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13 Nov 2013

A friendlier cheesecake – And just like that it has been some five weeks since my last entry. Obviously I did not intend to let so much time pass. I could regale you with tales of how busy I am and complain about how I have so little time—or I could just skip that and write about a cheesecake I made for some friends last Friday. Yeah, I think I’ll do that instead.

“Some time ago I decided that I wanted to find an alternative to the rich, creamy, heart attack-inducing cheesecakes I grew up with.”

After trying (and failing) for several weeks to get together for dinner with some friends, the stars aligned last Friday and seven of us went out for some raw fish and live octopus. I figured everyone might like a little dessert afterward, so Friday afternoon I baked a small cheesecake.

Cheesecake has always been a favorite of mine, but the older I get the more I worry about extra calories, and of course I am also trying to avoid as much fat as possible. Cream cheese, the primary ingredient in the cheesecakes I grew up with, is pretty much a calorie bomb (100 grams of cream cheese contains 34 grams of fat and 342 calories). When you add sugar to that (as all cheesecakes do), the calorie count skyrockets.

So it was that some time ago I decided that I wanted to find an alternative to the rich, creamy, heart attack-inducing cheesecakes I grew up with. I remembered hearing about ricotta-based cheesecakes, and I thought that might be a relatively healthy alternative. The part-skim ricotta that we get here at Costco has just under 10 grams of fat and 145 calories per 100 grams, which is a huge improvement over cream cheese, and fortunately I also happen to be a fan of ricotta. So I followed my usual method when making something new: I hunted around for recipes on the internet, saved the ones that looked good, and then put them into a spreadsheet so I could compare them. With enough recipes, you can tell just by looking at the spreadsheet what will work and what won’t work. (This is hopelessly geeky, I know, but I think it comes from my experience looking for patterns in folktales according to tables of motifs.)

One thing I noticed was that all of the recipes called for sugar, which I suppose isn’t that surprising. I am not really a big fan of sugar in my baking, though, and much prefer to use honey (this is why my favorite minor Hobbit character is Beorn), so I decided to go my own way on that count. Most of the recipes also call for a small amount of flour to give the cake more structure, but I decided to part ways with the majority on that as well. I came up with some proportions that I thought would work well for the 15-centimeter round cake frame we have (yep, that’s pretty tiny) and gave it a shot. My first effort came out fine, but I thought it could use a little tweaking, so the next time I had an excuse to bake for people I tweaked it just a bit. It came out even better. The next time I tried it I gave the recipe another tiny tweak and arrived at what I think is a stable version. That’s the one I made on Friday, and the one I’ll be sharing with you in pictures today. We begin with the crust.

These are more or less Digestive biscuits. I say “more or less” because they are a Korean knock-off (as you can see by the lettering on the biscuits themselves), but they taste just like the real thing. Four of these (52 grams) are enough for a crust. You can crush them by hand, but I used our little blender for the sake of speed and consistency. Add to this 20 grams of melted butter...

...and you have the crust mixture. This is actually the unhealthiest part of the cake (the four biscuits have 11 grams of fat, plus all the fat in the butter), so if you’re really health-conscious you may want to skip the crust or replace the Digestive biscuits with Graham crackers (which have roughly half the fat).

Here I’ve lined the cake frame with a waxed paper liner—it isn’t actually the right size for the frame, but it’s close enough—and then pressed the crust mixture into the bottom. It doesn’t need to be all that even, since no one is going to see this side of the crust anyway, so I just used my fingers. I put this into the oven to bake for a bit and got to work on the cheese mixture. By the time the batter was ready, this was out of the oven and had cooled enough to handle.

If you look closely at the above picture you’ll notice that I’ve lined the baking pan with a sheet of aluminum foil—this is to prevent the bottom of the crust from burning, because it gets baked twice and the lower heating element ends up being pretty close to the pan in my small oven. If you have a regular-sized oven you may not have to worry about this.

Here are the ingredients for the cheese mixture, waiting to be mixed together. The majority, of course, is ricotta cheese. Two egg yolks sit at the bottom in a pool of honey. The white powder just right of center is vanilla powder, and the white powder to the left of center is table salt. At the top is the zest of one lime—previously I had used orange zest, but all we had on had was limes, so lime zest it was.

Here is everything mixed together. You might think that the egg yolks and honey would make the mixture too runny, but you can see that is not the case. It is actually the perfect consistency for the next step in the process.

Sharp-witted readers will have noticed that the cheese mixture above contained only two egg yolks—this is where the whites went. I whipped them until the peaks stood up when I removed the beaters. Most cookbooks and recipes use the term “medium-stiff peaks,” which means that the peaks stand up but curl a bit at the tip. When in doubt, beat the eggs less rather than more—if you beat the eggs too long the foam will break and be useless for baking a cake. The whites here are probably somewhere between the “soft peak” and “medium-stiff peak” stage.

