Allegedly, cheesecake was a favourite dessert of Henry VIII. Unrecognisable to the cheesecake we know and love today, the cheese was diced and softened with milk before straining. To this, the chef would mix butter, eggs and sugar and pop it in the 16th century oven, and, as it was so popular, the recipe was included in the first cookbook, written in 1545 and commission by the king himself. He ate a considerable amount, after all.
I recite this tale for you, dear reader, as I recline on the sofa and ponder cheesecake. A difficult job, you know. Nowadays, it is more than baked strained cheese, which, delicious as it sounds, was considered a luxury. Today, we devour baked or unbaked varieties, bought boxed from the freezer or chiller aisles, or homemade by your mum. Some are topped with fruity coulis, drizzled with chocolate sauce in restaurants, or served with an swirl of cream on the side like a chintzy decorative bauble.
There is an unspoken battle between the baked and unbaked cheesecake camps when, in fact, they are different desserts clothed in the cloak of cream cheese. Even so, it is not unlike other wars in the food world; fat chips versus thin, a scone with cream then jam, or jam then cream? We all know our allegiances and will whole-heartedly campaign for their victories.
I feel, as an unbaked cheesecake party member, that my guy has a bad reputation these days. It’s so creamy and moussey… but it’s not a mousse. It’s beautiful and ornate when you’re six years old, but now has no decadence as it was your first childhood bake. Meanwhile, every Google search requires the word ‘unbaked’ otherwise you’re wading through a swamp of baked cheesecakes, because apparently that’s the international favourite these days. Even then, those set cheesecakes which Google graciously conjures up are raw and require cashew cheese. Where is the pure unbaked cheesecake support, guys?! If the Tudor recipe is the ‘original’ then this could mean baked cheesecake already has the upper hand.
I think we need to be reminded why unbaked cheesecake is a marvel and under appreciated. After all, I can’t be the only one that creeps back to the fridge for another slice, and, oh look the edge is messy, I better tidy that…
As a child I would relish creamy unbaked cheesecake, with a base of bashed digestive biscuits. The filling was beaten cream cheese sweetened with sugar and folded with whipped cream to create a moussey, light texture. More often than not, cheesecake was found in our freezer. It was a treat dessert, one that would make my sister and I giddy and over-excited, enthralled by the creamy slice of pie on our plates, covered in sticky strawberry coulis.
Coming across baked cheesecake when I was older it caused confusion as I assumed people were baking that creamy delight of my childhood, utterly bizarre. Upon discovering it was a different recipe, I was indifferent, knowing in my heart which cheesecake was better (mine). I tried baked cheesecake at gatsro-pubs and chain restaurants, but it was dry to my palate which was so accustomed to the soft yielding texture of my childhood cheesecake. It was claggy and rather boring without the zesty flavour of a lemon or orange speckled throughout the mixture, or a glazed strawberry.
Since then I have, of course, learnt that mass-produced ‘baked cheesecake with raspberry coulis’ is not the real thing and it is reprehensible it bestows many children’s first taste. Real baked cheesecake is essentially baked custard, cooked at a low temperature to ensure the eggs don’t curdle and the surface stays flat and serene like a creamy ice rink. Thus, it is nothing like unbaked set cheesecake aside from the buttery biscuit base, and a tub of Philadelphia.
Instead, set cheesecake is essentially a smooth cream pie, the filling beaten until soft, like velvet. The tangy cheese is a base for any flavours you wish to try; citrus zest, vanilla, molten chocolate, chopped summer berries. Not only that, but it is effortless! Little to no skill required, no temperamental ovens, no souffléed eggs, no unsightly cracks, just silky filling and a crunchy base.
My mum’s favoured recipe for cheesecake is in our much-loved, food-stained childhood recipe book. This cheesecake remains a favourite today because juicy mandarin segments were sandwiched between the layers, the topping was milder and thicker than usual because it contained whipped mascarpone, and, of course, the base. (The base, the buttery biscuit base – I’ll stop.) Not only did it ask for butter, as usual, but this recipe required golden syrup so it was richer and chewier. Fiona reminded me of it the other day, commenting on that special base, a dreamy look in her eyes. So, of course, I had to make it.
It needed a few tweaks here and there. For example, the recipe, just like unbaked cheesecake, is for children (or the child at heart) so I heightened its sophistication by substituting the orange zest in the filling for lemon and lime. Plus I added more biscuits for that heavenly base, and swapped digestives for ginger snaps to complement the zingy citrus. Quite the gourmet’s cheesecake. Next you see me merrily smashing biscuits in a mixing bowl with a heavy mug (for the want of a rolling pin).
At the end of the day, whichever cheesecake you prefer, it is a perfect dessert on a warm summer’s evening; a slice of sunshine. Unless you try the Tudor’s diced, softened cheese, that is.
Citrus and Ginger Cheesecake
Adapted from Kids in The Kitchen
Makes a 23cm cheesecake
300g ginger snap biscuits
100g unsalted butter
4 tbsp golden syrup
300g tin of mandarin oranges in juice
250g mascarpone cheese
150g fromage frais
50g caster sugar
150ml double cream + 100ml for decoration
Extra ginger snaps and citrus zest to decorate
- Line a springform cake tin with baking parchment and lightly butter the sides.
- Tip half of the biscuits into a zip-seal bag or large mixing bowl and bash with a heavy implement (but don’t be stupid please, safety first) until the biscuits are crushed to fine crumbs. Pour into another bowl and repeat with the second half of biscuits.
- In a saucepan, heat the butter and golden syrup until the butter has melted and the syrup has thinned. Stir into the biscuits until all the crumbs are evenly coated. Spoon into the cake tin and press down until firm and even.
- Drain the mandarin segments and evenly coat the base with them, reserving nine or ten for decoration. Pop the cake tin in the fridge to set as you make the filling.
- In a mixing bowl beat the mascarpone until smooth, then add the fromage frais and sugar and stir all together.
- Finely grate the zest of the lemon and lime and add to the mascarpone mixture along with both fruits’ juice. Gently stir to combine.
- Whip the cream with electric beaters until you have soft peaks – the cream should flop back on itself. Fold it gently into the zesty mascarpone.
- Retrieve the base from the fridge and cover it with the soft creamy filling, spreading it evenly to the edges and level the surface. Cover the tin with a sheet of foil and return to the fridge to set for at least four hours or overnight.
- Once set, slide a cutlery knife around the edge of the tin to loosen the cheesecake. Carefully remove it and set it on a plate. Now, you can decorate! Whip the remaining 100ml double cream until thick, then either pipe swirls or spoon blobs around the edge. Garnish with a reserved mandarin segment. Crush a couple of ginger biscuits and lightly scatter around the border, along with some freshly grated lemon or lime zest.