I don't think the orange has ever featured in my cooking as much as it has over the past month or so. I suppose it's only natural that, in the first month of the year, one's tastebuds crave something sharp and sweet in order to liven up that cold, grey climate, and to help shake off the after-effects of stodgy winter fare. How convenient, then, that blood oranges appear in the markets around this time. I like to pair them with ordinary oranges so that their beautiful red-tinged flesh stands out. They're wonderful in an orange salad with dates, cinnamon and orange blossom water. They're also excellent with grilled mackerel, as I've discussed here recently. I also decided that they'd be a perfect match for a fluffy, creamy baked cheesecake flavoured with nuts and candied fruit.
I call this a Sicilian cheesecake because it is reminiscent of Sicilian cassata, a beautiful dessert featuring layers of sponge and ricotta studded with nuts (usually almonds and pine nuts, but sometimes pistachios) and candied fruit. The cheesecake base is simply ricotta, sugar and eggs, mixed with chopped almonds, candied peel, raisins, and the zest of an orange and a lemon. It would be delicious just on its own, but I love cheesecakes with a layer of fruit on top.
I remember my first cheesecake experience involving one of those cheap, mass-produced, frozen specimens. You know the ones I mean: biscuit base on the bottom that's gone soggy after being in the freezer, bland and overly sweet white filling with no real texture to it, and then a tough layer of red jelly on the top that's supposed to be reminiscent of some type of summer berry. Not nice, but I do quite like the idea of suspending fruit in a layer of jelly on top of the cake. A very thin layer, because I loathe the concept of jelly (do you slurp it like soup? Chew it? Swallow it whole like an oyster?!), but enough to hold everything together and stop the fruit dribbling down the slices of cake when you cut it.
For the topping, I sliced three oranges (two blood, one normal) and layered them over the cake. I then juiced another three oranges into a small pan, heated it gently, and added some brown sugar and gelatine before pouring the lot over the cake while it was still in its tin. After a few hours in the fridge, the liquid had set into a beautiful jelly encasing the jewel-like orange pieces. The brown sugar turned it a lovely deep golden colour.
The end result is delicious. You won't really miss the biscuit base, because there's enough crunch from the almonds and the candied peel. The texture is almost crumbly - you can get a softer, more pillowy texture from using fewer eggs - up to you. It would go well with most fruits, I imagine - particularly rhubarb, which would work with the orange notes - or apricots (ditto).
Blood orange cheesecake (serves 8):
Firstly, soak 2tbsp sultanas in 2tbsp sherry (or orange juice if you don't have any) and 1tbsp hot water, for an hour or so.
Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Mix 500g ricotta with 100g icing sugar (sifted) and 4 large eggs (use 3 large eggs or 4 medium eggs for a slightly creamier cake). Add the drained sultanas, 40g candied peel, 80g chopped almonds (or a mix of almonds and pine nuts) and the zests of an orange and a lemon.
Put into a greased and lined springform 20cm cake tin and bake for 45-50 minutes - it's ready when it feels firm to the touch and has puffed up and become golden. Leave in the tin to cool.
When cool, slice a couple of oranges and layer over the top to cover the cake, while it is still in the tin. Juice 3 oranges into a pan and heat gently until almost boiling. Add 2tsp powdered gelatine and 2tsp brown sugar and stir to dissolve. When dissolved, pour over the cake and leave in the fridge to set.