What can you tell about a person from the contents of their kitchen cupboards? When I was filmed for a cookery programme several years ago, the camera crew made me reveal, on film, the contents of my larder to prove that I was not your average student when it came to culinary ingenuity. ‘No pot noodles in my cupboard!’ they wanted me to declare with an impish grin, gesturing instead to the bottles of raspberry-infused balsamic vinegar, bergamot olive oil, buckwheat flour and dried edible rose petals. I refused, unwilling to abandon completely my dignity on national television, but they did have a point. You can infer a lot about a cook from rifling through their cupboards, whether they are of the Ottolenghi school of thought (giveaways: jars of za’atar and sumac, and wooden spoons forever tipped with purple stains from bashing out pomegranate seeds over every meal), the Nigella (fridge full of butter, double cream and bacon, mandatory carbonara-eating negligee draped over a chair), the Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (weird offal in the fridge and boxes of home-cured meats lying around in various stages of fermentation), or an ardent follower of the Clean Eating brigade (chia seeds, bee pollen, cacao powder, a frankly alarming and small mortgage-worthy quantity of Medjool dates). Or, of course, an indifferent, fairweather cook (large quantities of pasta in various shapes and sizes, lots of canned sauces, a jar of 'all-purpose seasoning').
I still remember the first time I visited the house of a then-brand-new boyfriend many years ago and spotted a jar of dried kaffir lime leaves on his kitchen shelves. For me, this was a far more reassuring sign of beautiful romance to come than a tidy house, a clean bathroom or a stash of erudite novels. Here, I thought, was someone whose experimental nature in the kitchen might rival my own, who knew a thing or two about ingredients and how to put them together, who enjoyed travelling the world from the comfort of a stovetop.
Fast forward seven years, and that wide-eyed young romantic would no longer be impressed by a tub of wrinkled old leaves. True herb and spice addicts, those whose collections span several storage units and, if catalogued, could rival that of a decent library, know that the only way to get the true flavour out of a kaffir lime leaf is to either grow the plant yourself, or to buy them frozen from Asian supermarkets. Vacuum drying these thick, intensely aromatic, zesty leaves sucks the life out of them like a well-positioned aphid. You may as well compare the clove-scented, verdant foliage of a blooming basil plant to the musty, nondescript powdered dried stuff that, for some reason, is still produced and sold in supermarkets. Only the fresh or frozen leaves – the latter of which defrost in minutes and are every bit as aromatic as their just-off-the-plant counterparts – will offer you the strong, citrus snap of the kaffir lime plant, particularly when shredded finely and stirred into simmering sweet coconut milk or pounded with chilli, ginger and coriander in a pestle and mortar.
Or so I thought, until I came across lime leaves in powdered form by Seasoned Pioneers. This dusky green powder captures some of the leaves’ powerful aroma, without too much of the unpleasant mustiness that often characterises dried herbs. It’s a different beast altogether to the springy fresh leaves, but its powdered form means that it’s perfect for experimenting with in recipes that wouldn’t work with the whole leaves, or when you need a kitchen shortcut – a little of this in a marinade, for example, would save you painstakingly shredding and chopping whole leaves.
The first time I tried kaffir lime in a sweet context was as ice cream, alongside a banana and coconut cake. The intensely fragrant, citrusy snap of the cream was revelatory, and I couldn’t believe I’d never considered coupling these leaves with sugar before – after all, lemongrass, possibly the closest you can get to a lime leaf in terms of flavour and head-clearing zinginess, works gloriously in ice cream, frozen yoghurt and sweet tea. This cheesecake also pairs the cosseting smoothness of dairy with the astringent snap of the lime leaf, adding a ginger-scented biscuit base and the crunch of toasted coconut. The zest and juice of the lime fruit maximise the sharp citrus flavour, while the lime leaf powder lends a subtle, dusky perfume to the mix, more complex than citrus juice alone, with slight herbal notes and an almost grassy tang. It’s beautifully light from the use of Quark, a fat-free cream cheese, and set with gelatine rather than baked for maximum freshness. It’s the perfect way to finish an Asian-inspired meal, particularly a Thai curry or salad.
If you can get your hands on some kaffir lime leaf powder (available online), and are wild for South East Asian flavours as I am, I’d highly recommend indulging your passion with this recipe. If not, just add the zest of an extra lime and you’ll have a very lovely lime cheesecake.
And, men of the world, take note. Throw out those dusty dried kaffir lime leaves and buy some frozen ones instead. You never know when you might have a super-judgemental hot date eyeing up your kitchen shelves.
Kaffir lime cheesecake (makes one 20cm cake):
- 12 Digestive biscuits
- 50g butter
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 4 tbsp desiccated or flaked coconut
- 150g icing sugar
- 200g cream cheese
- 500g Quark
- Zest and juice of 1 lime
- Up to 3 tsp kaffir lime powder
- 1 sachet powdered gelatine
Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Blitz the biscuits in a blender to fine crumbs. Melt the butter in a saucepan then stir in the biscuits and ginger.
Grease a 20cm springform cake tin and line the bottom with greaseproof paper. Tip the biscuit mixture into the tin then press down evenly with the back of a spoon to form an even base layer. Bake in the oven for 10 minutes, then remove and leave to cool. While the oven is still on, toast the coconut in a small oven dish – it will only take a couple of minutes, so watch it carefully so it doesn’t burn. Set aside to cool.
Meanwhile, make the filling. Whisk the icing sugar, cream cheese, Quark, lime zest and kaffir lime powder in a large bowl – add the lime powder a little at a time, tasting as you go, until you have the strength of flavour you want.
Heat the lime juice in a small pan until just below the boil. Turn off the heat and sprinkle the gelatine evenly over the surface of the lime juice. Leave for a few minutes, then whisk into the lime juice until evenly incorporated.
Quickly whisk the gelatine mixture into the cheese mixture until totally incorporated, then pour the whole lot into the cake tin. Smooth the surface, scatter with the coconut, then chill in the fridge for at least 8 hours. Garnish with extra kaffir lime leaves, if you like, before slicing and serving.