As we head into the festive period the supermarkets go all upmarket and begin to stock items that we don’t see on a regular basis. One of these items is cheese and a new ‘posh’ cheese on the shelves just happened to be Brillat-Savarin, a cheese that i’ve been on the lookout for a long time.
The Square ‘Sweet’ dessert cookbook by Phil Howard contains, at the very beginning, a cheesecake that seemed unlike any other. Rectangular in shape and made with a cream cheese that I had never heard of, Brillat-Savarin. Supposedly a rich, cream cheese in similarity to the Italian mascarpone. This cheese is used to make a basic cheesecake onto which you can top with a glaze and flavour it any way you like using the recipes in the book.
Usually it would set you back the best part of £30 for a kilo of Brillat Savarin but thank god for Aldi. 200g here is on sale at £3.99 so I went and bought three lots for £11.97, an absolute bargain. Phil recommends a whopping 1.3kg cheese to use in this cheesecake but I had other ideas and decided to take my chances and halve the recipe.
For a regular cheesecake you would no doubt smash up a pack of digestives or oreo’s and add to melted butter to create a base. Phil’s cheesecake is a little more tricky than that. I began making the actual biscuit for the base from scratch by combining softened butter, demerara sugar, caster sugar, ground almonds and plain flour in a mixer, beating it with the paddle attachment until combined. Don’t worry if you don’t have a stand mixer, you can easily use a bowl and an electric whisk.
The crumbs are then tipped onto a lightly greased baking tray and baked in the oven for 20-25 minutes until golden. Mine took a lot less than the recommended time, probably due to having a fan oven. After a quick mix with a spoon and five more minutes in the oven my crumbs were nicely golden and ready to be mixed with melted butter and packed into the base of my metal rectangle.
The final step of the base preparation is just to run the base through the oven for a further 5 minutes just to set the crumbs evenly. Phew, base complete! Onto the filling and this was the exciting bit for me, my first taste of this mysterious French cheese. I took a small taste as I needed virtually all of it to ensure the mold was properly filled, wow! Kind of a creamy, very faintly tangy cheese with a lot of richness to it. Very impressive and worth the money.
To complete the mix in goes eggs, egg yolks, caster sugar, double cream, vanilla and the zest of an orange, lemon and lime. I used vanilla extract because….well..what’s going on with the price of vanilla pods? Is it down to brexit or something? £4.50 for two pods?! They can get stuffed. I went for high quality vanilla paste for £4.50 which contains the equivalent of 5 pods. I’m a man who knows value.
Anyway, back to the mix and oh my god. This is unbelievable. Another hit for Mr Howard and yet another reason to invest in these books. The flavour was just stunning, rich, perfectly balanced and just tasty to the maximum. It actually tastes like a cheesecake that’s had money spent on it (well, in reality it wasn’t cheap). I’m not a huge cheesecake fan but this had me amazed – It wasn’t even baked yet.
Fortunately my mold proved to be the perfect size and the mix filled it beautifully, leaving a perfect gap at the top for the glaze. There’s always that moment of doubt when you look at the bowl and back at the frame and just think there’s no way it’s going to fill it but really there were no issues.
The cheesecake then goes into the oven to bake for around two hours but bearing in mind I was working with half quantities my bake time was more towards an hour and a half. The cheesecake had set beautifully and had just started to crack a little – the crack actually resembles the shape of France.
I needed to let the cheesecake set in the fridge overnight. On day two the first job is to whip out a pallet knife and scrape away the grainy top layer on the cheesecake. Don’t go nuts digging away as it’s just a thin layer of yellowy skin that needs removing. Light motions up and down seemed to do the trick – think mowing the lawn but with a pallet knife on a cheesecake.
I was out of luck with red gooseberries, in fact come to think of it, I don’t think that i’ve ever come across red gooseberries in my life. A late sub was needed so step forward the humble rhubarb! Beautiful red sticks of loveliness made for a perfect last minute switch into the recipe. Looks like we’re getting a dessert after all.
