Last summer I travelled around the Middle East with some friends. The highlight of the trip was definitely Syria, a country I'd been longing to visit for ages, though without knowing precisely why. I was captivated by its heat, its chaos, the charm of its people, and - above all - its food. One of the many gastronomic items that stand out in my recollection is actually a beverage, which is unusual for me - I tend to only ever consume four drinks: water, tea, wine and gin. Smoothies sometimes, if I've made them myself to use up overripe fruit, and occasionally the odd sip of juice from my boyfriend's glass if he offers it to me, but that's about it. I don't go in for fruit juice, generally seeing it as unnecessary calories that could be better expended on a large piece of cake.
However, this drink was something else. The menu said, inconspicuously, "lemon and mint". I thought it sounded odd. I have yet to get past this weird habit whereby I read 'mint' in a menu and imagine the horrible, artificial flavouring of After Eights or mint choc chip ice cream. I always forget that fresh mint is one of my favourite herbs, possessing a gorgeous, sweet freshness quite unlike its synthetic equivalent. Needless to say, I abstained from ordering this drink. My friends, obviously not sharing my weird mint issues, ordered it. I then spent the next half hour or so staring greedily at their glasses.
How to describe it? It's essentially lemonade blended with huge amounts of fresh mint, so that the juice is flecked with pieces of the herb. It looks a bit like you're about to drink the contents of a lawnmower. Unappealing? Not when it's forty degrees outside and you've been walking around all day in trousers and long sleeves. This drink is incredible. I will boldly declare that it is the most refreshing thing in the entire world. You know how amazing lemon sorbet tastes on a hot day when you're feeling thirsty? The way the sweet-sour-cold balance revives you from the inside like an ice cube to the face? This drink is even better. The lemon-mint combination, coupled with a little sugar, revives and refreshes like a plunge pool after a sauna.
Now that the days are getting hotter here in Oxford, my dessert daydreams shift from crumble, cobbler and pie to ice cream, mousse and cheesecake. Feeling the need for something very refreshing, especially because I planned quite a rich main course, my mind suddenly wandered to that lemon and mint drink. I'm not sure why; possibly because I was considering lemon cheesecake but, being me, I wanted to jazz it up a bit, and my inner wannabe-Syrian (well, not at the moment, given the political upheaval and all) immediately screamed 'mint' at me. Well, it didn't scream, because I was in the library and that would have been inappropriate. By the way, reading a book called "Medieval Blood" and trying to plan a dessert are not activities that can be productively carried out at the same time. Unless you are a vampire with a sweet tooth.
Hotter weather also demands a shift from the classic baked cheesecake I'm so fond of to a lighter, more mousse-like version set with gelatine. This can also be served colder than the baked cheesecake, which I always think should be removed from the fridge about 20 minutes before serving to allow its lovely crumbliness to shine through. Because it's cold and mousse-like, there's somehow a much sharper, purer lemon flavour. It's essentially the closest you can get to the lemon and mint drink in dessert form, I think. Apart from perhaps a sorbet. But this is more enjoyable to eat because of its creaminess.
Another great thing about this cake is that it's surprisingly healthy. I made it using light cream cheese and Quark, which is a curd cheese that's virtually fat-free, but has the texture of smooth cottage cheese (I sometimes use cottage cheese, whizzed in a blender) so is ideal for giving substance to a cheesecake. I've never used it before but will be using it again, because it has a great texture. I mixed the cheeses together with icing sugar, and then put some lemon zest and mint leaves in a blender. Because my blender is inept, it didn't result in the very fine minty powder, almost pesto-like, that I was hoping for, but it was good enough to swirl through the cheesecake mixture.
To set the cake I used gelatine dissolved in lots of lemon juice. The mixture went into a tin that I'd greased and lined, and I'd scattered some crushed ginger biscuits over the bottom. I couldn't be bothered to mix them with melted butter to stick it all together, but this worked quite well, because the biscuits stuck to the bottom of the mixture anyway.
After the cake had set, garnished it with crystallised mint leaves. This was a brainwave I had while tearing up the mint and putting it in the blender. I'm not sure why, because I've never heard of crystallised mint leaves before, but a quick google assured me that they did in fact exist. I kind of want to keep an air of mystery about them, and pretend there's some immensely complex kitchen work required in their preparation, so my dessert seems all cheffy and impressive, but I can in fact reveal that it is nothing more complicated than dipping mint leaves in egg white and then in sugar. In theory, this sounds weird - how could dipping a mint leaf in sugar make it edible? Let me assure you: they are incredible. When I got a bite of creamy lemon cheesecake mixed with the crunch of the sugary mint, it was like being back in Damascus. Not only is the flavour incredible, it's a nice little surprise and the textural contrast is brilliant. A bit like the crust on a fairground doughnut; you can feel those sugar granules crunch. I also think they look absolutely beautiful, like the garden on a frosty winter morning.
This cake is the ideal thing to serve after a rich meal: it wakes up the tastebuds, it's light, and it's pretty easy on the waistline. I'm very proud of it; it had just the intense lemon kick that I wanted, without being too sharp - the heavily sugared leaves help with that. Think lemon sorbet, and that's the same sweet-tart balance you get with this cake. The only slight issue was that it didn't set as much as I like. Next time I'd probably use more gelatine - it just about held its shape, but when I removed the sides of the tin it flopped a bit and wasn't quite the impressive, mousse-like structure I'd envisaged. Which also meant it didn't slice brilliantly. But food should be flavour first, then presentation, and this definitely delivers on all the levels I wanted it to.
It makes me very sad to read about Syria in the news at the moment. Particularly because I worry that people who have never been there, or to the Middle East, will have their notions of this country and region tarnished by the unfortunate events of the present. I have never been to a place more friendly and welcoming than Syria, particularly Aleppo. It's a cliche to say that the Middle East is a feast for all the senses, but it is definitely true of this country. It has so much to offer, and for that reason I hope it sorts its problems out - admittedly for largely selfish reasons, because I really want to go back. But if you're reading this, and then you see the news tomorrow and hear about more bloodshed and chaos, I would ask that when you think of Syria, you think not of carnage and war, but of lemon and mint.
Lemon and mint cheesecake (makes one 20cm cake):
250g light cream cheese
200g icing sugar
30g bunch of fresh mint
1 sachet gelatine
90g ginger biscuits, whizzed to crumbs in a blender
50g melted butter
1 egg white
6 tbsp granulated or caster sugar
Grease and line a 20cm cake tin. Mix the biscuits with the melted butter and spread over the bottom of the tin.
Whisk together the two cheeses and the icing sugar. Place half the mint leaves in the blender with the zest of two of the lemons, then blitz to a fine powder (if your blender is better than mine). Stir through the cheese mixture.
Juice 3 lemons into a small pan, then heat gently. Sprinkle the gelatine over the top of the juice and leave for a couple of minutes, then whisk into the hot liquid, ensuring it is completely dissolved. Whisk this mixture into the cheese mixture, quickly, then pour into the tin and place in the fridge to set for about 4 hours.
For the crystallised mint leaves, simply dip the remaining mint leaves into the egg white and then into the sugar, on both sides. Leave to dry on silicon baking parchment - it's best to let the upper side dry and then to flip them over, so they're completely solid and sugary.
When ready to serve, decorate the cake with the mint leaves and some extra lemon zest.