After converting to Judaism many years ago, I sought to feel more connected by building a recipe repertoire that combined my new Jewish heritage with my inherited Italian one. Learning more about cheesecakes was one of many great pleasures in this journey.
First, cheesecake is savored during Shavuot, the upcoming holiday festival I find especially meaningful because it features a reading about Judaism’s first convert, Ruth. Furthermore, to me cheesecake represents the Jewish experience of starting over (also fitting for this holiday commemorating the Israelites’ acceptance of the Torah at Mount Sinai).
The dense creamy versions we know and love today evolved in the New York delis of Jewish immigrants rebuilding their lives. Their cheesecakes first took inspiration from the likes of German kasekuchen (cheesecake) and Italian ricotta cheesecakes, but came into their own decadent iterations by the 1930s when Jewish bakers began using a relatively new product, cream cheese. Cheesecake soon spread far and wide to restaurants and home kitchens.
Cheesecake also means family connections. I first fell in love with cheesecake growing up, when my mom made a pumpkin swirl version with a gingersnap crust, so it will always be a special family dessert. But after I converted and got married, cheesecake became a connection to my new Jewish family as well. My husband’s cousin Nita (who was born Jewish but learned Italian cooking from her husband’s family—she’s my Jewish-Italian “mirror image”) was a master cheesecake baker thanks to her Italian in-laws. Her embrace of the two cultures inspired me—as did her skills with cream cheese and springform pans!
So when Shavuot comes along and cheesecake madness sets it, I have go-to recipes to accompany my savory Shavuot recipes. But it’s been awhile since I’ve ventured beyond my usual cheesecake favorites, so seeing Nutella cheesecake on a restaurant menu recently piqued my interest as a possible playful addition to my Jewish-Italian repertoire.
Nutella, a chocolate hazelnut paste created by an Italian confectioner in 1964, is not gourmet or classic Italian cuisine by any means (think of it as an Italian equivalent to peanut butter), but it is fun and delicious nonetheless.
For my new cake, I revisited one of Nita’s recipes for a light and airy no-bake cheesecake, which seemed like a good match for the quite-dense Nutella. Plus, I liked the idea of a quicker, simpler recipe (as much as I adore the baked, water-bath version, it’s a production that I don’t always have time for).
Her recipe called for whipped cream, and I added some Italian mascarpone as well for structure, sweetness and subtle depth of flavor. The Nutella folds in nicely, and the resulting filling is so smooth and creamy that I renamed this “mousse cheesecake.” A crushed chocolate cookie crust proves just the right foil for the chocolaty nutty cream.
Though the cake really needs no further adornment, I enjoy garnishing each slice with half a Ferrero Rocher chocolate hazelnut candy, which accents the main flavor and gives a little light crunch as well. It’s an Italian kiss on top of a deliciously decadent cake—a recipe that unites heritages, honors holidays and nods to the connections we build among cultures, cuisines and families.