The gooseberries are kind of crucial to this dish as the glaze, compote and puree depend on them. With rhubarb I knew that I could rely on the colour to get me through along with the pink champagne that goes into making the glaze. To begin with, chopped rhubarb goes into a bowl with sugar and a little elderflower cordial to get the cooking going. The bowl is then wrapped in cling film and set over a pan of simmering water to extract the juice. Once the rhubarb has had it’s time the juice is then drained into a bowl and combined with pink champagne and gelatine to form the glaze for the cheesecake.
At this point the glaze was very liquid, something that i should have expected but it didn’t look right. The colour seemed far too light compared to the picture in the book. I went into a thought process of how to perk up the colour and came to the solution of putting grenadine into an additional layer of glaze. Repeating the process but adding grenadine seemed to do the trick and gave a more prominent pink finish to the cheesecake.
Only three elements remained – the ice cream, compote and the puree. The ice cream is one of the strangest mixes that i’ve come across. A combination of elderflower cordial, apple juice and liquid glucose get warmed up in a pan before stirring in greek yogurt. The mixture didn’t taste all that good I must say and I did think that i’d made a mistake somewhere along the line.
After churning the mix though all doubts left my mind. The flavours almost mature as you chill the mix down in the fridge before churning and once the ice cream was made it surprised me. It was actually quite tasty. The compote is a simple arrangement of chopped rhubarb, sugar and apple juice just simmered until the rhubarb is cooked but holds its shape. The remaining juice is boiled until syrupy creating a delicious result.
Agar Agar is the stuff you need for the puree but as my (bad) luck would have it, the shops were all out of it. Step forward vege-gel, which is in the same family as agar agar but something that i’ve never used before. The gel is simply added to a mix of elderflower cordial and pink champagne before being whisked to dissolve and left to set into a firm jelly in the fridge. Once blended you are left with a beautiful fruity puree – if you’ve used agar, the vege gel sadly left me with a weak pink liquid once blended. Lesson learned.
The moment finally arrived – unmolding the cheesecake. I tried to be as careful as possible removing the foil but spots where the liquid had tried to escape were proving tough to remove. As the cheesecake sunk in the centre trying to escape the mold, I had to quickly whip the foil away before any breakages. Once a knife around the edge released the whole slab, it looked marvellous.
I was really proud that all that work hadn’t been in vain, i even took a sneaky taste. This is absolute heaven for any cheesecake lover, a perfect balance of flavour and a huge nod to Brillat-Savarin, what a superb cheese. Full of richness but the actual cheesecake itself was surprisingly light, perhaps because of the half quantity.
All that’s left now is the all important plating. I was frustrated that my puree hadn’t turned out exactly like Phil’s but then again I had rolled the dice without using agar agar. The ice cream was pretty solid after a period in the freezer but gradually thawed enough to use, i’d recommend churning once all the other elements are ready so that you can place it straight onto the dish at its best.
That said though this is one hell of a cheesecake. All the other cheesecakes that i’ve eaten in my years pale into insignificance at the first bite of this luxurious slice of heaven. Everything works perfectly layer by layer. The fruity twang of the champagne (or Italian fizz, an excellent alternative as it turned out), the juice from the rhubarb giving a sweet and sour hit just before you hit the main filling.
They should really change the name to Brilliant-Savarin because this cheese is the difference maker. I would happily part with £30 for a kilo of this stuff, it’s so so good. Everything is balanced within the mix and there’s no grainy horrible texture that you risk getting with a lot of baked cheesecakes.
The base is a beautiful crunchy hit of sweet almond flavour with the texture coming from the demerara sugar. The accompaniments didn’t really wow me, mainly because they didn’t turn out entirely as they should. The puree was full of flavour but not the correct texture, the ice cream had a hit of cheesecake flavour with a wonderful sour note but for me, it’s all about that cheesecake.
It’s well worth taking two days out of your week when a result like this hits your table. I loved every single bite, as did my family. I would happily make this again in another form from the recipes in the book. What a superb dessert.
The Square ‘Sweet’ is available to purchase from Amazon