• This spiced cheesecake is inspired by a festive Belgian holiday. (Sylvie Gruber)Source: Sylvie Gruber
Sylvie Gruber adds sweet-and-spiced holiday magic to the standard cheesecake – in celebration of Belgian customs and her roots.
By
Elli Jacobs

21 Apr 2021 - 7:12 PM  UPDATED 22 Apr 2021 - 2:37 PM

Sylvie Gruber was born in Brussels, Belgium, to a French mother and Belgian father – so enjoying food was a big part of family life. This was mostly thanks to her French grandmother Frida, who moved to Brussels with Sylvie’s grandfather Maurice to be close to the family. She'd prepare the food they had for lunch, family holidays and big celebrations.

On Wednesday afternoons when Gruber didn’t have full days at school, her grandfather would pick her up. He'd always have two sandwiches, prepared by grandma Frida, for Gruber to snack on during the ride home – one cheese and one Nutella.

For lunch, it was always a spiral pasta dish with onion and cumin, slowly pan-cooked for hours until very crunchy, then served with tomato paste – which Gruber says she's never been able to successfully recreate.    

Grandma Frida had a knack for creating the most delicious fusion of Eastern European savoury dishes without any recipes.

“For years, mum and I tried to follow her in the kitchen and learn her recipes, but we were never able to determine exact proportions and ingredients as she was always taste-testing and adding a little bit of this and a little bit of that spice,” says Gruber. 

The only rule grandma Frida had in the kitchen was to never kick the children out: she'd always encourage them to watch and participate. Gruber remembers spending time in the kitchen with her grandmother after school, picking up skills, which encouraged her love for cooking.

Gruber equally remembers the delicious smells that came out of her mother’s kitchen on Fridays, as her mother Pascale prepared Shabbat dinner together with Frida.

“As a Jewish family, Friday night dinners were – and always are – a sacred thing in my house,” Gruber says.

No matter how busy they all got, they always made sure to catch up over challah bread, roasted chicken with potatoes and green beans.

Gruber has special memories of the savoury dishes her grandma taught her, but the desserts appealed to her most.

This might seem surprising, as Gruber's dad David is a dentist, so he did not allow her and her brother Jeremy to eat sweets or any processed foods when they were children. There were no lollies around, only fresh fruit.

Gruber’s sweet tooth initially developed by helping prepare the fruit salad for Shabbat dinner and on Sunday afternoons while making French crêpes or clafoutis with seasonal fruits with her mum.

“Those easy, comforting French desserts were my first introduction to what would later become my true passion: French pastry,” she says.

From there, she learned the basics of baking through a French pastry cookbook her mum had lying around – it was so old that the pages were falling out. Once she realised how much she loved baking as a teenager, she bought cookbooks on how to make macarons and madeleines. Gruber would tweak ingredients and techniques to produce her own recipes.

The desserts appealed to her most. This might seem surprising, as Gruber's dad David is a dentist, so he did not allow her and her brother Jeremy to eat sweets.

“As I developed my own desserts, I would bake them for Shabbat dinners, or when the family would visit from France especially during Passover, and for family birthdays,” Gruber says.

“Amongst my friends, I am particularly known for my madeleines, my Bavarian chocolate mousse cakes, and classic lemon tart. Even my dad has always been more than happy to eat my baked goods, especially because I always try to cut down the sugar.” 

For Passover, Gruber’s extended family would gather and eat special foods. Charoset, for instance, represented the mortar the enslaved Jews had to use for construction in Egypt. Other Passover holiday dishes included Frida’s specialty gefilte fish, Pascale’s matzo ball soup, and Gruber’s favourite breakfast matzo brei – a sweet pancake her mum made out of eggs and an unleavened bread called matzo.

For this holiday, Gruber would bake herself almond orange cake or almond cookies.

A cheesecake inspired by Belgian traditional biscuits

Speculoos is a traditional Belgian biscuit, but Gruber didn’t enjoy it until she started university.

Spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and cardamom, speculoos biscuits can be compared to gingerbread. One of the most famous brands is Biscoff, which comes from a combination of "biscuits and coffee".

In Belgium, Saint Nicholas Day (or Sinterklaas) takes place at the start of December. The holiday is a precursor to Christmas and is celebrated with shortcrust speculoos biscuits in various festive shapes (such as Saint Nicholas himself).

“Being Jewish, we don’t celebrate Christmas, but I do remember seeing [these biscuits] around a lot in every pastry shop," Gruber says. And she was able to connect to the biscuits in a non-religious way.

“Speculoos biscuits always remind me of afternoons spent with friends at the terrace of a cafe next to my uni, drinking coffees, eating biscuits and chatting for hours. Nothing tastes better than a speculoos dipped in a hot coffee.”      

Inspired by this, Gruber decided to bake her own version of a speculoos cheesecake.

“It’s a relatively new Belgian dessert. One that a pastry shop, Les Tartes de Françoise, came out with about 20 years ago and it quickly became very famous and has now earned classic status in Belgium,” she explains.

