Friday, January 3, 2014

Cheesecake in Brazil!

Not too many people in my circle of friends here in Brazil are regular cheesecake eaters (but they love it when I bring it to parties). It does not seem to be a very common dessert in restaurants or at family events. I can’t recall seeing more than a few over the years at our local sweet shops. They are out there, but just not a common thing. (I’m sure some urban areas – you know who you are - have wonderful cheesecake spots, but across the country this is not a ‘thing.’) Some folks will not know what you mean when you say “torta de queijo,” try “torta de queijo Philadelphia.”

In my experience, the cheesecakes I have eaten here have been a bit too wet and dense in texture and have been topped with a sticky, gelatinous, overly sweet fruit topping. Still, they can taste great, if you like that sort of thing.

Forgive me if I prefer my own version of cheesecake. I have been using this recipe for years and my friends plead with me to make it for big parties. At this point I do not know where I got the recipe and I am sure it has drifted in details from the original version. But it still works for me, even after moving to Brazil and having to use local versions of ingredients that are commonly found in the USA.

One big division among cheesecake makers/eaters is whether or not the crust should cover only the bottom of the cake or if it should climb up the sides of the pan and form a tall, wraparound crust for the entire cake. It is a personal preference. When done right, I prefer the tall, wraparound version. I like the texture and the subtle additional flavor accent it can provide. But it must be thin. A clunky, thick, often soggy cookie crumb nastiness encasing your fluffy cheesecake will take away the buzz. Practice makes perfect, but it must be thin. Strive for as thin as possible. (It’s not easy, but the practice can be delicious all the same.)

So here is my version of cheesecake. It makes a full-on tall cake in a 10” spring form pan, serving 12 people or more. The cheesecake itself is not flavored with fruit or whatever else, but I include a sweet topping recipe that can be tricked out with your favorite fruit.

¾ cup coarsely ground walnuts
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 cups granulated sugar, divided
2 cups finely crumbled vanilla wafers (in Brazil I use a good banana cinnamon biscuit cookie)
6 tablespoons melted butter
4 pkgs (8 oz.) cream cheese (in Brazil the packages are a bit smaller, so buy 5 pkgs to measure about 910 gms) 
5 good size large or jumbo eggs (get the fresh ones, but no need to get the super huge jumbo ones)
1 tablespoon +1 teaspoon lemon juice (in Brazil use limão Siciliano)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Lightly butter a 10” spring form pan. Preheat your oven to 350° F (180° C).

Place the cookies in a strong plastic bag and pound them into coarse crumbs. Then place those crumbs along with the walnuts, cinnamon and ½ cup of sugar into a food processor and pulse them into a fine mixture. Transfer to a bowl and pour in the melted butter. Mix well. It should be moist, not super wet or powdery dry.  Press the cookie crumb mixture into the pan pressing out from the center and up the sides of the pan. Use a flat bottom and right angle measuring cup or drinking glass to help get a thin flat layer. Be sure to press firmly into the corner between the bottom and side to avoid a thick crust elbow. Then place the formed crust into the oven for about 4 - 5 minutes to toast and set it but do not over toast it. Remove from oven and set aside. Leave the oven on.

For the filling, beat the cream cheese until smooth; really smooth. In the States this will take a while, as the cream cheese is quite firm. Having a Kitchen Aid mixer is the bomb in this situation. Here in Brazil I have found the cream cheese to be rather soft in texture, so the creaming process is not all that challenging. But don’t be shy. Get that stuff smooth and light. Slowly add the remaining 1 ½ cups of sugar and cream until you can no longer feel grains of sugar when you rub some of the batter between your fingers. Then add the eggs, one at a time, combining thoroughly between each egg. Add the lemon juice and the vanilla extract. Scrape the beater(s) and the sides of the mixing bowl to get everything back into the mix. Beat well until perfect.

Pour the filling mixture into the prepared crust and place in the oven. I place a sheet pan under the spring form (directly if necessary or a shelf down, whatever your options are) to catch any dripping moisture from the cake while it bakes. Bake for at least one hour, until the top is mostly firm and golden in color. This is the tricky part. Baking should be slow and you should stop just shy of a completely firm cake. Test doneness by tapping the edge of the pan to see if the cake mixture is still liquid and jiggly. You want it mostly firm while still a tiny bit jiggly in the middle. Try not to over bake the cheesecake. Baking it in a too hot oven will dry it out and the surface may crack. My oven here in Brazil is VERY weird and I can never get the temperature right, even with a thermometer – for some reason. The last time I made this cake (quite successfully) I baked it for a full two hours.

I think the super soft nature of the cream cheese here makes the batter rather thin looking and wet. Fear not. Slow baking and patience will result in a beautiful light texture that is fully cooked. In fact, I have never gotten a dry cheesecake result here, perhaps due to the difference in the ingredients.

When you think the cake is done, turn off the oven and let it cool down in the closed oven, about 20 – 30 minutes. Remove the cheesecake from the pan and set on the counter to cool completely to room temperature. It should be beautiful! (If you are taking it to a party, feel free to leave it in the pan for transport.)

Strawberry topping
This recipe works great to create a clear, shiny glaze that can be brushed over strawberries arranged on the top of your cheesecake. Unfortunately, I cannot find the proper ingredients here in Brazil so my modified version works better as a sweet thick sauce that can be poured over a slice before serving. In any case – it is delicious without being ridiculously sweet.

2 – 3 quarts beautiful, fresh, ripe strawberries, stems removed (leave whole or slice, your preference)
One 12 oz. jar of seedless raspberry jam. Here I have never seen this, so I have substituted something referred to as “doce cremoso de morango tipo Schmier.” Ritter brand sells a 400 g little tub of the stuff. It is like strawberry jam without the chunks of fruit; it is not clear.
1 tablespoon corn starch
¼ cup cold water
½ c. Triple Sec
1 tablespoon lemon juice

When using the original ingredients, place the jam in a saucepan on low heat. Combine corn starch with the cold water in a small cup and stir until lumps-free. Mix it into the heating jam. Stir well. Add Triple Sec and lemon juice, stirring constantly over low heat until mixture is clear and thickened. Cool in the refrigerator for about 15 minutes stirring frequently to prevent a film from forming on the surface.

Arrange the strawberries on the top of the cheesecake (beautiful tall whole berries side by side or a spiral layering of sliced berries). Carefully brush the clear glaze over all the berries and bits of exposed cheesecake. Chill completely before serving.

If you are making the local version, think rustic yummy strawberry sauce. I omitted the Triple Sec (but you can leave it in) and just used water, a bit less than suggested. Otherwise I followed the procedure above. The final result is a thick, yet quite pour-able, topping. It is not clear. Do not brush it over the strawberries because its cloudy nature will result in a muddy finish. Pour the topping over a slice once it has been plated.

There you have it. It works for me! Cheesecake has a reputation for being difficult to perfect and many people have careful procedures they have found to help them create a true party-stopping dessert. If you have any tips, of any sort, please include them in the comments section.



Danielle said...

Totally doable! Cream cheese is just so expensive. I'll have to save this recipe for a day that I can justify the purchase. :)

Jim said...

Yeah, Danielle - the whole cheesecake can run R$40-45. That's why it tends to be a party item. You can leave out the walnuts and use a fruit that is in season. Strawberries can be a lot if not during harvest season.