O, Alphonso mango season. How cruelly fleeting you are. Just when I've become hooked again on your luscious, juicy, fiery fruits of joy they are barbarously snatched away from under my nose and I am plunged headlong into a pit of gastronomic despair, forced to pine away for the next year in anticipation of the next time I can suck the honeyed nectar from those orbs of liquid gold, forced to make do with green-skinned, string-fleshed supermarket specimens that take a lifetime to ripen and then are never worth the wait. Here I sit, quietly weeping in my pit of despair, a bowl of inferior mangoes sitting in my fruit bowl, dreading the inevitable moment when I slice them open to reveal pale yellow mush with the mouthfeel of garden twine, fit only for the smoothie maker. Oh, alas.
Overdramatic? No. If you've ever tasted an Alphonso mango, you will understand my sorrow. Indeed, the first time I introduced a friend of mine to an Alphonso mango, she texted me the following:
"Elly this mango is divine. I literally feel like it might transubstantiate on its way down my oesophagus."
Enough said, really. However, for those of you sharing in my distress, there is a remedy. The honey mango.
These mangoes start to arrive just as the Alphonso season ends. They come from Pakistan and, like Alphonso mangoes, will rarely be found in the supermarket. You're most likely to obtain these treasures from an Indian grocery shop, where they are sold by the box at often bargainous prices (I got two boxes - nine mangoes - for £7). The tell-tale sign that these are something special, wildly different from the supermarket variety, is the aroma that greets you as you stand within a three metre radius of them. 'Honey' mangoes suddenly seems a very accurate name: the scent of them hangs thick and heavy in the air, sweet and musky, almost sickly but in a beautiful way, with notes not only of honey but also of toffee and butterscotch. The boxes sat on my desk for a day, tantalisingly emitting their heady aroma as I tried to work; eventually I succumbed. I sliced the flesh away from the stone, cut it into a hedgehog shape and sucked it from the skin. The juice is likely to dribble down your wrist as you eat one of these mangoes. That is how a mango should be.
Not quite Alphonsos, but I think these mangoes have a charm of their own. They lack the tartness of an Alphonso mango, possessing a rather more mellow, sultry flavour. It's earthy, somehow, and musky. While probably not flavoursome enough to hold their own in a sorbet, I really wanted to try out a dessert with these mangoes, especially because they were fairly cheap, unlike the Alphonsos, which I couldn't bear - at nearly £2 a mango - to do anything with other than suck them greedily from the skin until my mouth was neon yellow. I've never attempted to cook a mango, and decided nothing good could come of it in this case, so any form of tart or crumble was out. I hate cream, so a mango fool was not an option. I don't know why I'm even saying this, as it's not as if that was my actual thought process. No - I just immediately went "cheesecake". And that was it.
As I said, I didn't want to cook these gorgeous specimens, so an unbaked cheesecake was going to be the way forward. I deliberated for a while about exactly what I wanted this cheesecake to be. Very light, quite firmly set, studded with pieces of juicy, slightly grainy mango flesh. A crunchy biscuit base to contrast. A filling not overly sweet, to allow the mango to shine. I toyed with the idea of a lime-flavoured cheese filling, but I worried about overpowering the mango. What I really wanted was something quite rich and creamy, but ultimately fairly subtle, to complement the stunning golden flesh. I settled on coconut, after contemplating both vanilla and white chocolate. Mango and coconut are about as right for each other as me and Alphonso mangoes. They are a happy, happy partnership (albeit one tinged with sadness and crushing withdrawal symptoms - like all good relationships, I suppose).
The best thing about this is how simple the recipe is. The biscuit base is a classic mixture of crumbled digestive biscuits and melted butter. Or at least, it was before I had a brainwave. Cardamom. Maybe it's because I associate mangoes with India, and to me cardamom is a quintessentially Indian spice. As I removed the baked cheesecake base from the oven, it suddenly occurred to me that some cardamom in there could be no bad thing. Too late to mix it into the biscuits, I just crushed a few pods and sprinkled the ground seeds over the top of the base. I was worried it would be too overpowering, but in fact I think it was the secret to this cheesecake's deliciousness.