“Speculoos biscuits always remind me of afternoons spent with friends at the terrace of a cafe next to my uni, drinking coffees, eating biscuits and chatting for hours. Nothing tastes better than a speculoos dipped in a hot coffee.”   

“In its classic and traditional version, speculoos is used only in the crust. In my version, I tried to up the speculoos and have added it inside the cheesecake butter as well. It’s still low in sugar and has a good balance of sweet, spicy and savoury taste due to the cream cheese, including the typical crunch of speculoos cookies – but as a dessert, it’s more on the decadent rather than the healthy side.     

“I had actually never made it in Belgium, as we would buy it from the shop famous for it. It’s only once I moved to Australia that I decided to bake it myself to recreate a feel of home. Anyone who has tried it here has really enjoyed it and its unusual spicy flavours that aren’t usually found in a cheesecake. The sweet speculoos spread used as a glaze to finish the cheesecake is especially loved by kids.”

Turning a passion for baking into a career

Although Gruber considered becoming a professional pastry chef after high school, her more traditional parents insisted she study something ‘serious’ and have a 'proper career'.

She graduated from university in 2013 with a masters in architecture, but was unable to find a job in Belgium. So she decided to travel to Australia for a year, hoping to find a six-month internship. She ended up getting a job ten days later as an architect. Then she met her Australian life partner Ariel – and never left.

Gruber didn't give up on baking, either.

“Being mostly self-taught, I wanted to perfect the basics of French pastry," she says. "So in 2019, I flew to Paris and attended a 200-hour intensive course for adults interested in changing careers at Ecole Ducasse the school founded by chef Alain Ducasse,” she says.  

“That took my pastry skills from a homemade style to a professional level,” she says.

Currently, Gruber shares her recipes on her blog A Baking Journey and is in the development stage of starting a French pastry catering company, focusing on desserts that are low in sugar and rich in natural flavours.

“My parents were very sceptical about my decision at first. But seeing how happy it makes me and how I managed to turn food blogging into a career, they have definitely changed their minds about it,” Gruber says.   

“I love to bake for all the special people in my life, both friends and family. My Australian husband’s family are usually the ones who get to try most of my creations. I truly believe that baking for people is the best way to show them your love!”

 

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @ellijac.


Speculoos (Biscoff) cheesecake

Serves 12

  • 250 g speculoos (Biscoff) biscuits
  • 100 g unsalted butter, melted
  • 500 g cream cheese
  • 200 g Greek yoghurt
  • 150 g speculoos (Biscoff) or cookie butter spread
  • 50 g caster sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 150 g speculoos (Biscoff) or cookie butter spread
  • 4 speculoos biscuits
  1. To make the cheesecake crust, place the speculoos biscuits into a food processor and crush them into very fine crumbs. If making the crust by hand, place the biscuits into a plastic Ziploc or freezer bag and smash them with a rolling pin.
  2. Add the melted butter into a mixing bowl or the food processor and mix it with the crumbs until it gets a thick wet sand consistency.
  3. Transfer the crumb mixture to a 24cm springform pan that has been lined with baking paper or has been very well greased with butter.
  4. Using the back of a spoon or a cup, very firmly pack the crumbs into the pan to create the crust and place in the fridge to chill for 30 minutes.
  5. While the crust is chilling, start preparing the cheesecake batter by preheating the oven to 150°C.
  6. Place the cream cheese, Greek yoghurt and speculoos (Biscoff) or cookie butter spread in a large mixing bowl. All of those ingredients need to be at room temperature to avoid lumps forming in the batter.
  7. Using a hand mixer, whisk together the ingredients on medium speed until the batter is completely smooth, fluffy and all lumps have been removed. Try not to over-mix it, as you don't want to add too much air into the batter.
  8. Add the caster sugar and mix the ingredients until combined.
  9. Add the eggs to the ingredients one at a time, mixing well between each egg. The batter should be smooth and fluid. If required, melt the spread for a few seconds in the microwave to be more fluid.
  10. Remove the chilled crust from the fridge and pour the cheesecake batter over the chilled crust. Then use the back of a spoon or a small offset spatula to spread the batter and smooth out the top.
  11. Tap the springform pan against a hard surface a few times. This is to pop any large air bubbles that might be trapped into the batter and could make the cheesecake crack or collapse in the oven.
  12. Place the pan on the lowest rack of your oven and bake for 45 to 55 minutes, or until the cheesecake has set. To check if it is set, gently and carefully move the pan back and forth in the oven; the cheesecake shouldn’t jiggle in the centre.
  13. Turn the oven off, but leave the cheesecake inside to cool down naturally for about an hour.
  14. Remove from the oven and leave it to fully cool down at room temperature. When cool, transfer the cheesecake to the fridge, to avoid cracking or collapsing that can be caused by a sudden change in temperature.
  15. After it has chilled in the fridge for an hour, it is ready to serve. Alternatively, you can melt more speculoos (Biscoff) spread in the microwave until it's very liquid and pour it over the cheesecake. Use a small offset spatula to push the spread towards the edges and create a drip effect.
  16. Finish with some crushed speculoos cookies and enjoy.

 

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