Found In Translation

Monday, Feb 3rd, 2014

ricotta-cheesecake-9510832The only thing constant about Blackbird is that it is in constant flux. The restaurant, founded to house the cuisine of Paul Kahan 16 years ago, was eventually released from his tenure as chef de cuisine, and transformed into a guided creative platform for younger talent. The reigns were first handed to Mike Sheerin who was launched into notoriety before opening his own Trencherman and now Chiccetti, bringing with him the playful manipulation marked by his time at WD-50. Amongst Sheerins ranks grew a young and passionate David Posey, who was handed the torch and has transformed the menu at Blackbird into a blend of Nordic influences, techniques and whimsy from his time under Grant Achatz at both Trio and Alinea, and the grounded, flavor focused philosophies garnered from his time with Paul Kahan.

Blackbird has no signature dishes. It doesn’t repeat history, or circle back and cover it’s own tracks. It’s not the groundbreaking think tank that Noma’s food lab is, or the progressive restaurant that Alinea is. However, the beauty of this restaurant is in it’s ability to constantly evolve and redefine itself.

It’s a pleasure creating the endings for this menu. A challenge at times, but nothing short of the best job I could want for.

However, it’s not my whole job. I also have under my wing the dessert menu across the alley at Avec. And Avec is everything Blackbird is not. It’s menu is static. It has served dates wrapped in chorizo, and a truffle cheese filled foccacia every night since it’s doors opened. It’s menu is deeply tied to the traditions and flavors of the wine growing regions of the Mediterranean. While much of the menu does change, you can come in expecting to see many of the dishes you remember.

The desserts at Avec are rooted in tradition and quite simple. This should not be mistaken for the word “easy”. It’s easier to impress with 10 components than it is with 2. And tradition can be limiting and binding.

I often find myself staring at a traditional Italian dessert, pondering it’s relevance on a contemporary menu in Chicago. This most recently came up when testing Ricotta Cheesecake recipes to pair with winter blood oranges.

Traditional ricotta cheesecakes  showcase the best qualities of the fresh cheese they are made from; a subtle sweetness, a soft curd, a pleasant blandness. They are crumbly, and feel a little dry compared to their thick creamy American counterparts.

How does one tie a traditional dessert to a menu so distant from it’s original context? Often I find myself deep in thought asking myself why this dish was made the way it was, what it embodies, and how similar expressions are made in our culture. While regional dishes differ drastically across the globe, the sentiment behind cuisine on every continent is created with the same human intention and most often resonance can be found.

Why did a person in Italy 100 years ago make a cheesecake, and how does that mirror a person in America making a cheesecake today? This dessert can be traced back to roman times, utilizing products that were available in the days before spring form pans and philledelphia cream cheese factories. A crust of nuts held the ricotta cake in place, and a few eggs were used to bind the batter. A light hand in mixing was used, and the texture and flavor were left to highlight the beautifully bland quality of the fresh cheese. Sweetness came from a drizzle of honey after the cake was sliced and the addition of sweeter fruits like dates and figs. It was a lovely expression of regional available product, and a true luxury when eaten.

Today in America, land of abundance, this cheesecake would not feel luxurious, rather it appears light and simple, if not even a little clumsy. Cheesecake, however, is still seen as luxurious, and we often hear this dessert associated with words like “sinful” or “decadent”. Our cheesecakes rely on a highly stabilized cream cheese and are dense, silky, and quite sweet. They are baked over buttery crusts of crushed graham crackers, and often strongly flavored with things like coffee, chocolate, pumpkin, lemon, or rum. A far cry from the cheesecakes across the ocean.

This time around, I didn’t look to resurrect the tradition literally. I took my cues from Italian cheesecakes in flavor, and put my efforts in capturing the light subtle quality of fresh ricotta. However, I quickly divorced this updated ricotta cheesecake from the crumbly nature of the cheese. Because we love a thick dense creamy cheesecake these days, I pureed the ricotta until smooth, and added a touch of cream cheese to the mascarpone laced batter. The crust was made with both ground nuts and crushed cookies. The resulting cake is light and sweet like ricotta, flavored subtly with a hint of blood orange, but embodying the smooth silky texture we have come to expect of contemporary cheesecakes. A kaleidoscope of fresh and candied blood oranges sit in tandem over the cheesecake, offering additional sweet and sour counterparts to the rich dairy, and pine nuts coated in caramel sauce finish the dish.

Sometimes a tradition can be resurrected, and we can favor authenticity. Other times we use modern desserts and only include the flavors of the region. This time it’s a hybrid. Two traditions melded into one. A cake all it’s own, found in translation.

Ricotta Cheesecake

Caramel Pine Nuts

Candied Blood Oranges