And with Shavuos, comes the cheesecake. I have non-Jewish friends that get excited about 'the cheesecake festival', in fact I don't know anyone who doesn't get excited about Shavuos. It's such a user-friendly festival! You can eat what you want (milchig or fleishig) where you want (IN the house and not in a hut) and it's only 2 days long. (yeah, OK, this year it tacks on to Shabbos, so 3 days. Another reason to live in Israel.)
My dad z"l, who was a classic Poilishe Vitzler, used to promise to give me whatever I asked for on Chol Hamoed Shavuos, and I used to get really excited about that, until I was about 7 when I worked it out. Haha.
Anyway, I want to focus on the cheesecake thing. The thing is, I am not what you, or anyone in their right mind, would call an accomplished baker. I have a few fool-proof cakes, believe me, nothing fancy. But for years, I used to be too scared to make cheesecake because it looked so complicated.
And then I thought, what terrible thing would happen if I DIDN'T separate the eggs? Or if I DIDN"T use cream cheese, which is not easy to get here if you keep Chalav Yisroel. Or if I used a crumb base and not a shortcrust pastry base or whatever?
So I fiddled with a recipe and I sort of stripped it down to an idea which I call 'The Philosophy of Cheesecake'. Basically you adapt it to whatever you can find locally. I have made this cake in Israel (which is easy because the dairy food is AMAZING there) and in New York, with what passes for sour cream there, and it still worked.
Now I make cheesecake every 2 weeks, for Shabbos (it lasts 2-3 weeks in the fridge) and I'm not saying that this is the best cheesecake that you will ever eat, because it isn't. I'm honest about that. But it's very nice and light and easy to make. And practice does make it a better cake, this is true.
So, dear readers, I present to you:
The Philosophy of Cheesecake.
I used to be intimidated by cheesecake recipes calling for pastry bases, separation of eggs, whipped whites yada yada. It doesn’t have to be that hard! Cheesecake is not an exact science because cheese will vary in moisture content, texture and fat content, so results will vary but the cheesecake will taste good no matter what.
You will need:
For the cheese filling:
- 400-500g/16oz white cheese, either cottage cheese, continental-style, farmer cheese, quarg, ricotta, whatever, as long as it is not salty
- A jar, about 300ml/10oz sour cream, the thicker the better
- 3-4 large eggs
- ¾ cup sugar
- 2 tspn vanilla
- 100-200ml/ 1/2 -2/3 cup milk
- 2 Tb cornflour (cornstarch to the Yanks)
For the crust:
- 1 packet plain sweet biscuits (about 200g/8oz) like Marie biscuits, Petit Beurre or Grahams
- 120g/4 oz butter (unsalted is best)
- Cinnamon, a few shakes
- A springform cake tin, 24cm/10”, lined with baking paper, or lightly greased and floured on the sides
- A large bowl of electric mixer
- Small bowl to mix the butter and crushed biscuits
Preheat oven to 160C (150C fan forced)
Crush the biscuits, either by pulsing in food processor or by placing in a plastic bag and rolling with a rolling pin.
Melt the butter, mix with the crumbs in a small bowl, then place in the prepared cake tin. With your fingers, press out the crumbs in an even layer over the bottom and up the sides of the tin. Don’t be anal about this, it doesn’t have to be perfect. Sprinkle with cinnamon. Refrigerate while you make the filling.
In the large bowl of the mixer, place the sugar and 3 eggs and beat well, 5 mins at least, until the mixture is pale yellow and airy. Add the cheese spoon by spoon, beating, then add the sour cream and vanilla.
Here’s where you have to make some judgments. If the mixture is so stiff the beaters can’t really get through it, add the milk, 100mls at a time, beating well. You are aiming for a consistency like thick dollops of cream. If the cheese was very soft and wet, you will not need to add the milk, but you may need the 4tth egg to give the mix more setting power.
Then add the cornflour, mix well.
Place the batter in the prepared baking tin and bake for about 50-55 mins.
The top should not get brown. The cake will rise in the tin a bit like a soufflé, but don’t get too excited as it WILL settle. To test if it is done, give the tin a little shake; the cake should just give a little jiggle, not slosh around.
Once the cake seems done enough, turn off the oven and leave the cake in the oven to cool; it will continue to set and won’t collapse as dramatically. The top might crack. Don't let it bother you. If it does, chuck some whipped cream on it before you serve it. Up to you.
Once cool, refrigerate in the pan.
To serve, remove from springform tin. Once the cake is cold, it shouldn’t be too hard to peel off the paper and slide the cake onto a serving platter, or loosen the crust off the bottom of the tin with a palette knife, if you didn't use paper. Decorate with fresh berries and whipped cream if you like, but it’s not necessary.
Serve with coffee, or as a dessert with berries. Or- special Shavuos treat- a scoop of ice-cream.
· This can be gluten-free if you use either gluten-free biscuits or shredded coconut and almond meal as the base, and make sure that the cornflour is not wheat-based.
· Use crushed plain chocolate biscuits or gingersnaps if you prefer these to plain biscuits. Or add desiccated coconut to the biscuit crumbs. By the way, if you find you have no butter, use melted coconut oil, about 100g/3.5oz. It works.
· Add shredded lemon zest and/or the juice of a lemon to the cheese mixture for a lemon cheesecake. Add the juice while the mixture is beating so it incorporates well and doesn’t curdle it. Add the zest after all the beating is done, just stir it in with a spoon, or else it will get stuck to the beaters.
· Or swirl chocolate syrup through the mixture, just a little swirled with the tip of a skewer when the cheese mixture is already in the cake tin.
· Or swirl blueberries or raspberries through the mixture before baking.
· You can leave out the sour cream completely or you can use the sour cream as a topping; beat it with ¼ cup sugar and pour this over the cheese filling halfway through baking. You can add the berries into this sour cream-sugar mixture and pour over the cheese mixture.
· You can do a lower fat version by using low fat cheese and milk and leaving out the sour cream and the crust, but it won’t be the same. Still nice, but not the same.
· OR you can go the other way and add MELTED WHITE CHOCOLATE, about 150g/5oz, or more if you want. Melt in a bowl over boiling water in a saucepan, don’t let the bowl touch the water. Let cool for a few minutes and then spoon in to the mixture after the cheese, let it keep beating. PRETTY GOOD let me tell you.
So after the awe and majesty of receiving the Torah at Sinai, you can go home and enjoy your cheesecake.
I love being Jewish.