Thing or Not A Thing: Basque cheesecake

Published on 15 July 2020

Photo: Calere's Basque cheesecake (image courtesy of Calere)

In the latest installment of our culinary myth-busting column, we ask why Melbourne has gone gaga over a burnt cheesecake.

Sourdough, lasagne, instant noodles and banana bread might be among the leading local food trends of the pandemic but the title for best-looking lockdown dish might just go to Basque cheesecake.

Deeply burnished on the outside yet pale and creamy inside, this rich, custardy cake originated at La Viña, one of the many pintxos bars that are found all over the Basque capital of San Sebastian. According to culinary folklore, owner Santiago Rivera first made the cake in 1990 and it took off, becoming the bar’s signature dish.

Unlike other cheesecakes, the Basque cheesecake has no biscuit base and is cooked in a hot oven. Most baked cheesecakes go for a low and slow approach to keep the cake blond; the approach here is to burn, baby, burn. And it works.

“Inside, it’s still really mild and creamy and slightly sweet,” says All Are Welcome pastry chef Giorgia McAllister Forte. “The burnt crust on the outside offsets the richness slightly.”

That richness is thanks to a mix that’s mostly cream cheese and eggs, with equal amounts of sugar and cream added, and a tiny amount of flour. It creates a super-smooth, custard-like filling that still feels light in the mouth.

All Are Welcome bakery in Northcote is one of several establishments we’ve spotted offering the cake. At the start of lockdown, it was baking three Basque cheesecakes for pre-order each weekend. That number soon increased to eight.

“I don’t think there’s been one weekend where we haven’t sold out,” McAllister Forte says.

That’s on top of miniature versions of the cake, baked in muffin tins, that they sell to go. The Baker Bleu pop-up at Marion also sells small rounds that can be shared between two, while Attica offers a whole cake as part of its take-home menu. Estelle’s ready-to-heat menu on Providoor includes a Basque cheesecake baked in a loaf tin, designed to share, with fruit compote on the side.

Around the world, Ottolenghi chef Helen Goh posted a homemade example to Instagram that racked up more than 3,000 likes, while Copenhagen bakery Hart has been serving the cake since July 2019.

In fact, it was Hart’s version that inspired the Basque cheesecake at Fitzroy café Calere. When the doors to Calere’s sister venue, 16-seat fine-diner Gaea, had to shut back in March, Calere owner Alicia Feng decided to keep the kitchen busy. She asked them to come up with pastries and other takeaway items they could sell to customers at the café. One of Gaea’s pastry chefs worked at Noma and visited Hart regularly for a slice of its cheesecake. The Calere take on Basque cheesecake was born.

What’s behind the cake’s breakout appeal in Melbourne in 2020? Is it a perfect storm of renewed interest in home-baking, a relatively forgiving recipe and a low-cost ingredient list?

“It’s easy to make at home,” says McAllister Forte, “yet it feels like some kind of achievement. I’ve got friends who take them for dessert to dinner parties.”

Feng agrees. She’s even had customers bring in their own baking attempts after trying Calere’s Basque cheesecake.

The cake is also easy to make gluten-free, as McAllister Forte points out, thanks to the low proportion of flour that’s called for in the recipe. She says this can easily be substituted for buckwheat or chickpea flour.

Its rustic good looks are no doubt part of the appeal, too. Baked in several layers of parchment paper to protect the custard and prevent leaks, the final product often emerges from the tin creased and wrinkled. These imperfections only add to its charm. Then there’s that almost blackened outside, a contrast not only with what’s revealed when you cut into it, but perhaps also with our notions of what sweet and fluffy cakes look like.

“The texture was very surprising,” says Feng of her first taste of the cake. “I love the different parts, the burnt outside and the creamy inside.”

With an even greater part of our lives being lived online these days, it’s no wonder that such a photogenic cake is being boxed up and baked all over town.

But, importantly, it backs it up with taste, the key ingredient for any lasting culinary trend.

Verdict: Thing

Get your taste:

All Are Welcome, 190 High St, Northcote,

Attica At Home, 74 Glen Eira Rd, Ripponlea, pick-up and delivery to select suburbs,

Baker Bleu x Marion, 53 Gertrude St, Fiztroy,

Calere, 166 Gertrude St, Fitzroy,

Estelle take-home, delivery to select suburbs via Providoor

Falco, 288 Smith St, Collingwood,

By Emma Breheny

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