CHEESECAKE, it's an emergency
This isn’t a proper blog post, it’s more of an emergency reminder, as there’s suddenly another Jewish festival, demanding specialist food, just about to happen! Or at least it’s “suddenly” for me; I presume most of you are better organised.
In Israel the festival of ‘Shavuot’ marks the beginning of summer and it is known mostly for a vegetarian dinner table, filled with cheeses and ending with a triumphal cheesecake. Yes, a holiday built on cheesecake is a fine thing.
It does also have religious significance, with a biblical story based around women's lives and focused also on the treatment of migrants and refugees; but I will leave that to someone else to explain, like this piece, sine you should hear it from someone who is not involved in extra late-night baking…
There are two offerings this week. The Classic Cheesecake, tall dense and delicious, as perfected by various Food is Love grandmothers, and also a small personalised sweet cheese morsel, baked on a vine-leaf, more like a hint of cheesecake … if you can stop at one.
YOUR OWN CHEESECAKE ON A LEAF
It’s a riff on the falculella, which sounds like an Italian curse, but is in fact a Corsican pastry, or a cheese sweet, really since there is no pastry at all. It's made with the island’s white cheese called Brocciu, beaten with sugar, eggs and lemon rind and baked on a chestnut leaf. I allowed myself one a day when I was on a walking holiday there, and although I haven’t been for years, I still remember the taste!
There are no chestnut trees here – or at least, not around my village – but the spring vineleaves are abundant. So I hopped downstairs, and picked some that were hanging over a friend’s wall. Am trying to think of a suitable edible Australian leaf we could substitute, not that you eat it, it’s only a plate... Still, if anyone has an idea, please let me know.
While I was out i also picked fresh thyme and zaatar. (These are not wild, so picking is allowed.) The zaatar is too strong to use in a sweet dish, but the thyme is perfect. I like adding 'savoury' spices to cakes and other sweets. It adds something extra.
Ricotta is perhaps the closest cheese to brocciu, although the Corsican sheeps' milk cheese – actually made from the whey, not the curd - has a stronger taste. I haven’t been able to find good ricotta in Jerusalem, or a sheeps' cheese suitable for baking so I tried the standard white cheese, and Israeli national treasure, with some sheeps' yoghurt thrown in. That worked very well. Made a second batch, with farm cheese – ‘tvorog’ from a Russian deli – which was also really, really good. It was more dense and closer to the Corsican original.
Perhaps the best instruction in the Corsican recipe was to only use a fork or a spoon, nothing more sophisticated and certainly nothing electric – so it’s simple to prepare as well as delicious.
I made a second batch, with honey and silan (date honey) in place of sugar. This gave it a richer flavour, which worked well with the thyme, but it made it too dark - it was coffee coloured - and also too runny. So back to sugar for this recipe.
- 500 g white sheeps’ cheese, or farm cheese
- 100 g, 1/3 cup sugar
- 2 egg whites
- 2 tablespoons flour or semolina flour (around 50 g)
- grated rind 1 lemon or ½ orange
- 20 vine leaves, rinsed and dried
- optional: add 1 teaspoon fresh thyme, 5-6 drops orange flower water
- To this mix, add 3 teaspoons Sambuca or Pastis
- ½ teaspoon ground fennel
- Add 2 tablespoons marmalade to the mix
- one teaspoon fresh thyme
- best to use grated orange rind with this version
1. You want the mixture to be as firm as possible, so if you are using soft cheese eg ricotta, t's a good idea to leave it to drain over a sieve overnight – almost as if you were making labne. If the mix is too liquid, it will spill over the leaf. I used the Russian 'tvorog' and it was the best of all!
2. Rinse the vineleaves in cold water and then leave them to dry. You don’t need to boil them.
3. In a bowl, break up the cheese mix with a fork. Add the sugar, eggs, semolina flour and lemon rind – and mix carefully with the fork or at most a wooden spoon. You don’t want to make it too liquid by using an electric mixer.
4. Put mix into fridge for 10 minutes to make sure its firm. Turn the oven onto high: 220 degrees C or 200 fan-forced.
5. Place leaves, shiny side up, onto an oven tray. You can give the leaves a quick burst of baking spray, or brush them with oil. This makes the leaf easier to remove, but is not vital. The leaves peeled off easily both ways. Place a large spoonful of the mixture on the centre of each leaf. The thicker it is, the more you can use, and more is better, but beware, it will spread. (At first I fit 4 per oven tray, but then realized I could do 6 at a time.)
6. Bake in hot oven for 10-15 minutes. You want it brown, but not burnt! My oven is very hot, and 10 minutes was enough.
The original Corsican recipe called for brushing the finshed cakes with sugar syrup – made by boiling up 100g of sugar with 100ml of water. I didn’t feel it was necessary, but you can if you like.
The result was wonderful – tiny but perfect! There is not too much sugar, so they are lemony and very easy to eat. A lovely one person morsel, more like a friand or a tiny muffin, and very light as well. Best eaten the same day!
The grandmothers in this project, and especially for some reason the Polish-born grandmothers, are great cheesecake bakers. Saba Feniger and Sabcia Saaroni from Melbourne have both given us excellent cheesecake recipes – along with their simply remarkable World War Two survival stories. (Both Saba and Sabcia work as guides at Melbourne's Holocaust Centre, and Saba was its first voluntary curator. You might want to read this lovely article about another of the Centre's most devoted personalities, Philip Maisel.)
We have previously shared Saba Feniger’s cheesecake, which she makes with quark, and thus avoids adding any extra cream or sour cream.
This week it’s Sabcia’s classic Polish cheesecake.
“I was a great baker. I baked all the cakes at both my children’s weddings,” Sabcia says with her magical smile.
Aged 90 she gave me this recipe, just off the top of her head, and also handed over her last pack of “kase kuchen hilfe” – literally cheesecaker helper - a European secret something they add to stabilise a cheesecake so it doesn’t fall too far. You can also use pudding mix or cornflour instead.
Sabcia also swims and gardens and grows her own veges - she's who you want to be in your ninth decade!
Sabcia's Polish Cheesecake
Makes a large cake. You can halve the quantities for a smaller cake.
- 1 kg farm cheese
- 8 eggs at room temperature
- 250 g sour cream or butter
- 1 ½ cups sugar
- Juice half a lemon
- 1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste or 2 teaspoons vanilla essence
- 2 tablespoons vanilla pudding mix or cornflour (or ‘Kasekuchen hilfe’)
- 2 tablespoons candied orange peel, chopped finely
- ½ teaspoon orange flower water
- Handful of raisins, soaked in rum or brandy if you have the time
- optional: 100 g flaked almonds
1. Preheat oven to 180 C degrees. Prepare cake tin, making sure it’s well buttered and has flour or bread crumbs on the bottom.
2. Beat the cheese in a food processor or using a potato ricer. Do not do this in the main bowl of the mix-master, you will be using it for the eggs soon. Set aside.
3. You can use either butter or sour cream. If you are using butter, melt over a low heat and set aside to cool a little.
4. Now to the cake. Separate eggs. Beat egg whites till stiff, set aside.
5. Put egg yolks into bowl of mix master. Add sugar, a pinch of salt, vanilla paste and lemon juice and cream until fluffy, about 5 minutes. In Poland, this egg custard is called ‘Goggle Moggle’. It’s ready when it’s at custard or mayonnaise stage and has doubled in size. Add the beaten farm cheese. Add pudding powder and melted butter or sour cream. When the mixtures is smooth, mix in orange peel, raisins and almonds by hand
6. Carefully fold in beaten egg whites. Pour into prepared cake tin. Bake for 50 - 60 minutes. Do not open the oven until the cheese cake is ready. But do check – through the glass - after 40 minutes in case it is getting too brown on top. If it is, turn the oven down slightly. When ready take cheese cake out of the oven and set it aside to cool.
Happy Holidays! And for those who are not celebrating, happy cheesecake baking and eating. Have had my own holiday gift, since Melbourne grandmother Baba Schwartz has been in Israel for her grand-daughter Hannah's wedding and I spent most of today with her. So all's good with the world.