At the very beginning of strawberry season, I try to steer clear of that fruit, especially in overpriced restaurant desserts. Let’s just say I’ve had too many bad experiences spanning from too-tart and unripe to utterly juiceless and flavorless. I’d much rather wait a week or two until the farmers market berries are deep red, plump, and gushing with sweetness. Then it’s time.
This year, while visiting Boston in the pre-humid days of early June, I took a risk ordering a “first of the season” strawberry-topped ricotta tart at Mistral Bistro. And for once, it paid off.
From the decadent filling of creamy ricotta, infused with what I originally thought was thyme but have now come to believe was lavender, to the juicy strawberry topping drizzled in local honey, the dessert was one to remember. And to recreate.
About the time that I received Maria Speck‘s Ancient Grains for Modern Meals, after winning the cookbook randomly on Leather District Gourmet (thanks Jacqueline!) and squealing excitedly about it at work, I also recalled that I had yet to recreate the incredible dessert. Inspired by Maria’s cheesy polenta crust, which she used for a savory tart, I thought a slightly sweetened version would pair well with the creamy and tangy ricotta-goat cheese filling for my “cheesecake.”
For purists out there, no, Mistral did not use goat cheese (or a corn-based crust, as far as I was aware), but I had been dreaming of a tart that would; and given how much I love a strawberry and goat cheese salad, it just made sense. But oh the honey …
While the strawberries were surprisingly sweet and juicy for so early in the season, the drizzle of honey over the top really was the kicker for me. And as amazing as the honey tasted over the Mistral’s ricotta filling, it amplified my goat cheese-ricotta combo to an even tastier extent. Note to self: drizzling honey over goat cheese increases the danger that I will attack it with a spoon in an embarrassingly ferocious manner.
Honey-Drizzled Strawberry Ricotta-Goat Cheesecake with Polenta Crust (inspired by a dessert I recently enjoyed at Mistral Bistro in Boston)
For those who hate the texture of chilled polenta (I do!), this baked crust has a slightly different texture – much less horrifically gummy, I think. If you’re looking for a flaky crust, this is not it; it’s a denser crust than your average tart or cheesecake. But I still managed to enjoy it, despite my absurd texture issues – just make sure to cook the crust initially until it is golden brown; if it’s still a bit mushy after the 45 minute recommended baking time, leave it in a bit longer. Or substitute your favorite already-cooked tart/cheesecake/whatever crust.
Goat cheese really adds a lovely tang to the sweetened ricotta filling, so don’t miss out, unless you really hate goat cheese, in which case plain ricotta will do in lieu.
As for the strawberry topping, honey is a must. However, you absolutely can substitute stone fruits or other sweet berries for the strawberries. Just don’t use any fruit that’s more on the tart side, lest it clash with the tangy goat cheese.
Bring water to a boil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Add salt. Slowly whisk polenta into the water in a thin stream. Continue whisking for 30 more seconds. Decrease heat to low, cover, and cook for 10 minutes, stirring vigorously about every couple minutes to keep polenta from sticking to pan. Remove pan from heat. Let it sit covered for 10 minutes. Stir in the brown sugar and egg.
Grease a 10-inch tart pan with butter or olive oil. Pour stiff polenta into the tart pan, and either use a spoon or your hands to spread polenta across the pan, using your fingers to push it up the sides and create a 3/4-inch thick crust. Set aside to firm up, about 15 minutes.
Preheat oven to 375F. Bake until crust turns golden brown, about 45 minutes. Transfer pan to wire rack, and allow to cool at least 20 minutes.
Ricotta-Goat Cheese Filling
15 oz. ricotta cheese
4 oz. goat cheese (chevre)
2 Tbsp. sugar
3 Tbsp. honey
1/4 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 to 1/2 tsp. lavender (totally different, but may substitute thyme)
1/4 tsp. salt
Using a handheld mixer or food processor, Whip all filling ingredients together until smooth. Store in refrigerator until ready to use. Do ahead: filling may be made up to 3 days in advance, and stored in airtight, refrigerated container.
Honey-Drizzled Strawberry Topping (and assembling the cheesecake)
4 c. strawberries, quartered
2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1 Tbsp. sugar
several tablespoons of honey for drizzling
In a medium bowl, toss strawberries, lemon juice,and sugar until berries are coated.
Once polenta crust has cooled, spread Ricotta-Goat Cheese Filling evenly across the crust. Spoon strawberries evenly over the filling. Slice up the cheesecake, wiping knife clean between cuts if you want to keep slices clean. Drizzle a teaspoon or three of honey over cheesecake slices immediately before serving.