fresh ricotta cheesecake and a love story
One week ago today, we took our cat, Fritz, to the vet for his very last appointment. He didn’t come home.
Sometime this week, we’re supposed to pick up his ashes.
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Thanksgiving weekend, 1994: I was home from school for the Thanksgiving holiday. I was living in Georgia at the time, a few months into a Master’s program in psychology. I was living alone and feeling dissatisfied with the choice I had made to attend graduate school. I just wasn’t happy with where I was in life, and I was grateful to be at home with my family. My brother had not yet been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and we were getting along with each other. My parents had a beautiful cat – a Maine Coon named Tipper – who had recently had kittens. I left my family on that Sunday afternoon to head back to Statesboro with two new kittens – Fritz and Mitzi – and a lighter heart.
Fall 1997: I was living in Miami, a newlywed for about 6 weeks, but I was alone. My new husband was finishing up dental school at the University of Florida, and I had just started attending medical school five hours south of him. Our separation was a necessary thing, and we were comforted by the fact that it was only for a year, and also by the fact that I had Fritz and Mitzi to keep me company in that tiny apartment overlooking the Miami River, in a not-so-great part of town. I studied for gross anatomy on my living room floor, with Mitzi in my lap, and with Fritz sprawled out on my copy of Netter’s Atlas of Human Anatomy.
July 2001: Sam and I were living in our final destination, back in north Florida. I was a newly minted MD, an intern, struggling to survive during my first hospital month, learning the ropes of an academic hospital. I worked over 100 hours a week during my first few weeks, and I came home exhausted and near tears. After hugging my husband after getting home each night, I cuddled on the sofa with Fritz, trying to stay awake and have some semblance of a normal life. Two months later, on September 11th, I came home from work and hugged Fritz tightly, promising myself I would not bring children into a world that lets people use airplanes as weapons.
December 2003: Madeline is born three weeks early, jaundiced and difficult to nurse. Fritz stopped sleeping in our bedroom and began sleeping under our daughter’s bed each night.
October 2006: Oliver is born, entirely too late for my preference. He’s perfect in every way. Fritz starts sleeping under his crib, and when Oliver cries, he meows insistently.
October 2009: After Fritz begins having trouble eating and loses 10 pounds, we finally take him for a second opinion at the university’s veterinary school. We learn he has an aggressive form of lymphoma. I find this ironic because one of my specialties is lymphoma, and my grandmother has just gone through treatment for lymphoma. I also find it incredibly unfair. Fritz starts treatment, and he starts eating again, starts purring more, begins playing again. We keep going. But we start preparing. We read Cat Heaven to the children at bedtime, and I think my husband and I take more comfort in the message – that cats go to heaven when they die – than do our kids.
May 7, 2011: I’m in the middle of working a two-week stretch in the hospital. I’ve come home unexpectedly early on a Saturday and I have some free time. So, I make Jennifer Perillo’s ricotta for the first time. I notice that Fritz isn’t acting right. He begins pacing the house. He’s had an accident outside the litter box. That night we celebrate an early Mother’s Day dinner out with both sets of grandparents. When we get home, Fritz is still pacing. I decide to make cheesecake with the fresh ricotta. He walks through the kitchen and around my feet. He does this the entire time I’m baking. He won’t eat. He won’t purr. He doesn’t seem to recognize me. We make our decision.
May 8, 2011: Mother’s Day. Fritz resumes his pacing, his staring, his not eating. We know we’re making the right decision, but it hurts. I take my children to work with me and Sam takes Fritz to the vet. After an hour, Sam meets me at the hospital and gets the kids. Without Fritz.
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This cheesecake (adapted from and inspired by this recipe from Redbook Magazine) is now my favorite cheesecake. I’m not a fan of the super-sweet ones that make one feel about 10 pounds heavier just after eating one slice. This has great texture – light and creamy – with the right amount of sweetness. I like mine unadorned, with perhaps a few strawberries or blueberries on top.
Yield: 12 servings
I used fresh homemade ricotta, but feel free to substitute store-bought ricotta.
Ingredients For Crust
1 cup gingersnap cookie crumbs (approximately 20 cookies)
1 tablespoon brown sugar (packed)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
Ingredients For Filling
1 1/2 cups fresh whole milk ricotta, room temperature
3/4 cup granulated sugar
Zest of one lemon
2 8-ounce packages cream cheese, room temperature
3 large eggs, room temperature
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a 9-inch springform pan (or grease with nonstick cooking spray) and set aside.
In a small bowl, mix gingersnap crumbs, brown sugar, cinnamon, and salt. Press into bottom of prepared springform pan. Bake 10 minutes then allow to cool on a rack.
In a food processor, process ricotta cheese, granulated sugar, and lemon zest until smooth. Add cream cheese and process just until smooth.
In a large bowl, whisk eggs. Whisk in 1/4 of the cheese mixture, then fold in the remaining cheese mixture. Pour over the crust and bake 45 to 50 minutes, or until the edges rise, and the center is just set, but still jiggly. Place on wire rack to cool completely. Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight.