Burnt Basque Cheesecake
Last summer I visited Spain. Although many of my friends have also visited Spain, most of them recommended I visit the enchanting, "Spain-like" cities of Barcelona, Madrid and Seville. One of my friends had visited San Sebastian, and when I asked her where I should visit, that was the direction she pointed me in.
“You’ll love San Sebastian---it’s beautiful. I had a bad experience there, so it’s a little tainted, but the food is amazing.”
“Oh no,” I said, “What happened?”
“I fell in love with a guy and my sister [banged] him when I was home sick at the hotel. Hahaha. She’s such a b*tch, I love her.”
This was over text.
But besides the sister, the told tales of endless Pinxo bars, Michelin stars everywhere and the most gorgeous beach you could ever visit. I was sold. After all, August was an awful time to visit southern Spain and Barcelona should be a trip on its own.
Plus, I figured that we were going to be safe in San Sebastian, my sister would be miles away.
So we traveled (via Madrid and then) to San Sebastian, and we ate and we drank and we hiked and we swam in the ocean…and we ate some more. And after the whirlwind nine days of our vacation, where we had done much as we could and usually ate until we were full and tired and feeling accomplished.
But upon our departure, I realized in complete alarm as I purchased a chocolate bar at the Madrid airport, that we hadn’t really eaten any dessert. Not in Madrid, not in Segovia (where we traveled after San Sebastian), and to the most of my dismay, not in San Sebastian. No apple tart, no Basque Cake---we had Bomba’s (Italian doughnuts) twice, and a few truffles, but no desserts I would burn to my memory. No anything, really. And it made me sad.
The day after we arrived back home, we tried to adapt back to normal, as well as possible. I was dazed and mostly felt sad. That "back to reality" feeling was really hitting hard. But as I ran errands, I realized it might be best to cook, to get our bearings back.
My boyfriend decided he’d make fried chicken, and I oversaw dessert. Although we were now home, back in the northwest side of Chicago, our view once again of a car lot and Cicero Ave. behind our backyard, not the clear, blue ocean and welcoming cliffs of Basque country---my heart was still in my little Pension that sat above a German restaurant run by three generations of Basque ladies with the most chilling gazes.
So, I decided that even though we didn’t have many desserts, we still could, as much as we could. I Googled “Basque desserts” and got a variety of hits, but one was specifically from San Sebastian: The Basque Burnt Cheesecake.
Basque Burnt Cheesecake is not as much a Basque tradition as it is dish created and made famous by Santiago Riviera at his quaint little Pinxo bar, La Vina. It is there that he renders a cheesecake that is burnt and blackened...and delicious..
There are a variety of culinary knock-outs that started out as a mistake. The tarte tatin was made when someone dropped biscuit dough over a pot of stewing apples, is probably the most famous. I think the Burnt Basque Cheesecake is also in this category. It's barely a cheesecake, but not anything like a custard. It's an original.
I find that I have yet to meet a cheesecake I don’t like, but I am mostly accustomed to Chicago Style or New York-style cheesecakes. Thick, creamy and with about an inch of graham cracker crust. The Burnt Basque Cheesecake is different in the fact that its mixture and composition are rustic and decadent.
Why burnt, was my first question. And the reason is that by burning it, you create a crust around it akin to the bruleed part of a creme brulee. The top is dark and crackly and so are the sides, creating its own crust, eliminating any need for a cookie or graham cracker.
To create this effect, a springform pan is coated with oil or shortening and then you fit a piece of parchment paper in with a two-inch top. You pour the egg-heavy cheesecake in and bake at 400 F for almost an hour. The top will be dark. The cheesecake rises in its sun and poof, a crisp and deep crust is formed. After an ever so slight cool, it’s served warm traditionally, it is served either with berries or with a dash of whipped cream.
As we prepared for dinner. I really started procrastinating. The chicken was nearing completion, and I realized that I better get going on the cheesecake. I wearily walked to my mixer and peeled off the foil around the cream cheese I had kept at room temperature. I looked sadly down at the Philadelphia Cream Cheese, knowing that whatever was used in La Vina’s cheesecake was probably right from a farm near town. Same would go for the four eggs I dropped in, one at a time, while scraping the side. They weren’t good eggs. They were eggs from the grocery store.
I started to wonder if Chef Riviera even used a mixer. Surely, he did, right? Then I added the white sugar, wishing it were castor, and then I let it mix. Of course, the parchment paper I bought from the grocery store wasn’t wide enough, although to its defense, it covered just high enough. I poured in the batter, dropped it a few times on the counter to level it and break bubbles, and popped it into a 400 F oven, even though the recipe called for 392 F after the Celsius conversion.
I left the cheesecake to burn and in the meantime set the table and unpacked. I checked the cake once. It all looked fine. And there was something to be said about a recipe that was working, even though it wouldn’t be as perfect as I knew it should.
As it took its final ten minutes, I thought lovingly about my version of a treat I didn’t realize existed only four days before. Something I probably walked by numerous times. Something I would have loved. I watched and waited those last ten minutes, realizing that the mere reason it was in the oven was that I missed San Sebastian and I was desperate to hold on, and in that yearning, was an inspiration. And it made me grateful. It made me grateful that I had until the next time I visited San Sebastian to perfect this cake, and that will make it all so much sweeter. I will then be able to have my cheesecake and eat it too.
Basque Burnt Cheesecake
Makes: One cheesecake
2 lbs Cream Cheese
1 3/4cups castor sugar
7 whole eggs
2 c. heavy whipping cream
Preheat oven to 400 F. Grease a 23 cm springform pan and line with parchment paper, making sure the paper comes at least three inches above the top of the pan.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream together the cream cheese and sugar until smooth. Add the eggs one at a time, scraping the sides of the bowl a few times. Pour in the cream and mix until incorporated. Fold in the flour with a rubber spatula.
Pour batter into the prepared pan and place into the center of the oven. Bake for 50-60 minutes, or until the top is deeply golden and the center barely jiggles. Let cool completely before removing the sides of the pan.
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