The cheesecake gene runs strong in my family. My cherished aunt was the supermarket type; she would sooner have not had ice in her freezer than not had a Sara Lee. My mother, an indifferent cook who rarely even ate dessert, one day decided on a whim to bake a cheesecake and continued to knock out creamy, crack-free showstoppers for years like she was born to do it. While I would rather eat cheesecake than anything, I never felt terrifically moved to bake one — until I met the cheesecake to rule all others.
A year ago, when my daughter's college went remote and she was sent home early, she arrived with a bag of dirty laundry and a request for something she'd seen online. It was the spring of Basque burnt cheesecake. Propelled by Molly Baz's intriguing Bon Appétit Test Kitchen video (currently at nearly 3 million views), the dessert became an early pandemic breakout dish. Was it the way Baz marveled that it was "literally the easiest thing I've ever done in my life"? Or that she also called it "the most impressive"? Or was it just that everybody loves cheesecake, and everybody loves burnt things?
An internet obsession, the original tarta de queso was created a few decades ago by Santiago Rivera, chef of the bar-restaurant La Viña in Donostia-San Sebastián, Spain. Like Stanley Tucci, this thing is a late bloomer that deserves all of its current fame and glory. There's no crust, no water bath. It offers a generous margin of error for pulling from the oven. It turns brown when you bake it and slumps in on itself as it cools. If it cracks, so what?
In other words, it's impossible to mess up. The version I made this week may not be the most beautiful thing I ever baked, but I did throw it together during a Zoom call. Because this is the kind of cheesecake you can throw together on a Zoom call. It's the dessert that makes you feel like a person who can pull off dessert.
It's also insanely good, exactly as it is. It smells fantastic. It doesn't need graham crackers at the bottom or sour cream on top. It doesn't require berries. Because it's so ridiculously eggy, it has an intense, custardy quality that means you can serve it unrushed at room temperature.
Nigella Lawson includes a recipe for the famed cake in "Cook, Eat, Repeat," and she declares, "I can't stop making this." Nor can I, Nigella. Nor can I. Nigella's version — like many others out there — uses less cream cheese than Bon Appetit's formidable two pounds, as well as fewer eggs. This makes it beautifully adaptable to the version by Adrianna Adarme from "A Cozy Kitchen," which forgoes the traditional springform pan and works perfectly for a regular cake pan. In other words, you have no excuse.
I like to make my Basque cheesecake with extra salt and extra vanilla because I'm a crass American. The traditional accompaniment here is a glass of Spanish sherry, and who am I to argue? It's also quite lovely with espresso . . .
Recipe: Basque Burnt Cheesecake
- 3 8-oz. packages of cream cheese (room temperature)
- 1 cup of white sugar
- 2 tsps of vanilla extract
- 1 tsp of flaky salt
- 3 eggs
- 1 1/2 cups of heavy cream (I have made this with half and half when I couldn't get my act together to buy cream — and it's still sublime.)
- 1/3 cup of white flour
- Butter or cooking spray for your pan
- Preheat your oven to 400°.
- Generously butter an 8-inch cake pan or springform pan. Line it with two sheets of parchment paper laid crosswise. They should come up about 2 inches above the rim of your pan.
- With a stand or hand mixer, beat the cream cheese until smooth, scraping the sides of the bowl as needed.
- Add sugar (reserving 1 tablespoon), vanilla and salt. Beat again, until there are no lumps, and everything is well incorporated.
- Add the eggs, one by one, mixing well each time.
- Add the cream, followed by the flour. Mix gently.
- Pour into your pan. Place the pan on a cookie sheet.
- Top with remaining tablespoon of sugar.
- Bake about 45-50 minutes, until well browned on top and puffy but still a little wiggly in the middle. You may need to rotate your pan midway through baking to ensure evenness (but don't sweat it).
- Remove pan from oven. Let cheesecake cool for 1 hour — or longer — before serving. (My family likes it still a bit warm, but your mileage may vary.)
Chef's Note: While this cake is amazing all by itself, you could do a lot worse than serving up a slice with some salty, sticky caramelized pineapple sticks.
More Quick & Dirty:
- The best Sunday night comfort meal is rotisserie chicken chili, especially with a pinch of cinnamon
- Cacio e pepe pie is an insanely easy pasta dinner to make on nights when you don't feel like cooking
- A chocolate sandwich tastes exactly as comforting as it sounds — and it's sublime
- The viral feta pasta dish everyone's raving about is even better without pasta
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