Exploring cheesecakes

A look at varieties of this delicious dessert from countries around the Mediterranean.

french cottage cheese tart_521 (photo credit: G. Marc Benavidez/Wichita Eagle/MCT)
french cottage cheese tart_521
(photo credit: G. Marc Benavidez/Wichita Eagle/MCT)
It’s not surprising that sales of dairy products increase dramatically during the week of Shavuot. After all, for many people, Shavuot is the “holiday of cheesecake.” Although eating cheesecake on Shavuot is best known as an Ashkenazi custom, many Sephardim also celebrate the holiday with this sweet treat.
But not all cheesecakes are the typical dense, round, fairly high kind that is often called New York cheesecake in the US and is made with cream cheese.
A cheesecake made by Jews in Italy makes use of ricotta cheese and is not tall, but more like a pie. The raisin- and pine-nut-studded filling, flavored with lemon and cinnamon, is baked in a buttery, sweet pastry crust, according to Adei-Wizo’s La Cucina Nella Tradizione Hebraica, a book on cooking among Italy’s Jews.
For Shavuot, Edda Servi Machlin, author of Classic Italian Jewish Cooking, makes an unbaked cheesecake, which is actually a sort of mascarpone mousse. The ultra-rich mixture is layered with cookies dipped in coffee and rum, like the famous Italian cheese dessert tiramisu. It is served topped with sugar-coated, toasted almonds.
A POPULAR Shavuot cheesecake among Jews from Greece is oblong, not round. This cake, called kousmeri, is made from soft, white farmers’ cheese mixed with eggs, sugar, flour and melted butter, wrote Nicholas Stavroulakis, author of Cookbook of the Jews of Greece. Like many Greek cakes, after it is baked, it is moistened with honey syrup. Another luscious Greek cheesecake is bougatsa, a sort of cheese baklava, with layers of buttered phyllo dough alternating with a filling of cheese, sugar and eggs. Originally it was made with the thick cream of water buffalo milk (like the Turkish kaymak), but now the more available cream cheese is substituted. The warm baked cheesecake is moistened with chilled syrup, or it is cooled and sprinkled with powdered sugar, and served cut in squares.
Jennifer Felicia Abadi, author of A Fistful of Lentils, a book on Syrian Jewish cooking, also uses phyllo in her cheesecake, but it is shredded phyllo, and her cheesecake is a ricotta version of knafe. The dough is enriched with melted butter and layered in a pie dish with a creamy ricotta filling flavored with rose water. After it is baked, the cake is garnished with chopped pistachios and drizzled with rosewater syrup.
These kinds of Mediterranean cheesecakes probably inspired pastry chef Marcy Goldman, author of A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking, to create her halva phyllo cheesecake, which she calls a “smooth cheesecake with a Middle Eastern accent.” She bakes the creamcheese filling, flavored with honey, chopped pistachio nuts and chopped vanilla halva, in a pan lined with several layers of buttered phyllo dough. At serving time, the cake is drizzled with warm honey and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and chopped pistachios.
Since France is so rich in cheeses, I was surprised that I did not find many cheesecakes. Those I came across were regional specialties, like the striking tourteau fromager of Poitou in central France. The cake’s domeshaped top is completely black from being baked at high temperature. The light, delicately sweet filling, which is baked in a pastry crust, is sometimes made with fresh goat cheese.
I especially like the sweet cheese tart of Auvergne, also in central France, which is made of a creamy, lemony filling in a buttery pastry base. The cheese used resembles cottage cheese, and is mixed with creme fraiche; the batter is flavored with lemon zest and juice. After a festive Shavuot dinner, this cheese tart is an appealing dessert – not dense and heavy, but pleasantly sweet and rich.
The writer is the author of Fresh from France: Dessert Sensations and of Aruhot Halaviot, dairy meals (in Hebrew).
This tasty French cheesecake is based on a cheese tart from Auvergne in central France, where it is made from a “country cheese” resembling cottage cheese. You can bake it a day in advance; keep it in the refrigerator.
This tart is easier to prepare than most because it is a country-style tart, and there is no need to bake its pastry shell separately. To help make the pastry base crisp, the tart in its pan is baked on a hot baking sheet.
Pastry for Sweet Tarts (see recipe below) 11⁄2 cups cottage cheese 1 cup sour cream or creme fraiche, or some of each 6 Tbsp. sugar (80 gr. or about 3 oz.) 1 Tbsp. flour 2 large eggs grated zest of 1 large lemon few drops of lemon juice
Prepare pastry and refrigerate until firm.
Butter a 23- to 26-cm. (about 9 to 10-in.) tart or pie pan, about 3 cm. (11⁄4 in.) high.
Let dough soften a few minutes before rolling it. Tap it several times with rolling pin if it is too firm. Roll out dough on a lightly floured surface until about 6 mm. (1⁄4 in.) thick. Roll up dough loosely around rolling pin and unroll it over pan.
Gently ease the dough into pan. Using your thumb, gently push dough down slightly at edge of pan, making top edge of rim thicker than remaining dough. If using a tart pan, roll rolling pin across pan to cut off dough on the pan’s edges; if using a pie pan, cut off the edges with a knife. With your finger and thumb, press to push up edge of dough around pan, so it is slightly higher than rim of pan, or crimp edges of dough.
Chill for 30 minutes in refrigerator or 15 minutes in freezer, or until dough is firm; or cover the tart shell with plastic wrap and refrigerate it overnight.
Preheat oven to 200ºC (400ºF) and heat a baking sheet in oven.
To make the filling, mix the cheese with the sour cream. Stir in sugar and flour. Stir in eggs one by one. Stir in half the grated lemon zest, reserving the rest to sprinkle on top. Stir in the lemon juice.
Lightly prick the dough in the pan with a fork. Set pastry shell in its tart pan on hot baking sheet in the oven. Carefully pour filling into shell and sprinkle with remaining grated lemon zest. (If it’s more convenient for you, you can first fill the tart and then set the filled tart on the hot baking sheet.)
Bake for 25 minutes or until pastry begins to turn golden at edges. Reduce oven temperature to 160ºC (325ºF) and bake for 20 more minutes or until filling sets. Turn off oven and let tart cool in oven for 1 hour. Then remove tart and let cool to room temperature. Refrigerate for several hours before serving. Serve cold.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
This slightly sweet pastry is delicious and takes only a few minutes to make in a food processor. To make the dough easy to roll, refrigerate it before rolling it out. If you have extra dough, you can bake cookies from it.
1 large egg
12⁄3 cups all-purpose flour
pinch of salt
6 Tbsp. sugar (80 gr. or about 3 oz.)
100 gr. (31⁄2 oz.) cold unsalted butter, cut into bits
grated zest of 1⁄2 lemon
few drops lemon juice
Beat egg in a small bowl. Combine flour, salt and sugar in a food processor. Process briefly to blend. Scatter butter pieces over mixture. Process with on/off turns until mixture resembles coarse meal.
Pour egg mixture evenly over mixture in processor. Add grated lemon zest and lemon juice. Process with on/off turns, scraping down occasionally, until dough forms sticky crumbs that can easily be pressed together but does not come together in a ball. If crumbs are dry, sprinkle 1 tsp. water and process with on/off turns until dough forms sticky crumbs. Add more water by teaspoons if crumbs are still dry, and process briefly each time.
With a rubber spatula, transfer dough to a sheet of plastic wrap. Wrap it and push it together. Shape dough in a flat disc. Refrigerate dough for 1 hour, or until it is firm enough to be rolled; or you can refrigerate it up to 2 days.
Makes enough for a 23- to 26-cm (about 9- to 10- inch) tart shell.