Peabody of the beautiful Culinary Concoctions declared the theme for this round of Hay Hay It’s Donna Day to be cheesecake, which got me all excited. The pastry world has certainly moved on from cheesecake as the boring old workhorse of dessert menus, the monolithic white slab covered with gooey cherry filling, or absurdist extremes of the Cheesecake Factory, where every slice is about a foot high and stuffed with so much chocolate, nuts, caramel, and fruit you don’t even know if you’re tasting any cake at all.
Wikipedia’s entry on cheesecake lists about fifteen different styles of cheesecake, so I’m sure everyone has their own idea of the perfect cheesecake, with the perfect texture, the perfect taste, the perfect bite. My cheesecake preferences are pretty middle-of-the-road: I like my cheesecake not too firm and dense, but not too soft and creamy either; the texture should be smooth and velvety on the tongue, not gummy or leaden (this may sound obvious, but I’m surprised at how often I’ve had cheesecakes that are the equivalent of flavorless rubber blocks).
What I’m liking about the revolution of cheesecake’s image is that it’s finally being used as a vehicle for sophisticated, intelligent flavor combinations – it’s no longer being treated as an expression of overexuberant excess, whether in size or adornments. Looking through my cookbooks, I found so many luscious-sounding recipes to try, from Claudia Fleming’s Cherry Cheesecake with Red Wine Glaze to Regan Daley’s Guava Cheesecake with a Cashew Ginger Crust to Dorie Greenspan’s Brown-Sugar Apple Cheesecake.
I finally settled on a recipe from Kate Zuckerman’s The Sweet Life, a book still tagged with dozens of recipes I need to try: Goat Cheesecake Enrobed in Hazelnut Brittle, with Blood Orange Caramel Sauce. No, there’s no actual goat here – I guess Goat Cheese Cheesecake just doesn’t roll off the tongue as elegantly!
I wanted a challenge in the kitchen, and it turned out to be adventurous taste-wise, but in terms of execution it is astonishingly simple to put together. My boyfriend (the best kitchen assistant ever!) was rather nonplussed when I told him the batter was all finished after about 5 minutes of whisking.
This is a soft, creamy cheesecake – it’s made with goat cheese and crème fraîche, no cream cheese – but it has wonderful smoothness and lightness that accentuates the flavor of the goat cheese. Speaking of the goat cheese, obviously your enjoyment of this cheesecake will depend on the cheese you choose – pick one you like (no need to go for the ultra-expensive ones), and I would use a milder, lighter-flavored cheese – aged cheeses might give too strong of a flavor.
The hazelnut brittle that covers the cheesecake really makes the recipe – it gives a pleasant nutty-sweet crunch to contrast with the smoothness of the cake, working perfectly in place of a crust. It was also great fun to make the brittle – basically you get to make hard caramel, grind it up in the food processor, and then add in ground hazelnuts, and remelt in the oven to form a sheet of golden caramel candy thoroughly flecked with nuts. If you don’t break it up again to form the coating for the cheesecakes, the shards also make gorgeous decorations for any dessert.
Finally, the blood orange caramel sauce adds another sweet-tart layer to the dessert, working with the brittle to temper the tanginess of the goat cheese. This is a dessert is really a fun workout for your tastebuds!
Goat Cheesecake Enrobed in Hazelnut Brittle with Blood Orange Caramel Sauce
adapted from Kate Zuckerman’s The Sweet Life
makes (6) 4-in individual cheesecakes
1 egg yolk
3 1/2 ounces granulated sugar
pinch of salt
10 1/2 ounces fresh goat cheese, room temperature
5 ounces crème fraîche
7 ounces granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 cup toasted, skinned, and finely ground hazelnuts
1/4 teaspoon finely ground sea salt
Blood Orange Caramel Sauce
4 1/2 ounces granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 cup blood orange juice (about 2 medium oranges)
For the cheesecake: Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Grease 6 individual ramekins.
Mix the eggs, sugar, and salt togther in a bowl and whisk for a couple of minutes until well combined and there are no lumps.
Add in the goat cheese and whisk until smooth.
Add the crème fraîche and whisk together until combined. Do not overwhisk or the cheesecake will develop a grainy texture.
Pour the batter into the prepared molds. Place the cheesecakes into the oven and bake for about 20 to 24 minutes, rotating halfway. The centers should be just set.
Remove the cheesecakes from the oven and allow to cool. Chill them in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.
When you are ready to unmold the cheesecakes, run an offset spatula or small knife around the edge of the cheesecake to loosen it, then place a plate over the top of the ramekin, flip it over, and shake vigorously until the cheesecake comes loose from the mold.
The cheesecakes will keep in the refrigerator for about 4 days.
To make the brittle: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line an 11×17-in baking pan with parchment or a Silpat (preferred).
Place the sugar, cream of tartar, and 1/3 cup water in a small saucepan.
Cover and cook over high heat until the mixture comes to a boil, then uncover and reduce the heat to medium-high and cook until the sugar is a dark golden brown color.
Remove from heat and pour the caramel onto the prepared pan and let cool and harden.
When the caramel is cool and hard, break it into small pieces and place into a food processor. Grind the caramel into the fineness of granulated sugar.
Stir in the ground hazelnuts.
Place a clean piece of parchment or Silpat on the baking pan and spread the caramel and nut mixture onto the pan in a thin even layer.
Bake in the oven until the caramel remelts and bubbles, about 4-6 minutes.
Remove from the oven and sprinkle the sea salt over the hot caramel.
When the caramel is cool and hardened again, you can break it into pieces or grind in the food processor into brittle to use in coating the cheesecakes.
The brittle will keep in an airtight container in a cool, dry location for a couple of weeks.
For the blood orange caramel sauce: Combine the sugar and cream of tartar together in a small saucepan with 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons of water.
Cover and cook over high heat until the mixture boils, then uncover and reduce heat to medium-high and cook until the sugar is dark golden brown – don’t let it burn!
Remove the saucepan from heat and carefully add in the orange juice (it will bubble madly). Return the saucepan to the heat and whisk the mixture so the caramel dissolves and mixes with orange juice.
When the mixture boils again, remove from the heat. Transfer to a heatproof container and place in the refrigerator to chill and let thicken before using.
This sauce will keep in the refrigerator for about 1 week.