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
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
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.