One of the biggest disappointments a gastronome can experience is to order their favourite dessert from a restaurant menu, only to find it presented to them in unrecognisable compartmentalised format. Instead of ‘lemon tart’, a Cubist explosion of prismatic pastry shards, perfectly piped mounds of glossy lemon curd, and a smattering of smug mint leaves for garnish. Instead of the glorious marriage of hot, sweet-tart fruit syrup and a toothsome crunchy topping, your ‘crumble’ will instead manifest as something that resembles the dreams of a Scandinavian minimalist with obsessive compulsive disorder; a piece of poached fruit here, a slick of compote there, and a stingy scattering of crunchy granola that refuses to interact on any sensible basis with the other two elements and entirely misses the point of a crumble. Or, heaven forbid, a cheesecake that anarchically ignores the latter part of its title and instead of being a sliceable paean to dairy and biscuit is a Kilner jar full of cream with a shot of fruit juice and a cookie on the side, more like the individual components of a child’s packed lunch than anything suitable for restaurant consumption.
So when I found myself in a London restaurant recently, eagerly anticipating my blackcurrant and lemon verbena cheesecake, I was not thrilled when presented with a bowl containing a dollop of sweetened cream cheese, a dark, glossy trickle of blackcurrant compote and a fragile disc of short, buttery pastry perched vertiginously on top as if provocatively celebrating its edgy and anarchic deconstruction of this traditional dessert. Now, despite my misgivings, the concoction was actually very good, the herbal tang of the lemon verbena bringing out the intense, grassy sourness of fresh blackcurrants, with the cream and biscuit acting as a smooth, cosseting foil for those little taste explosions.
But I can make this better, I thought. As its name suggests, cheesecake is a homogenous entity that should be sliced generously and presented as a whole, seamlessly fused unit of buttery, crunchy biscuit, sweet, thick dairy and the astringent tang of fruit. There’s something about the way the thick, buttery base of a cheesecake melds into the cream, flecking it with crumbs, and the way the juice of whatever fruit you use permeates both that renders deconstruction somewhat sacrilegious. Prising those elements apart makes the whole thing too neat, too clinical, too demarcated. They should be allowed to interact a little, as with the topping of a good crumble and the syrupy, bubbling fruit beneath.
So here is my improved version of a truly astounding flavour combination. The base is a generous layer of ginger nut biscuits and butter. The topping is a mixture of yoghurt, strained overnight to remove its liquid and give a lusciously thick, creamy texture, whisked with icing sugar and cream cheese, and scented with a little vanilla. The combination is perfect: not too cloyingly sweet, and given an interesting tang from the yoghurt. Through this, I rippled a simple compote of blackcurrants sweetened with a touch of sugar, which turns everything a picturesque lilac, flecked with almost blood-purple berries. To finish, a trickle of that blackcurrant compote here and there, and some delicate baby lemon verbena leaves, small enough to eat whole and to lend their incredible concentrated citrus fragrance to the mix. It’s a simple ode to the bold, beautiful flavours of late summer and the complexity of berries and herbs, its colour reminiscent of lavender and peppered with the curling wisps of aromatic verbena. There is no gelatine, simply the thickness of the yoghurt and cheese to hold the cake together, so it slices messily and eats in a hedonistic, creamy, tangy frenzy.
That, for me, is what cheesecake should be. I hope you agree.
Blackcurrant and lemon verbena cheesecake (serves 8-10):
- 1kg natural yoghurt (not low fat/fat free)
- 150g ginger nut or digestive biscuits
- 50g unsalted butter
- 250g blackcurrants (fresh or frozen)
- 2 tbsp caster sugar
- 400g light or full fat cream cheese
- 150g icing sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla paste
- 4 sprigs fresh lemon verbena (the smallest leaves)
Start the night before to make the strained yoghurt. Line a colander or sieve with muslin or cheesecloth and pour the yoghurt into it. Put the sieve/colander over a bowl, leaving at least a couple of inches space between the bowl and the bottom of the sieve, then leave overnight in the fridge or a cool place. The liquid will drain from the yoghurt and leave a thick, cheese-like substance in the muslin.
The next day, make the cheesecake base. Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Grease a 20cm cake tin and line the bottom with a circle of greaseproof paper. Blitz the biscuits to crumbs in a food processor. Melt the butter in a small saucepan, then stir in the crumbs. Spread the biscuit mixture evenly over the bottom of the cake tin, pressing it down with the back of a spoon. Bake for 10 minutes, until golden, then set aside to cool. When cool, rub a little butter or flavourless oil around the inside of the tin (this will help to release the cheesecake later).
Meanwhile, make the blackcurrant compote. Put the currants, stripped of their stalks, in a small saucepan with the caster sugar and a tiny splash of water. Bring to the boil and then simmer very gently until the berries start to burst and release juice, then remove from the heat and leave to cool.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the cream cheese, icing sugar, vanilla paste, and the strained yoghurt (discard its liquid). Add three-quarters of the blackcurrant compote to the cheese mixture and swirl it through with a spoon, but don’t mix it in completely. Pour into the cake tin and put in the fridge for at least 8 hours to set. Reserve the remaining blackcurrant compote.
When ready to serve, dollop the remaining blackcurrant compote over the surface of the cake, then pick the leaves from the lemon verbena stalks and scatter them over. Run a knife around the edge of the cake to loosen it, then release the sides of the cake tin (leave it on the tin base for stability). Slice and serve – this can be a little messy, as the set isn’t very firm, but it will taste great!