When it comes to baking, “don’t burn it” is generally a pretty good rule to stick by. Unless you’re making this northern Spanish speciality, that is.
Burnt Basque cheesecake, while perhaps not in the same aesthetic league as other, more Instagrammable desserts (it is burnt after all), is trending nonetheless, standing as a beguiling and addictive alternative to the classic New York style.
At first glance, burnt Basque cheesecake almost looks like a savoury raclette or a scorched Portuguese tart – but cut through the scorched, blackened top layer to reveal a gooey centre of cream cheese, sugar, eggs and cream that oozes out like slow-moving molten lava. And you can forget about the crumbly crust that’s emblematic of a good cheesecake – the required inferno-level oven temperature (around 200˚C) provides an even, gorgeously dark toast around the whole cake, but would likely incinerate anything resembling a biscuit base.
It’s a winning formula according to chefs around the world, but one that’s not always so easy to perfect.
“It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to make,” says ex-Alinea chef and James Beard Award winner Dave Beran. According to Bloomberg, Beran set out to produce the burnt cheesecake at his Santa Monica fine-dining restaurant, Dialogue. “There are so many variables: the temperature of the ingredients, the way you mix them, the bake times and rest times.”
“It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to make."
The tried-and-true, decades-old recipe was invented and made famous by Santiago Rivera, owner of San Sebastian pintxos café La Viña. What started as a one-cake-a-day experiment 29 years ago has morphed into a veritable craze: in 2019, La Viña turns out around 20 cakes per day, and Rivera regularly fields requests from potential investors wanting to take the recipe global. The whole world wants a piece.
According to the Australian (via Barcelona) chef and MoVida restaurateur Frank Camorra, Rivera is more than happy to let fellow chefs in on the secret, but riffing on the formula is always encouraged.
“When burnt Basque cheesecake started getting really big, everyone was saying Santiago Rivera was keeping the recipe secret,” Camorra tells SBS. “But I just asked him for it – he was happy to send it straight over!”
“When we initially added burnt Basque cheesecake to the MoVida menu in 2011, we were trying to replicate La Viña’s recipe exactly,” Camorra tells SBS.
“When burnt Basque cheesecake started getting really big, everyone was saying Santiago Rivera was keeping the recipe secret. But I just asked him for it – he was happy to send it straight over!”
“It was more complicated, with more ingredients. These days, the version that we serve on and off is simpler, made with sheep’s milk. It’s still gooey and undercooked though, which is the best way to do it.”
While the burnt Basque cheesecake isn't currently on the MoVida menu, it does inspire a dish that's on the dessert menu. "We do use the basic recipe to make cheesecake ice-cream we serve with a baked pear pastry," he says.
Pâtissier Saori Katsura opened her cake shop Gazta in Tokyo, after entering the La Viña kitchen and learning the recipe for burnt Basque cheesecake from Rivera himself. Turkish bakery B.Blok introduced creamy, burnt cheesecake to the menu in 2014; now, B.Blok’s Instagram feed is almost exclusively occupied by pictures of burnt cheesecake, much to the delight of more than 40,000 followers. Skip across to Malaysia, where burnt cheesecake has taken off enough to justify a ‘best-of’ listicle.
Even the creator of the cronut (one of the most photogenic desserts in recent history), Dominique Ansel, wants a slice of the ugly duckling cheesecake.
How does a cheesecake manage to be burnt and undercooked, sweet but bitter, world-famous but still cult, entirely at once? Burnt Basque cheesecake seemingly breaks all the rules, but anyone who’s tried it will tell you that’s the point.
“Everyone loves a good baked cheesecake,” says Camorra. Correct!
Follow La Viña on Facebook until you can make the necessary pilgrimage. Or make your own with this sublime recipe right here.
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