Another note on the egg whites: it is customary to add some sugar to the whites during the final stages of beating. This makes the whites smooth and glossy, and also helps them hold their form better. However, I was going for a sugarless recipe, so I just beat the egg whites alone. This is why they look more bubbly than you might be used to seeing. I’ve never tried to beat egg whites with honey, as I’ve always assumed it wouldn’t work, but in the process of writing this entry I found a very interesting blog post on making sugar-free meringue with a hot honey-and-water syrup (Italian style). There are some other helpful tips on that page, and I think I will incorporate some of these ideas when making my next cheesecake.

Now, I’m afraid, there is a gap in the photographic record. I was making the cake by myself, which meant that I had to wear both my chef’s hat and my photographer’s hat. This wasn’t a problem up to this point, but the next step required all of my attention (and all of my hands) and couldn’t really be stopped in the middle. If you’ve ever made a chiffon cake (or a soufflé, for that matter), though, you know what’s coming next. I took about a third of the beaten whites and very gently folded them into the cheese mixture with a bowl scraper. I then scraped this lightened (both in texture and density) mixture back into the egg whites bowl and folded everything together. If you haven’t done this sort of thing before, you just cut straight down through the mixture with the scraper, bring the scraper along the bottom of the bowl and up the side, and fold the mixture over itself. The goal is to incorporate the foam into the cheese mixture while retaining as much air as possible, so the fewer strokes you make—and the less time you take—the better. (Hat tip to Martha Stewart, by the way, for the idea to use the chiffon technique; all of the other recipes in my spreadsheet called for simply beating the eggs and then mixing them into the cheese. I imagine this would still taste fine, but it would not result in nearly as light a cake.)

Once the batter was complete I poured it into the frame and quickly snapped a photo before it went into the oven. You’ll notice that I put a waxed paper “collar” around the inside of the frame—from prior experience I knew that the cake would rise over the edge of the liner and stick to the inside of the frame. It’s not that big a deal to run a knife around the inside edge of the frame after it comes out of the oven, but it’s a lot neater to just have the collar there. Of course, it would be even neater to have liners that were the right size, but we don’t live in a perfect world.

Here is the cake right out of the oven. You obviously can’t tell from the photo, but the center will jiggle when you take it out (just like a souffle). This is a good thing. If it does not jiggle, that means it is overcooked. As the cake cools it will set, and it will also collapse a little in the center—this is unavoidable, but it will not affect the lightness of the final product.

When the frame had cooled enough to handle I slipped it up over the collar and then let the cake continue to cool on the table. Just before we went out for dinner I popped the cake in the refrigerator to chill, and when we came back, having stuffed ourselves with raw fish, wriggling octopus tentacles, and other various and sundry delights, it was ready for serving. I sprinkled some cinnamon on the top and cut it up into eight small pieces, one for each of us with one piece left over. I didn’t get to snap a shot of the whole cake before serving, but I did take a picture of the final piece yesterday, right before HJ and I devoured it.

According to our friends, the cake was as tasty as it looks. Unlike a New York-style cheesecake, which is rich and creamy, this cheesecake is light in both texture and taste. I like to think that the honey gives it a warm sweetness that sugar can’t match, and the citrus/cinnamon combination is quite refreshing—especially with the lime zest, which has a more subtle flavor and fragrance than orange zest. Limes are rather expensive here in Korea, though, so next time I may go for lemon. And I remember seeing vanilla beans in Itaewon... some day I’d like to try this with actual vanilla and see how much of a difference that makes.

And now, to wrap this up, here is the precise ingredient list with abbreviated instructions:

Prepare as described above. Bake the crust alone for 5 minutes at 200° C and the whole cake for 30 minutes at 180° C. Note that this is a fairly small recipe, as I am only using a small (15 cm in circumference and 5 cm in height) cake frame. Doubling the circumference of the frame to 30 cm (with the same height) would require a quadrupling of the recipe. Interestingly enough, a 23 cm frame (or roughly 9 inches, which is what most cheesecake recipes call for) would have to be slightly higher (around 7 cm or so) to hold a triple recipe. (Special thanks for help with the calculations goes to the Wolfram Alpha “computational knowledge engine,” where you can type in something like “volume of a cylinder 23 cm in circumference and 7 cm in height” and get a very thorough answer containing all the information you could ever need.)

Anyway, that is the cheesecake in its current incarnation. No cheesecake is ever going to be completely healthy, of course, but a New York-style cheesecake of comparable size will have roughly 50% more calories and over 70% more fat than this cheesecake, so I feel justified in calling it “relatively healthy.” The important thing, though, is that it still tastes very good. Different, perhaps, but good. I will definitely make this again as soon as I can find another excuse to do so, and if I try out the trick with the honey syrup for the egg whites, I may write about the results here as well.

OK, back to the maelstrom that is life as the end of the semester draws near. See you next time.

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