I used to be a baked cheesecake sceptic: I didn’t feel they were worth the effort when other cheesecakes required you simply to stir together some ingredients and bung them in the fridge. My thinking was: why waste your time? Was the result really worth the extra effort?
In turns out that yes, it was. It is. I just hadn’t ever eaten a really good cheesecake.
That changed in San Sebastián, about two years ago. La Viña is a small bar and restaurant serving pintxos (the Basque version of tapas), but it is best known for its ‘burnt’ baked cheesecake. Inside, you feel as though you’re in a cheese shop that has recently suffered a fire: the walls are lined with shelves on which sit rows of cheesecakes, slowly cooling in their charred baking-parchment wrappers. These cheesecakes are crustless, or rather, the baked cheese mixture forms a kind of crust. They are mottled brown on the outside, like Portuguese custard tarts, and slightly sunken in the middle. Not much to look at. But when I bit into a slice, and tasted the silky ivory interior, the caramelised ‘rind’ and the tang of the cheese, I was an instant convert.
Cheesecakes are pretty much as old as cooking itself. In the 5th century BC, they were more rudimentary: fresh cheese was pounded with honey and baked on a griddle. Small cheesecakes were given to competitors during the first Olympic Games in 776 BC. The Romans soon picked up the habit, but added eggs and baked the cakes under hot bricks. When this filling was layered with thin leaves of pastry inside a separately baked crust, it was called placenta — perhaps the first cheesecake that most people today would recognise, although they might mistake it for baklava.
Every country has its own beloved form of cheesecake. The Italians use ricotta and the Germans quark, while Polish recipes call for a local curd cheese called twaróg. But it was the invention of cream cheese in the late 19th century in New York that gave cheesecake a spiritual home.
In 1872, while trying to replicate the French cheese Neufchâtel, William Lawrence, a New York dairy farmer, accidentally happened upon a process that produced cream cheese. Within three years, his cheese had become the Philadelphia brand that we know today. (The name was nothing to do with the birthplace of the cheese, but Kraft, which marketed the product, thought that American consumers associated the city of Philadelphia with quality food.)
Quickly, the baked cheesecake became the star dessert at New York institutions such as Reuben’s and Lindy’s. ‘It stands half a foot tall, it measures one foot across,’ was the food writer Clementine Paddleford’s description of the Lindy’s cheesecake. ‘Its top is shiny as satin and baked to the gold of the frost-tinged oak.’
It’s the cream cheese that ensures the smoothness and lightness that distinguishes a proper New York-style cheesecake. A slow, low bake helps, and using a waterbath ensures gentle, even cooking. When it comes to flavours, the body should be unadulterated beyond a little vanilla. My version, channelling Nigella, has an extra sour cream layer on top, which masks any baking cracks and allows you to introduce a little extra flavour. I’ve plumped for malt: malt extract is available in health food shops and some supermarkets, but if you can’t find it, leave it out. Americans use graham crackers for their bases; digestive biscuits are a decent substitute but I’m sticking to my theme and using malted milks.
For serving, anything goes. I like poached cherries, although if you want to tip your hat to British restaurants of the 1980s and 1990s, an under-ripe strawberry and a single spring of mint is the only way. Here I’ve gone all Jackson Pollock, splattering my cheesecake with raspberry and chocolate sauces. What could be more New York than that?
Baked vanilla cheesecake
Makes: 1 cheesecake for 10 people
Takes: 20 minutes, plus cooling
Bakes: 80 minutes
For the base
150g malted milk biscuits
75g melted salted butter for the cheesecake
500g cream cheese
150g caster sugar
3 large eggs
3 large egg yolks
1/2 tablespoon vanilla paste
150ml double cream
For the topping
1 tablespoon malt extract
300ml sour cream
2 tablespoons dark muscovado sugar
1. First, prepare your tin. Place a disc of baking parchment in the base of an 8 inch springform or loose-bottomed rubber-sealed pan. (You need to be able to get the cheesecake out, but not let the water in.) Wrap the outside of the bottom of the pan with oven-safe clingfilm, pulling it taut. Wrap the bottom and sides of the tin with two layers of tin foil.
2. Heat the oven to 160°C. Blitz the biscuits to fine crumbs in a food processor or bash with a rolling pin in a sealed bag. Melt the salted butter and stir it into the biscuits, until the mixture resembles wet sand. Pour into the prepared tin and press down with the back of a spoon. Bake for 15 minutes, and set to one side.
3. Drop the oven temperature to 130°C. Beat the cream cheese until smooth, then add the sugar and vanilla paste, beating again. Whisk the eggs and egg yolks with a fork, then pass them through a sieve to remove any stringy bits. Add them gradually to the cheese mixture, beating as you go, and stop as soon as they’re combined — don’t overbeat. Heat the cream in a small pan until it’s steaming, and then fold into the mixture.
4. Pour the mixture onto the cheesecake base, and place the tin in a roasting dish. Pour boiling water into the roasting dish so it reaches halfway up the depth of the cheesecake. Place in the oven for 1 hour, until the top is firm but retains a gentle wobble.
5. Stir together the muscovado sugar, sour cream and malt extract, and pour onto the cheesecake. Bake for a further 20 minutes.
6. Remove the cheesecake from the water bath and, once cool enough to touch, remove the tin foil and clingfilm. Run a knife round the edge of the still-warm cheesecake, and leave to cool for an hour, before refrigerating for at least four hours. Bring the cheesecake out of the fridge 30 minutes before serving, and remove from the tin. Serve either with soft fruit or drizzled with your favourite sauce.