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A guide to cheesecakes

I have spent over a month not writing about food on these pages.

I thought that at a time when migrants were walking home, hungry and penniless, it seemed a little insensitive to focus on the deliciousness of food. So I wrote about movie stars, theoretical pieces about the future of eating out, how the hospitality business could recover, and so on.

 

But at some stage, life has to return to normal so today I am officially declaring my food curfew over and getting back to writing about the things we love.

 

   One of them is cheesecake.

 

   It is hard to judge how popular cheesecake is in India because bakery/dessert fads come and go. People still seem to like disgusting cupcakes with red velvet toppings and very dodgy macarons. But cheesecake seems finally to be catching on though frankly, it is still hard to find a memorable cheesecake in India.

 

   There are obvious exceptions, though. Ritu Dalmia’s Latitude does a killer baked cheesecake, the Salted Caramel Cheesecake at Annamaya at the Andaz is outstanding, and in Mumbai, Rohit Sangwan (of the Taj Land’s End) remains the only pastry chef in the city (though he is now an executive chef) who has never ever made a bad dessert/ice cream/cake of any description in his life.

 

   Perhaps the idea of making a cake out of cheese puts some people off. I know that it certainly made me resistant to the idea of trying cheesecake even though my father liked it so much. I guess that, in my imagination, I thought of it as a cake made from some smelly blue cheese. It took me a long time to work out that it was made from things like cream cheese and had nothing to do with real cheese.

 

   And even when the moment of discovery came, it was not some glorious gourmet cheesecake that did it but Birdseye Frozen Cheesecake with its layer of frozen blueberry topping that made me change my mind. To this day, I sometimes suspect that my preference for cheap, fun cheesecake stems from my early love of frozen supermarket cheesecake.

 

   The thing that intrigues me most about cheesecake is that the idea may probably have originated in India. Odisha is the home of one of the most under-rated cuisines in India and its mithaiwallahs have long made a sweet called Chhena Poda, which is essentially a cheesecake made with chhena, a kind of cottage cheese.

 

   I was sceptical about it really being a kind of cheesecake till my colleague, the food writer Amit Patnaik, got me some from Odisha.

 

   He was right: it is a form of cheesecake and later my friend Pinaki Mishra, the BJD MP, sent me another version (with fruit topping), which was even more like a Western cheesecake.

 

   Why, I wondered, did so few of us in the rest of India know about this amazing cheesecake? Why wasn’t there a famous Bengali version as there is of other Odiya sweets?

 

   The origin of the cheesecake is, in any case, the subject of some dispute. All kinds of claims are made for the ancient Greeks or the Romans and other civilisations.

 

   My solution in times of doubt has always been to turn to Heston Blumenthal’s work on the history of dishes. And sure enough, Heston had his own theory.

 

   Heston had been researching old English food when he came across a recipe for a dish called Sambocade in Britain’s oldest cookbook, The Forme of Cury. (Before we go further, a small diversion. The name of the book has often been used to suggest that Brits knew about curry in the Middle Ages. In fact ‘cury’ has nothing to the Indian ‘curry’ and was the Middle English term for cookery.) The Forme of Cury was compiled in 1390, apparently by the cooks of King Richard II.

 

  "The problem with most commercial cheesecake is that it is not meant to be eaten immediately and so must retain its structure for rather a long time."

   Sambocade was made by wringing the water out of goat’s cheese and baking it in a pastry crust. The flavour came from sugar and elderflower. Heston recreated the dish for his London restaurant Dinner and there is no doubt that it is one of the earliest cheesecakes.

 

   As Blumenthal points out, there are essentially two kinds of cheesecake. The baked cheesecake is more common in restaurants these days. In technical terms, it is a custard – a term that includes quiches, crème caramel or any dish that takes a liquid plus egg mixture and cooks it till it is set into a solid gel. (If you want to get more technical: the egg proteins are agitated by heat, bind together as a network and create a relatively stable structure.)

 

   A baked cheesecake owes its structure to the eggs but it can be dense and the baking gives some of the ingredients a ‘cooked’ flavour. Delicate it is not.

