The Simple San Sebastian Cheesecake Packed with Flavor
The Basque cheesecake is a tale of contrasts - browned, caramelized outer layer juxtaposed with a soft, almost-liquid, center. Achieved by a particular cooking method, it’s this contrast that sets the cake apart from its counterparts - a smoky, bitter edge against a creamy backdrop. The distinctive taste has earned the dish “flavor of the year” in The New York Times and it’s been all over dessert menus, and Insta, in the US in 2021. So we’ve taken a closer look at the crustless, cream cheese wonder…
Born in San Sebastian at La Viña Restaurant in 1990, the Basque cheesecake is the brainchild of Santiago Rivera. The chef was looking for a signature dessert to star on his family restaurant’s menu when he hit upon a recipe that would become world famous. The ingredient list is pretty simple: cream cheese, heavy cream, sugar, eggs, and just a dash of flour. The key is in the preparation: cooked at a very high temperature for a short amount of time so it’s browned on the outside and soft and gooey within.
Featuring a dark, cracked exterior and rough edges, the results are no oil painting but anyone who’s tried the cake will attest: it’s what’s inside that counts. Chef Andoni Aduriz did - he picked it up for the menu at Michelin-starred Mugaritz and it has since captured the imaginations of trailblazing chefs in the United States (Alex Raij, Grant Achatz, Katie Button, Dominique Ansel). And the rest is history - restaurants all over the world, especially in the US and Japan, have been honing their versions of the Basque cheesecake - from gluten free with chocolate (just swap out the flour for cacao) to incarnations featuring eye-catching green matcha or black sesame.
So what makes this cheesecake so relevant right now? Amid a wave of renewed interest in open fire cooking techniques, all things tasting of flame are getting attention. Traditionally used for meat, the umami flavor imparted by smoke and fire is now enhancing more sweet things. This is where the Basque cheesecake comes in. While the original is beautiful in its simplicity, you’ve got to admire the creativity chefs and home cooks are applying to the dessert - we’ve seen seasonal versions flavored with pumpkin spice, garnishes of labneh or fruit and even Oreo topped Basque cheesecake!