I think cardamom might be my new favourite spice (but no, you won't be finding me at 'Cardamoms, seven' shortly). It's incredibly hard to pinpoint its flavour. There's something about it that makes me think of citrus, but also a floral quality, which I think is why it works so well with rose. It has a very clean taste, almost lemony, but if asked to describe it in one word, I would fail miserably. Yet I feel, as a cook, there is much to be exploited from cardamom, and I'll definitely be experimenting with it now. It works so well in sweet situations. Against the buttery biscuits of the cheesecake and the subtle coconut mixture, it did something magical.
The actual cake is a simple mixture of Quark (fat free cream cheese), cream cheese, icing sugar, coconut essence, and gelatine to set it. I stirred chopped mango into the mixture before pouring it onto the base to set in the fridge. It's so simple, but the results are so utterly wonderful. To decorate, I was going to just scatter a cubed mango across the top, but then had the idea of cutting the flesh into strips and making a sort of star pattern, laying them across the cake from the middle outwards. After one of them accidentally curled over, I realised a much better idea would be to just lay them across the cake in sinuous randomness. I think it looks beautiful. A sprinkling of desiccated coconut was the finishing touch.
I can safely say that this is the best cheesecake I have ever made. It is even better than I hoped it would be. I guessed the amount of gelatine, but it was absolutely perfect - the set is not too firm, like jelly, but thick enough to enable the cake to slice easily and to almost disappear on the tongue. The chunks of mango add a pleasing juiciness and sweetness, but their flavour is subtle enough to complement the cheese mixture, which has a very slight coconut flavour but one not strong enough to overpower anything - you probably wouldn't guess the coconut was there from the taste, but it definitely adds something extra. The real star, though, is the cardamom biscuit base. I'm now considering making a cardamom-flavoured digestive biscuit, because the two things together are so incredible. It lifts the cheesecake to new heights altogether; buttery, fragrant, sweet with spice.
"This tastes like India", one of my friends said a couple of bites into her piece. I take that as a big compliment, as I have never been to India, but took my inspiration from flavours I associate with the country. Perhaps "this tastes like Pakistan" would have been more accurate, given the provenance of the mangoes, but as this cake is both a homage to the honey mango and a lament for the Alphonso mango (from Mumbai), the Indian connection is important, I feel.
Another excellent bonus of this cheesecake is it's fairly low-fat - Quark has no fat and I used light cream cheese. Without the buttery biscuit base (which reminds me - this video had me crying with laughter earlier in the week - if you've seen Masterchef, even only once, please, please click the link. I guarantee it'll be the funniest thing you've seen all day), you could even say this was a low-fat cheesecake. I even used 'light' digestive biscuits, so I did in fact tell myself it was healthy. Which is great, because then you can eat more of it.
One of my friends also pointed out that, when sliced, the cake looks a bit like one of those decorative soaps you can get with different coloured squarey bits in them (not a great description, but hopefully you know what I mean). I think it looks a bit like nougat. The contrast between the creamy coconut and the chunks of juicy fruit is even better than the rather lovely colour contrast would have you anticipating.
Mango, coconut and cardamom cheesecake (serves 6-8):
- 10 digestive biscuits
- 50g butter, melted
- 8 cardamom pods, seeds crushed to a powder
- 2 ripe honey mangoes
- 250g Quark
- 150g light cream cheese
- 150g icing sugar
- 1 tsp coconut essence
- 1 sachet gelatine
- 3 tbsp boiling water
- 2 tbsp desiccated coconut
Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Blitz the biscuits in a food processor and mix with the melted butter and cardamom. Scatter over the base of a greased, lined springform cake tin (mine was 18cm diameter, but 20cm would work too) and press down with the back of a spoon to form an even layer. Bake for 5-10 minutes until golden and aromatic. Leave to cool.
Meanwhile, mix the Quark, cream cheese, icing sugar and coconut essence together with an electric mixer. Peel one of the mangoes and dice into small cubes.
Place the boiling water in a small bowl and sprinkle over the gelatine. Leave for a couple of minutes to partially dissolve, then stir to dissolve completely - if it hasn't all dissolved, heat in the microwave for a few seconds. Have the electric mixer ready, and pour the gelatine mixture into the cheese mixture. Whisk thoroughly to incorporate, then quickly fold in the diced mango. Pour over the biscuit base and place in the fridge for a few hours to set (I left mine overnight).
To decorate, slice the other mango into thin strips and arrange on top of the cake. Sprinkle with desiccated coconut and finish with mint leaves, if you like.