Slimmed-Down Italian Cheesecake

When it comes to cheesecake, Italians do it better.  Grab some ricotta and treat yourself to this lightened-up version that's big on flavor, thanks to the magic of the Microplane.  

Ricotta - let me count the ways I love thee.  A tub of the mild-flavored soft cheese was a mainstay on my grandma's Sunday dinner table.  There's something so satisfying about cold ricotta mixed into a plate of hot, red-sauced pasta.  Yum.  The sweetened, baked lemon version is one of my favorite Little Italy treats.  And of course, ricotta is one of the main ingredients in Sicilian cheesecake.  

Tasty as it is, ricotta doesn't get enough nutritional credit.  Yes, it contains saturated fat, but as compared to another cheesecake ingredient - cream cheese - it has a lot more goodness to offer!  A 1/4 cup serving of part-skim ricotta provides up to 25% of the recommended daily value of calcium and up to 8g of protein.  Moreover, the protein in ricotta is mostly whey - the type of protein rich in BCAAs that's known to promote muscle protein synthesis.

But what is whey anyway?  It's the water-soluble protein found in milk - and the liquify stuff found at the top of your yogurt.  So, if ricotta is a truly homogenized product, where's the liquid? I spoke with John Brody, technology principal of R&D for natural cheese at Sargento, to get a better understanding.  "The whey is heated to 180 degrees to denature the protein, and treated with acetic acid (vinegar) to coagulate the whey," Brody explained.  He also noted that not all ricotta is made in the whey tradition.  "When Italians immigrated to the east coast, they didn't bring mozzarella whey with them, and turned to making ricotta from whole milk," says Brody.  The result?  Many brands follow this process.  The takeaway?  Look for ricotta that lists whey as the first ingredient.  I know we all love Greek yogurt, but, it's mostly casein - the other milk protein.  Don't retire it just yet, but you might consider working a serving of ricotta into your post-workout meal.  

ZEST sets this recipe apart from other baked ricotta and cheesecake recipes.  I add zest to many of my meals with just that: great enthusiasm.  The flavor payoff for a few flicks of the wrist on a Microplane is enormous in any recipe, but especially crucial in those that are reduced fat and sugar.  Another star player?  Almond extract.  The nutty flavor harmonizes with the citrus - so don't skip it.  

The airy, almost sponge-like texture of this cheesecake won't weigh you down.  And since it's best served cold, you can make it tonight and enjoy it as part of tomorrow's breakfast.  Yes, you read that right - eat some cheesecake for breakfast.  With only 1.5 teaspoons added sugar per serving, why not?  

I baked these in Le Creuset mini cocottes, but any 8 oz. soufflΓ© cup or ramekin will do.  

Enjoy your food, enjoy your life!

Slimmed-Down Italian Cheesecake

Author: Nicole Rodriguez, RDN, NASM-CPT

Serves: 4

Ingredients:

1 C. part-skim ricotta cheese 

1/2 C. plain, non-fat Greek yogurt

1 medium ripe banana, mashed

2 eggs, separated

2 T. confectioner's sugar

zest of 1 lemon

zest of 1 small orange

1/2 tsp. almond extract

Preparation:

Preheat oven* to 375 degrees F.  Spray ramekins with cooking spray or lightly oil.

Combine ricotta, Greek yogurt, banana, egg yolks, zests and almond extract in a bowl.  Mix well and set aside.  

Combine egg whites and confectioner's sugar in separate bowl.  Beat until soft peaks form - about two minutes.

Gently fold egg white mixture into ricotta mixture.

Divide mixture between four ramekins and place in oven.  Bake for 20-25 minutes, rotating ramekins halfway for even browning.  

Allow cheesecakes to cool completely on wire rack before covering them individually with plastic wrap and transferring to the refrigerator for an overnight stay.  The cheesecakes will decrease in volume as they cool - don't be alarmed!

Grab a fork, and enjoy!  

*I do most of my baking in a countertop oven and use the convection setting.  Check it out and other Stuff I Love!