Friday, 22 September 2017
Felicity Cloake’s perfect cheesecake
How to make the perfect no-bake cheesecake The perfect combination of rich-but-not-overly-so topping and crunchy base is very hard to get right. So what is the secret to this cheater’s cheesecake? https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/sep/21/how-to-make-the-perfect-no-bake-cheesecake?utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=GU+Today+main+NEW+H+categories&utm_term=244655&subid=10823437&CMP=EMCNEWEML6619I2 Thursday 21 September 2017 09.00 BST When I was growing up in the 80s, cheesecake came in two varieties: half defrosted from a Sara Lee packet – for special occasions – or served (not quite often enough) in enormous refrigerated slabs at school. Both were topped with a vividly gloopy fruits-of-the-forest mix, but, where Sara’s was dense and painfully sweet, even to my eight-year-old palate, the redoubtable school meals supervisors, with their customary deft hands in the pudding department, always nailed the dish. I have no idea what they put in it (although the biscuit base may have been cobbled together from staffroom scraps), but, to this day, I have a fatal weakness for the set cheesecake over the far older baked variety. If I’m never allowed into the baked cheesecake’s spiritual home of New York again, in consequence, it will be well worth it. Even though the silky fridge cake is certainly quicker and easier to make than its fluffy cousin, it’s surprisingly hard to achieve the perfect combination of rich-but-not-overly-so topping, while keeping the base satisfyingly crunchy. And, believe me, I have tried. What is the secret to this cheat’s cheesecake? Martha Stewart’s cheesecake. Facebook Twitter Pinterest Martha Stewart’s cheesecake. Photograph: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian The base Let’s start at the bottom. Most set cheesecakes, whether made by Sara Lee or school cooks, have a base made from crushed biscuits – usually graham crackers in the US and digestive biscuits here. But the pastry chef Stella Parks disagrees, on the basis that “an unbaked graham cracker crust tastes a little blah”. Even without the “nutty, toasty flavours that develop in the oven, Biscoff cookies add a welcome depth of flavour”. Biscoff (the intensely sweet, spiced Belgian biscuits often handed out with a cup of coffee) are considerably easier to get hold of in this country than graham crackers, but testers find them too sugary and, once reduced to crumbs, deficient in the crisp-snap department. In place of the elusive grahams in Martha Stewart’s recipe, I try a mixture of malted milk (for flavour) and rich tea (for texture). The consistency of the base is good – better, in fact, than the digestive used by Sophie Grigson, which feel slightly bland and soft in comparison – but the panel’s faith in cheesecake convention is swayed by Yotam Ottolenghi’s hazelnut and black sesame crumble (which he scatters on top of the cheese and fruit rather than underneath) and the crunchy nests of kadaif pastry used by Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich in the book Honey & Co. Kadaif (if, like me, you’d never heard of it) is like shredded filo; mixed with butter and a little sugar and then baked, it becomes incredibly crisp and light, almost like a bird’s nest. It’s the perfect counterpoint to rich dairy and sweet fruit. Honey & Co’s deconstructed cheesecake. Facebook Twitter Pinterest Honey & Co’s deconstructed cheesecake. Photograph: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian The problem is that these two maverick bases have to go on top, rather than beneath, the filling, and I’m not bold enough to advocate a deconstructed cheesecake as the perfect version. Also, kadaif is not the easiest ingredient to get hold of. I ponder the problem for some time before hitting on a perfect, if less glamorous, substitute: cornflakes. Crisper and lighter than biscuits, as any five-year-old baker will attest, they remain aggressively crunchy when mixed with butter and sugar (or golden syrup for interest’s sake) – and become pretty damn delicious, too. Following advice online (cornflake crusts were once all the rage in the US) I experiment with whizzing them to smithereens before use, but the overwhelming preference is for larger, crunchier flakes which feel less dense than biscuit crumbs, while still providing solid foundations for the entire enterprise. After some experimentation I can confirm that, although you can make a decent base without heat, a brief blast in an oven gives a more robust result that’s easier to lift out of the tin without crumbling – either way, make sure you press the flakes well