When we are up at our house in Umbria, you’d think we’d be going out exploring and eating all the time. But actually, when it comes down to it, we are so happy just staying at home, that it takes quite a bit to make us venture forth.
But a few weeks ago I heard about a dinner not far from Todi that I knew I couldn’t pass up. I was on Facebook and saw that two of my friends would be attending “La Cipolla di Cannara fa il giro del mondo in una cena”. The Cannara Onion goes Around the World in a Dinner. First of all, I love onions from Cannara. They are super sweet, and recognized by Slowfood. They aren’t easy to find, even if you do live nearby (which we do). Ages ago we went to the town’s yearly sagra di cipolla, and I’d been thinking about them ever since.
Plus, I really wanted to meet my two virtual Facebook friends, Rebecca and Alex, who I had never met in real life.
I didn’t really know what to expect. Around the world? In the middle of Umbria? What was that supposed to mean?
Well, it turned out that the meal was the brainchild of American expat and chef extraordinaire Jennifer McIlvaine. She has a long and delicious history, and until recently had a restaurant in Foligno.
The dinner was set in the courtyard of an ex-monastery in the center of Cannara. The tables were candle lit and the centerpieces rosettes carved from fresh Cannara onions. And what were the worldly dishes we gobbled up? Some of the best fried onion rings I’ve ever had, onion chutney and guacamole. We then went to France with a pitch perfect onion soup. And for our main course, a Chinese, melt-off-the-bone pork rib and onion braise.
All scrumptious and suitably ‘worldly’, yet nothing too exotic that would have scared away the local Umbrians that were at the dinner too.
That is until dessert came: Onion Cheesecake. Yes, you heard me right. And if you’re thinking some strange Italian dessert you’ve never heard of, think again. New York Cheesecake ‘al profumo di Cipollla di Cannara.’
It looked like cheesecake. And it even tasted like a cheesecake. At first. Then the candied onions and just the faint whiff of very slowly cooked sweet onions hit as a undertone to the rich texture of cream cheese and sour cream. So sweet it was almost fruity, but not quite. Can I tell you, it was one of the best cheesecakes I’ve had? And if I didn’t know ahead of time that the onions were in there hiding, I would have been hard put to name that mysterious flavor that gave it an extra dimension.
Jennifer very kindly shared her recipe with me. I haven’t made it myself yet. But I will. Just as soon as I manage to pick up some Cannara onions.
New York Cheesecake “al profumo di Cipolla di Cannara”
1 lb cream cheese, softened
1 lb ricotta
1 ½ cups sugar
4 large eggs at room temperature
½ stick (1/4 cup) butter
½ cup minced sweet onion
3 Tbs flour
3 Tbs cornstarch
2 ½ tsp vanilla extract
2 cups sour cream
¼ cup butter
2 Tbs sugar
½ cup thinly sliced sweet onion
3 Tbs honey
fresh mint, julienned
In a small pot, melt butter, add onions and sweat (they should not take on any color) for 5 min. Add the milk and water and cook until the onions are completely soft. Strain out onions pressing through a fine mesh seive. Reserve liquid.
In a large bowl, cream together cream cheese, ricotta and sugar.
Beat in 4 eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition.
Add onion liquid, flour and cornstarch.
Add vanilla and beat the mixture until it is well combined.
Fold in 2 cups sour cream.
Pour batter into an ungreased 9” spring form pan. Bake in middle of preheated moderate oven – 325 degrees for 1 hour.
TURN OFF THE HEAT (DO NOT OPEN THE OVEN DOOR)
Let cake stand in oven for 2 hours. Remove cake and let cool completely, in a pan, on a wire rack.
Chill in refrigerator for at least 2 hours.
Remove sides of pan and serve.
For the topping:
In a small saucepan over low heat, melt the butter. Add the onions, toss to combine and continue cooking till the onions are soft. Add the sugar and cook until light brown.
Add the honey just until the onions are coated and bound together. You may need to use less or more than the 3 tablespoons called for, depending on the amount of liquid in the onions.
Remove mixture from heat and let cool.
Gently fold in the julienned mint until well incorporated
You can read more about Jennifer here. She organizes wonderful cooking classes, or can come to your villa to teach or cook for you.