food processor beat together the feta, sugar (more or less, according to your taste) and the myzithra or ricotta. Dilute the cornstarch in the cream or milk and add to cheeses. Add eggs, one at a time, and process to get a smooth, creamy mixture. Pour into oiled pans and place in a larger deep baking dish. Transfer to the lower part of the oven, and pour in enough hot water to get half-way up the sides of the cake pans.
Bake for about 1 hour, or until the cheesecakes set and their tops are puffed and deep golden. Remove from oven and cool on a rack. Do not turn the oven off. As it cools the cheesecake will shrink and the cracks will disappear. When cold, cover pans with foil and refrigerate overnight and up to 5 days.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper tracing the size of the plate where you plan to serve the cheesecake. In a bowl sprinkle the kataifi with butter or sunflower oil and work with our fingers to oil all threads. Transfer to parchment paper and shape, following the trace you made. Sprinkle with the almonds, and bake for about 10 minutes in the middle rack, until light golden. Let cool and transfer to the serving platter.
Up to this stage you can prepare the crust 1-5 days in advance, cover with foil or plastic, and let stand at room temperature.
To serve the cheesecake run the blade of a knife around the sides of the pans and invert over the kataifi. Top with preserves or marmalade. As you cut servings, make sure you include pieces of the crunchy kataifi crust.