 

   An unbaked cheesecake is a fresher, more delicate dish. In essence, it is a kind of mousse that relies on gelatine for its structure, rather than egg protein. (Though, of course, you can put eggs to aerate the mousse even though they will not contribute to the structure.)

 

   The problem with most commercial cheesecake is that it is not meant to be eaten immediately and so must retain its structure for rather a long time. This means that most pastry shops and cafés like to make baked cheesecakes, which have a longer shelf-life. So, all too often, their cheesecakes are mass-produced to an unacceptable density, which is sought to be covered up with icing, toppings, fruit etc.

 

   There are very few people who can make a decent baked cheesecake – and many of them tend to be home chefs. The best cheesecake I have had in years was, bizarrely enough, at the home of Aveek Sarkar, my ex-boss.

 

   Aveek has spent years holding forth about food and those of us who did not take him entirely seriously have now been stunned into silence by his decision to take up cooking as a serious hobby. It turns out that he is a very good cook and the highlight of a recent dinner I had at his home in Kolkata was a brilliant cheesecake, baked in the oven and then refrigerated overnight. It was firm, fresh and delicious.

 

   There are commercial chefs who can manage something approaching that quality and texture. I spoke to Manjul Myne of the Andaz in Delhi, a hotel that has been famous for its cheesecake since it opened. Manjul modestly gave the credit to Gordon Galea, a Maltese chef who launched the hotel’s patisserie and whose recipes have been followed from Day One. I won’t go into the details but the secret of Gordon and Manjul’s cheesecake appear to be the high egg-to-dairy ratio and the use of white chocolate in the mixture.

 

   Many home chefs make refrigerated cheesecake and they can be delicious. But when pastry shops try and make them, the results can be disturbing. They have the same how-to-make-it-last problem so they compensate by adding too much gelatine. This results in a strange cake with a rubbery texture. At most commercial establishments you should steer clear of the refrigerated cheesecakes unless, of course, you are dealing with the likes of Heston whose recreation of Sambocade is not baked.

 

   All of this may not help you when you go to a café or a pastry shop, so here is a rough guide to what the cheesecake names mean:

 

New York Cheesecake: Nearly always baked but very heavy and dense. Made with lots of heavy (and/or sour) cream, eggs, cream cheese etc. Often baked twice at two different temperatures.

 

Chicago Cheesecake: Baked (though non-baked versions are often found) with cream cheese, it is known for its texture: firm on the outside but creamy on the inside.

 

Italian Cheesecake: Made from ricotta, mascarpone and other real cheese (not cream cheese). Can be dry.

 

Japanese Cheesecake: Called soufflé cheesecake in Japan. The Japanese like light, airy, soufflé-like textures in their desserts. Even their pancakes come in a soufflé variation. A soufflé cheesecake is not like a normal cheesecake and, at most places that claim to make it in India, it is not even like a normal Japanese soufflé cheesecake.

 

   So what should you order?

 

   Well it’s a matter of choice. Avoid gelatinised-type cheesecake places. You’ll find that at such places, the gelatine ends up in every dessert.

 

   Some hotels know their stuff: The Land’s End in Mumbai; the Andaz in Delhi and a few others. (I haven’t tried it myself but Rohit Sangwan rates the cheesecake at the rival The Oberoi in Mumbai very highly and is full of praise for Executive Chef Satbir Bakshi.)

 

   But otherwise tread warily. The skills required to make a good cheesecake are not the same as those you need for baking cookies or cupcakes.

 

   And if you are lucky enough to be friends with Aveek Sarkar, your cheesecake problems are solved forever.

 

 

CommentsComments

  • Shivam 13 May 2020

    Hi Vir. Do you know how the Cheesecake Factory (the restaurant chain) does it? I haven't tried many fancy cheesecakes, but have always enjoyed the ones at the Cheesecake Factory.

  • Gautam Anand 11 May 2020

    Fantastic and stunning piece of culinary historical conversation by the Master

  • Sabyasachi Das 10 May 2020

    Hello Vir ,
    THe picture of Chenna Poda in today's Brunch is actually of Chenna Gaja(Chenna and sooji kneaded and boiled in sugar syrup) and Not Chenna Poda(BAked chenna and Sooji)

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