In pursuit of the perfect cheesecake

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I have never really liked cheesecake. It all started when I first heard of this confection as a small child. Always more of a savoury person than a sweet tooth, I reckoned that a cheesecake would be a lovely orange cheddar dome, perhaps with a little sausage standing up as a candle. It goes without saying that I was hugely disappointed when I tasted a white, dense, but grainy concoction that was definitely more sweet than savoury – certainly not love at first bite. Come to think of it, I was just as disappointed with a mince pie, when Christmas came around.

As I grew older I realised that there could be something said for a good cheesecake, either a baked one or the fridge variety. Visiting the USA many years ago, I was confronted with a mighty variety of cheesecake flavours at The Cheesecake Factory, with its menu spanning many pages. So overwhelmed was I by this lavishness that I chose to order only a filter coffee, and a black one to boot.

But now all is forgiven. Three attempts at using Verlorenkloof’s labneh, a soft yoghurt cheese, as a filling have at long last yielded the perfect baked cheesecake – let’s call it a labneh lime cheesecake with a salted caramel topping. The cheesecake is not too sweet, not too rich, with a smooth texture. The base, containing almonds, offers the necessary crunch and texture, while the very fashionable salted caramel topping adds a luxurious touch, contrasting with the lime and tart yoghurt cheese filling.

The word labneh is commonly used in the eastern Mediterranean (the Levant of old) and the Arabian Peninsula, but this rich, tart delicacy can be found in various guises throughout the world, from Iceland to India and from Mexico to northern Europe.  It is basically yogurt, strained to remove the whey. The result is a thick cream cheese, but with yogurt’s distinctive, sour taste.

The small team of artisanal yoghurt makers on Verlorenkloof Farm in Mpumalanga, on the eastern escarpment of southern Africa, uses the milk from a herd of Friesland purebreds to make thick, full cream yoghurt.  The labneh is made by straining the yoghurt (with the tagline ‘yoghurt as it should be’) into a thick cheese-like consistency. Quite yummy when spread on bread, but even more so when worked into the ultimate cheesecake.

Here’s the recipe for this unctuous beauty:

Labneh lime cheesecake with a salted caramel topping

For the filling:

750g Verlorenkloof labneh (three tubs)

1 cup castor sugar

1 large lime, zested

2 tablespoons lime juice

4 eggs

For the crust:

¾ cups whole almonds

1 packet tennis biscuits

75 g butter, melted

For the salted caramel topping:

1 cup sugar

90 g butter (cut into cubes)

120ml pouring cream

1 tsp salt flakes, or more, to taste

 

Method:

Preheat the oven to 140°C or 120°C (fan). This one is low and slow, my dear, low and slow. Grease a 23 cm round, loose-bottomed cake tin and line the base with baking paper. Alternatively use mini flan pans (you will need about 8).

Pulse the almonds in a food processor and add the biscuits. Process to form a fairly fine crumb. Add the melted butter and line the bottom of the cake tin with the crust. Refrigerate until needed.

Wisk the labneh and add the castor sugar in a slow stream. Add the lime zest and juice and then the eggs, one by one. Wisk until well combined. Scoop the mixture into the cake pan and smooth the top.

Bake for 45 minutes (the sides should be firm, but the centre should still have a slight wobble). Turn off the heat and leave the cake to cool in the oven completely. This should take about two hours. Don’t be tempted to rush this step – dinner can wait.

In the meantime, melt the sugar in a saucepan. Once it’s turned a deep honey colour, add the butter cubes and boil for about 2 minutes. Drizzle in the cream, give it a stir and boil for another minute. Finally, add the salt flakes. Leave the caramel to cool.

Once the cake is completely cooled, carefully remove it from the tin. Drizzle the top with the salted caramel and stand back to observe your masterpiece. So, cheesecake, all is forgiven. I will make you for dessert when good friends come to visit, I will make you for special occasions, like the christening of my first grandchild, I will make you whenever life looks bleak – and, thank heavens, this is not an orange cheddar dome, with a little sausage sticking out on top.

The wail of the chai wallah

The masala chai comes in a thick white porcelain cup with its distinctive orange colour and a thin brown skin of boiled milk on top. I have just had lunch at an Indian restaurant in suburban Pretoria. Under the heading ‘hot beverages’ on the menu I spot masala chai – a good way to end an Indian meal, I reckon.

I take a sip of the scalding tea and it all comes back to me – a wisp of a boy, walking down the aisle on the train between Jaipur and Udaipur, swinging his tea caddy and offering masala chai in paper cups. “Chai, chai, chai,” the chai wallah wails.

It was wedding season, just weeks before the monsoon, when I fell in love with India. The month of May in India is not for the faint-hearted Westerner. Every day the temperature edged up to the 50 degrees Celsius mark; weather for swooning and laying back against the pillows in a limp cotton frock. But not for me this lethargy brought about by the heat. All I felt was energy, awe and wonder as we travelled from Chennai in the south to the north where the holy river Ganga flows from the foothills of the Himalayas.

The reason for my first trip to India was to celebrate the arranged marriage of Ragu, son of a tobacco farmer from Ongole in central India (now living in South Africa), with Spoorti, the daughter of a tobacco merchant from the same town. We were treated lavishly by the father of the bride who had never set eyes on this group of 13 South Africans, paying for our hotel accommodation for three days and opening his home to us for a spectacular pre-wedding party.

India is all about the senses. Getting off the plane it hits you: Smells of dry heat, dust, putrid sewerage, a spiciness that holds the promise of food you have never tasted. On the roads your ears ring with drivers hooting constantly. But this is not a rude kind of hooting, the get-out-of-my face kind. The hooting says here I am, see me, let’s not connect by accident. People chatter and trade, and the sights and colours you see – turmeric yellow, electric greens, pinks and blues – dizzying but spectacular.

And then there is the food; southern Indian favourites like masala dosa, a paper-thin pancake standing up like a pointy hat amongst small pots of chutney; another southern breakfast staple called idli, steaming discs of sour white loveliness (almost like ‘suurpap’ we know in Africa) again served with spicy sambar in small stainless steel pots. To quench a never-ending thirst there is lemon-lime-and-soda, either sweet or salty and tea, of course, masala chai, hot and spicy.

Travelling north to Delhi the vegetarian staples of the south change to succulent meaty curries, sometimes cooked in tandoor ovens and always served with bread – chapatis, parathas, poori, naan.

I returned from India and have never stopped looking for real food from India. I have found my favourites here and there; dosa at a small eatery in Laudium outside Pretoria that prides itself on south Indian tiffin, idli in a food court in Sydney, and now, the perfect masala chai in suburban Pretoria. I will not stop looking, until I can return again to this country that has bewitched me on so many different levels.