Something sad has happened to some foods. They have suffered damnation for their ordinariness. Yet when cooked beautifully, they bring a warm smile to people’s faces and an oft-repeated request for “the recipe”, as if I have performed some feat of prestidigitation to transform them into something desirable.
Cheesecake seems to suffer this fate. The phenomenon of being damned for ordinariness first came to my attention when reading Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry. Throughout the book he has a number of essays titled “The Importance of …”. In one such essay, “The Importance of Custard”, he waxed lyrical about the fate of quiche – that limp pastry case with a thin film of rubbery custard that you find in many bakeries, something so far from the deep, luxurious custard in perfect crisp pastry that you can make in the true French style. Cheesecake has been bastardised in the same way, it even has a chain store devoted to churning out an absolutely base-level product.
There are very few things better than a fresh-baked cheesecake. For me, it is all about the perfect, creamy texture. Here, it is topped with cream, baked rhubarb and strawberries. But there are many variants. A simple dusting of nutmeg. A lovely crisp crumble of caramelised oats. Fresh raspberries.
So what is it that elevates a cheesecake from the horrors of the chain store reproduction? I think the main things are the way it is made and the temperature it is eaten at. I’m a great believer in really aerating the mix, so when I mix the cream cheese and the sugar I give it a really solid beating with the paddle of my stand mixer. The other integral part of the process is the cooking. It really does need to be only just cooked. There needs to be the softest of wobbles from the inside when the cheesecake is gently shaken, with the tiniest amount of cracking in the surface near the edges. If overcooked, the final texture will be a little grainy.
And then to the eating – aim for on the day the cheesecake is baked or within 24 hours. The base will be crisp, the filling the perfect texture. Served with whipped pure cream and a choice of toppings, there are few things I enjoy more.
For the base
– 150g McVitie’s Digestives biscuits
– 50g unsalted butter
For the cake
– 600g cream cheese
– 200g castor sugar
– 4 eggs
– 1 egg yolk
– zest and juice of 1 lemon
– vanilla extract
– 400g crème fraîche
For the topping
– 6 rhubarb stalks
– castor sugar
– 1 vanilla bean
– zest and juice of 1 orange
– 300ml pure cream
– 1 punnet of strawberries
Preheat oven to 180ºC. To make the base, crush the biscuits to fine crumbs in a food processor or in a sealed plastic bag with a rolling pin. Melt the butter in a small pan, add the crumbs and mix thoroughly. Grease and line a 22-centimetre springform cake tin. Press the biscuit mixture into the base of the cake tin, then pat gently down to form a crust. Cook the base for 10 minutes, remove from the oven and cool.
Set the oven at 140ºC. Mix the cream cheese and sugar in a stand mixer with the paddle attachment for five minutes until smooth and light. Stir in the eggs, lightly beaten, and the extra yolk, a little at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl from time to time. Finely grate the zest from the lemon and beat it into the mixture along with its juice and a few drops of vanilla extract. Stop the machine and stir in the crème fraîche thoroughly.
Pour the cream cheese mixture into the tin and bake for an hour. It should still be wobbly. Turn off the heat and leave the cake in the switched-off oven for a further hour. Remove the cake from the oven and refrigerate for four hours.
Preheat the oven to 180ºC. Cut the rhubarb stalks into four-centimetre lengths. For every 100 grams of rhubarb, use 50 grams of castor sugar. Split the vanilla bean in half lengthways. Toss the rhubarb, orange juice, zest and sugar together. Leave for 20 minutes, stirring regularly. Place the rhubarb and its juices into an impervious baking dish and bake for 10 to 15 minutes until tender. Cool.
Remove the cheesecake carefully from the tin and place on a serving plate. Whip the cream until stiff and spread on top of the cheesecake. Trim the strawberries and cut into halves or quarters, toss with the rhubarb and place onto the cheesecake. Serve.
NV Innocent Bystander moscato, Yarra Valley ($20)
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 18, 2017 as "Pure classic spark". Subscribe here.