into the tin to bind them together as much as possible. Sophie Grigson’s cheesecake Facebook Twitter Pinterest Sophie Grigson. Photograph: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian The cheese Cream cheese is the classic topping, mixed with double cream by Parks, Ottolenghi and Honey & Co, single and whipping cream by Grigson and condensed milk by Stewart. Ottolenghi also whips in some mascarpone, and the Honeys use the kind of soft, salty feta style cheese sold in tins in Middle Eastern food shops. The condensed milk is disqualified because it makes the topping cloyingly sweet – and cream in all its forms feels ridiculously rich. Mascarpone is beautifully smooth and silky, but, again, makes the topping a bit too dense and buttery. The feta wins hearts for the subtle saline quality it brings to the party, but loses technical points for its slight graininess and lack of general availability. We decide that something lighter would be a better balance. Mild, milky ricotta proves happy to take on the best-supporting role to the cream cheese: the resulting filling won’t be as smooth as the cream variety, but neither will it be as heavy or cloying – a trade-off I’m willing to make for the sake of being able to enjoy a larger slice. On the subject of cream cheese, after this week’s experimentation I would stress that not all varieties are created equal, so, if you can, seek out some that’ is less sloppy and more interesting than the Kraft sort. There are some excellent Breton varieties available in some supermarkets, and no doubt some lovely local ones being made around the country. The better it tastes, the better your cheesecake will. Yotam Ottolenghi’s cheesecake. Facebook Twitter Pinterest Yotam Ottolenghi. Photograph: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian Flavouring and setting Because cream cheeses vary in flavour, it’s impossible to be precise about the level of seasoning required, but it may be useful to know that honey is more popular than sugar, and lemon wins more fans than vanilla. There’s no reason you can’t use both if you so desire (or indeed any other essence, spice or sweetener that springs to mind). That said, I’d be careful of chopped fresh fruit because the strawberries in Grigson’s recipe leak quite a lot of juice into the filling. Save that for the top. If you’re looking to transport the cheesecake any distance, then consider setting it with gelatine as Grigson suggests, but otherwise a fridge should do the trick while keeping it vegetarian-friendly. (The slightly wobbly jellied texture that gelatine brings isn’t to everyone’s taste, so if you do use it, consider adding a beaten egg white as Grigson does, to create a moussey effect.) Topping Again, the blank creamy canvas allows a certain amount of latitude when it comes to topping – you can go fancy and make a greengage compote and an infused olive oil to drizzle on top, as Ottolenghi recommends; or a honey syrup and roasted almond and herb sprinkle, as the Honeys do. You can, like Grigson, even make a strawberry sauce but I’m with Parks: all you need here is a generous scattering of fruit. Plums, figs and berries are all good at the moment – and of course, frozen fruits of the forest mix is always in season. Stella Parks’ cheesecake. Facebook Twitter Pinterest Stella Parks. Photograph: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian Perfect no-bake cheesecake 60g butter 3 tbsp golden syrup or caster sugar 1/4 tsp salt 100g cornflakes 500g ricotta, drained 225g good cream cheese 4 tbsp honey, or to taste, or 50g caster sugar 1 unwaxed lemon Fresh fruit, to top Heat the oven to 180C and lightly grease a roughly 23cm loose-bottomed tart tin. Melt the butter and stir in the syrup or sugar and salt. Roughly bash the cornflakes to break them up slightly and then stir in the butter and syrup and press the cornflakes firmly into the base of the tin with a glass or similar. Bake for six minutes until golden and then allow to cool completely. Meanwhile, drain the ricotta and then beat into the cream cheese until smooth (this is most easily done with a food processor if you have one). Add honey, plus the finely grated zest of the lemon and the juice of half of it, then taste and adjust as necessary. (I also like to add another pinch of salt, but you may not.) Spoon on top of the cooled base and chill for at least two hours until firm, then top with fruit to serve. Set cheesecakes: the poor relation of the baked variety, or an underrated dessert in their own right? What’s your favourite flavour, which cream cheese gives the best results – and is it really true that Ritz crackers make the best graham cracker substitute?