I remember when I first acquired my kitchen blowtorch. It was during my early days of learning to cook, when I attempted to emulate the dishes of Masterchef and used silly silver rings for ‘plating up’ (yes, in those days I actually did a thing called ‘plating up’), daubing everything with smears and garnishes and spending a fortune on fancy cuts of meat and fish. Essential kitchen kit in those days comprised dariole moulds (for making the classic chocolate fondant, of course), a mandolin, an oyster knife, square plates (vital for that restaurant look) and a piping bag. And, of course, the kitchen blowtorch. Programmes like Masterchef are designed to make you believe that you simply cannot cook without one: how would you get that glistering crust atop a chalky round of goat’s cheese, or achieve the perfect crack on a crème brulée?
Fast forward to six years later, and all but the mandolin has languished in the back of the cupboard. I’ve found my niche in the kitchen, and it doesn’t involve piling things into silver rings or using a paintbrush to apply sauce to a plate. I no longer fillet my own fish or shuck my own oysters (largely because my last attempt to shuck an oyster ended with me shucking my own thumb instead; I can confirm that an oyster knife cuts through flesh far more efficiently than gnarled, crumpled shell). The kitchen blowtorch only emerged to scorch a whimsical smiley face on a pancake I was cooking for breakfast, perhaps out of sheer desperation to get my money’s worth from it. I don’t entertain the concept of ‘garnishes’, unless it’s a hearty wedge of lime to accompany a Thai curry. I like to make big bowls of satisfying salads to accompany trays of roast meat or vegetables. ‘Plating up’ involves a big spoon and nothing more. Meat and fish get cooked as they come, without my haphazard filleting, spatchcocking or boning attempts to threaten their fleshly integrity. The only relic from my Michelin aspiration days is a large glass of wine to accompany the process (a necessity if you’re trying to make your own ravioli, or debone a guineafowl, believe me).
The only time I allow myself to get vaguely extravagant in the kitchen (aside from those occasions on which I sing along to the Frozen soundtrack at the top of my lungs, wooden spoon in hand, chopping in time to the jaunty rhythms of ‘Love is an Open Door’) is when a birthday cake is required. Even then, I no longer attempt to craft fairy princess castles out of pink fondant icing (see the hedonistic days of 2010), but go for a more restrained affair: a perfect carrot cake with the ultimate cream cheese frosting, or a dense chocolate fudge creation scattered with powdered edible gold. This year, by a happy coincidence, my boyfriend’s birthday cake required me to dust off the neglected kitchen blowtorch from its sad, dark corner of the cupboard and pretend to be a fire-brandishing superhero as I laid waste to the sugared topping of a cheesecake.
This is, I think, a perfect baked cheesecake. It has that slight sourness, that New York style tang, from crème fraiche, and a wonderfully dense, fudgy filling, perked up with lemon zest and vanilla. It’s encircled by a thick, buttery crust, spiced with ginger and crunchy with demerara sugar – rather than just sitting underneath, this crust cradles the entire filling, giving you more of a texture contrast in every mouthful. It’s fairly understated, but then you sprinkle it with sugar and get out that blowtorch. The top bubbles and sets crackably hard, giving a glorious crunch. I decorated it with strawberries dipped in white chocolate, to cut through the rich filling and to add colour. Incidentally, this is still glorious without the crunchy topping, if you don't have a blowtorch.
The best mouthful here is where you get the crunchy crème brulée topping, the molten white chocolate and a little bit of strawberry all in one. It tastes like you’ve just swallowed a Parisian patisserie shop. This doesn’t need to be ‘plated up’ in rings, garnished with tuiles or scattered with gold leaf, but it’s just as good as anything Michelin-starred. If, like me, you’ve got a kitchen blowtorch looking a bit sad somewhere, this is the perfect way to give its poor, defunct life some meaning again.
Crème brulée cheesecake with chocolate-dipped strawberries (serves 8):
[Adapted from Waitrose magazine, here]
For the base:
- 100g butter
- 250g digestive biscuits
- 2 tbsp demerara sugar
- 1 tsp ground ginger
For the filling:
- Zest of 1 lemon
- 500g full fat cream cheese
- 110g golden caster sugar
- 1 tbsp cornflour
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 3 eggs, beaten
- 200ml full fat crème fraiche
- 2 tbsp golden caster sugar, for the topping
- 50g white chocolate (or milk chocolate if you'd prefer)
- 6-8 strawberries
First, make the base. Pre-heat the oven to 200C. Blitz the biscuits in a food processor to fine crumbs. Melt the butter and stir in the biscuits, ginger and demerara sugar.
Grease a 20cm springform cake tin and line the bottom with greaseproof paper. Tip the biscuit mixture into the tin and, using a drink glass, press the crumbs along the bottom of the tin and around 4cm up the sides, to form an even layer.
Bake in the oven for 12 minutes, until golden brown.
Put the lemon zest, cream cheese, sugar, cornflour and vanilla in a bowl and whisk together. Whisk in the eggs until smooth, then whisk in the crème fraiche.
Pour the mixture into the tin. Bake for 10 minutes, then lower the temperature to 140C, and bake for another 45 minutes. It should be set with a slight wobble. Leave to cool in the oven with the door slightly ajar (this stops it cracking) then carefully remove the cake from the tin to a plate. Chill well in the fridge.
Just before serving, dab the top of the cake with kitchen paper to remove any moisture. Sprinkle over the 2 tbsp caster sugar. Use a cook’s blowtorch to scorch the top of the cake until the sugar bubbles and turns to a crunchy caramel.
Heat the white chocolate in a small bowl over a pan of simmering water, until melted. Dip the strawberries in the chocolate, then arrange over the top of the cake near the crust. Serve immediately (the crunchy top goes soggy if it sits in the fridge).