Words Harriet Boucher Images Ashlee DeCaires
For round 2 of Harriet’s How To, I have dived into the world of the Basque ‘burnt’ cheesecake. Basque cheesecake is a crust-less, Spanish cheesecake that has a rich, creamy centre and a caramelised top, often giving off a burnt look. It is traditionally served at room temperature, often accompanied with a glass of sherry.
Having never actually tried a Basque before making my own, I searched far and wide for an eatery to do some taste testing at. Hamilton was lacking, but my favourite Christchurch Restaurant, 5th Street, didn’t disappoint. Their dreamy slab, flavoured with vanilla and lemon, was served with apple compote and Anzac crumb. It set the standard through the roof.
I started my cheesecake marathon on a cold spring morning and had forgotten to bring my ingredients to room temp. After a little creativity in warming them up, I got under way with Molly’s Basque. Being the first cheesecake to weigh up, I was shocked at how much dairy is in these recipes. With 910g of cream cheese and 2 cups of cream, you know it’s going to be rich. For the batter, you beat the cream cheese and sugar until smooth, then add 6 eggs, one at a time. You then slowly pour in the cream, vanilla, salt and finally, mix in the flour. The mix was thin and voluminous. I had lined the wrong size tin, so I had to quickly change it before it overflowed. Rookie mistake. After about 50 minutes in a 200-degree oven, I pulled out my first beautifully charred Basque. The vanilla was the hero of this one, and it was unanimous that it was more flavoursome compared to Nigella’s; however, the texture was slightly grainy and as a first encounter with the Basque, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t slightly disappointed.
I made Nigella’s Basque right after Molly’s, to put two of my cooking idols against each other. I was drawn to her recipe as it had a liquorice sauce, and I am a liquorice lover, but boss lady Vicki vetoed that idea straight away. Disappointing to say the least. The method to this cheesecake is very similar to Molly’s; however, the ingredients differ slightly. She uses cornflour, making it gluten free, and sour cream instead of pouring cream. The mixture was luscious and thick. For a cheesecake that is known for its charred top, this was cooked at the surprisingly low temperature of 180°C, fan bake. As expected, it took a lot longer to get colour on it than Molly’s and even then, it never reached a golden colour. When it came to the test taste, this Basque was lacking in flavour. Vicki said, “You can’t get away from the eggy taste”, and if you read my spring edition article, you know how I feel about eggs. All of my taste testers agreed that the texture of Nigella’s was smoother than Molly’s, but it did have an eggy feel and slightly cornflour taste.
In week two of my cheesecake testing, I put the boys, Matt and Dave, up against each other. Mat Lindsay is the chef at Ester in Sydney, where everything is touched by a wood fired oven, including his Basque cheesecake. Mat changes his method up by beating the cream cheese solo, then adding pouring cream, then the sugar and salt. Once that is all combined, he adds both cornflour and flour, eggs and egg yolks. He is the only one who sieves the mixture into the tin, which removed little lumps of cream cheese and a few clumps of egg. This Basque has two cooking temps. The first, at 240°C, almost cremates it. I nearly set the smoke alarm off (sorry Vic). Once charred, it gets turned down to 150°C to finish cooking. Matt’s cheesecake had a beautifully caramelised char on top but was slightly grainy due to the combination of flours. It’s even colouring on top was exactly what I expected a Basque to look like. I would love to try his wood fired version!
I hadn’t heard of Dave Beran before finding his recipe, deep into my rabbit hole of research. I was drawn to his Basque as it was well researched and had crème fraiche in it, which is my current weakness. The first three recipes use a stand mixer but this uses a food processor, so it doesn’t over mix and there isn’t air whipped into it. It’s also the only recipe to use just egg yolks and no cornflour or flour at all. With just over 1kg of cream cheese in it, don’t start thinking it’s any less rich though. The oven was set at 230°C for this one, but its cook time is less than Mat’s, which left it with a lighter colouring. Dave is the only one who breaks away from tradition and refrigerates the cheesecake overnight, before serving. This was everyone’s favourite by a mile. Waikato Chef Andrew Clarke and member of our tasting panel was “all over Dave’s like a rash” according to his wife Julia. It was velvety, rich and deep in flavour despite having the least ingredients of them all.
As much as I would have loved for Molly or Nigella to have wowed me with their recipe, it was Dave Beran who came out on top. Mat’s seemed to epitomise the char that is characteristic of the Basque, but Dave’s was silky smooth, rich and flavoursome. To create the ultimate Basque, I would pull the vanilla from Molly’s cheesecake into Dave’s version. To say I have consumed my yearly quota of cream cheese in just two weeks is an understatement, but these Basque cheesecakes are worth it!
Dave Beran’s Basque Cheesecake (with a touch of Molly Baz), PX Reduction and Fresh Blackberries
1kg Philadelphia cream cheese
1⅓ cups sugar
9 large egg yolks
½ tsp flaky salt
1¼ cups crème fraiche
1½ tsp vanilla bean paste
1½ cups Pedro Ximénez wine
1 tbsp cornflour
1 large punnet of fresh blackberries
Pre-heat the oven to 230°C, no fan.
Coat a 22cm spring form cake tin with spray oil, then line it using 2 sheets of baking paper that overlap so the paper extends above the rim. Embrace the creases, it creates the classic Basque look!
Put the cream cheese, sugar, egg yolks and salt in a food processor. Pulse until very smooth, scraping the sides of the bowl occasionally. Add the crème fraiche and vanilla and pulse until fully incorporated.
Pour the batter into the prepared tin, then tap the tin against a work surface a few times to smooth the top and eliminate air bubbles. Put on a baking tray then place into the oven.
Bake until the top is dark brown, the edges set and starting to pull away from the sides of the tin, but the centre is still quite jiggly. Check it after 25 minutes, but this will take about 30–35 minutes depending on your oven. If you shake the pan back and forth, the top should roll like a gentle wave.
Cool in the tin on a rack until room temperature, then refrigerate uncovered overnight.
To make the PX reduction, place the PX into a saucepan and slowly bring to a simmer. Mix the cornflour with a small amount of water to make a slurry. Whisk the slurry into the PX and continue to simmer on low for 5–10 minutes or until thick and syrupy. Set aside until ready to use. It will keep in the fridge in an airtight container for a few weeks.
To serve, release and remove the ring of the tin. Use the baking paper to slide the cheesecake off the base onto a chopping board. Portion the cheesecake into 12–16 pieces—it’s very rich! To cut clean slices of cheesecake, run a sharp knife under hot water and dry with a tea towel in between slices.
Spoon some PX reduction onto the bottom of a serving plate, place a slice of cheesecake on top of the reduction and serve with blackberries or fresh seasonal fruit. Stone fruit would work beautifully.