A stash of pistachios, and a windfall of walnuts from faraway Tehran had me rubbing my hands in glee as I got ready to bake a birthday cake for my husband’s birthday. I had a rich, smooth, somewhat adult, cappuccino cheesecake in mind but I also wanted to use the newly-arrived nuts in the cake. A salted walnut praline seemed like the perfect crunchy crown for the creamy, java-infused cheesecake.
Wrinkly, with 2 distinct lobes, walnuts have an uncanny resemblance to the brain. Can’t help thinking that they are nature’s way of dropping a hint, telling us, “Eat your walnuts. With monounsaturated fats making up 70 per cent of their nutrients, they are good for your brain”. I read somewhere that just 25 grams of walnuts can provide 90 per cent of our daily recommended dose of Omega-3 fatty acids. I like their slightly astringent, faintly bitter nuttiness, which equally complements both sweet and savoury foods. When you eat a brownie I bet you (like me) wait for the moment when your teeth encounter the light resistance from the walnuts and the pleasure of biting into them. Brownies without walnuts are simply not as exciting. I also love them in salads, on pizzas and even in pasta.
Together, coffee and walnuts are like a mature, well-heeled couple. They resonate depth of colour and flavour and bring to mind leather-bound volumes, fireplaces, Winchester sofas and deep discussions over brandy snifters. Word association aside, my intention was to make a birthday cake for a grown-up, bittersweet, layered and a little complex, like life itself. Baked cheesecakes are custardy in texture and the walnut praline on top would provide a proper, legitimate crunch to the tender cake. My way of making a birthday cake or celebration cake special is by incorporating elements like a sauce or a filling or streusal or even special liqueurs to the cake rather than plasticky sugar loaded icing.
Salt, in dessert is a fantastic element of modern desserts. For someone like me, who doesn’t like really sweet desserts, this is a great way of cutting the sugar on the palate. In the battle between caramel versus salted caramel, I throw my weight behind the challenger. Old fashioned caramel seems so plain and even a little boring for a birthday cake. So of course, the walnut praline had to have a salty edge. A few flakes of sodium chloride in the caramel made the walnuts pop with distinct bitter, sweet and salty impressions on the tongue. I couldn’t resist sneaking some even before they could cool and stowed the leftovers away for snacking later. The praline can be made ahead and keeps well for a few days in airtight container.
Moving on to the cheesecake itself, which is a fairly straightforward baked cheesecake with cream cheese / hung curd, eggs, sugar, cream and instant coffee. Cream cheese will yield a firmer (although still creamy) cake while hung and drained yoghurt might result in a softer cake that would need gentler handling. If you decide to use hung yoghurt, I suggest you go with half cream cheese and half hung yoghurt. As with all cheesecakes, patience is the key – first while baking on low heat, then with cooling and finally with leaving it to set in the fridge. But the wait will be more than compensated by the cake, I promise.
In a mood to indulge the music fanatic I married, I bought him a turntable for his growing vinyl collection, knowing that Sunday mornings would now be spent with the records he loves so much. And since I was being generous, his birthday cake too had to be over the top with a chocolate cookie crust and a glossy drizzle of chocolate ganache on top. Chocolate is always welcome, although if you decide to do without it, the cake would still be delicious with a strong resonance of coffee, the tang of cream cheese and the naughty salt-sweet crunch of the walnut praline. When you’re in the mood to spoil someone, swirl your time, energy, and love into this silky, voluptuous cheesecake and every mouthful will taste like a delicious endearment.
- 200 g chocolate cookies, crushed
- 80 g butter, melted
- 550 g cream cheese
- 200 g superfine sugar
- 160 ml heavy cream
- 2 ½ tsp instant coffee granules dissolved in 1 tbsp milk
- 3 eggs
- ½ tsp vanilla extract
- 100 g walnut pieces broken into big chunks
- 50 g sugar
- ½ tsp sea salt
- 1 tbsp butter
- 100 g dark chocolate
- 100 ml cream
- Before making the praline,spread baking parchment on a cookie sheet. Then, heat a pan on medium heat and lightly toast the walnut pieces for a minute. Set aside. In the same pan, melt the butter and add the sugar and salt and continue to cook stirring every now and then. After about 7-10 minutes the sugar will caramelise and turn toffee coloured. At this point, quickly add the walnuts and stir to coat. When the caramel is thick and sticks to the walnuts, turn off the heat and arrange the pieces a little apart on a parchment on a baking tray. Do this quickly to avoid clumping as the praline hardens in a minute or two. Cool and store in an airtight container.
- Making the cheesecake
- Preheat the oven to 160℃ and prepare an 8-inch springform pan by placing greased parchment on its base (the parchment makes it much easier to slide the cake onto a cake stand or plate) and lightly spraying the sides of the pan with cooking spray.
- Mix the crushed cookies with the melted butter and line the bottom and sides of the pan to a height of 2-3 inches inches. Press with the back of a spoon to make an evenly layered crust. Keep aside while you make the filling.
- To make the filling, cream the cream cheese and sugar till the sugar has blended and there are no lumps.
- Gradually beat in the eggs and stir in the cream and vanilla extract.
- Dissolve the instant coffee granules in the milk and add this to the cream cheese mixture.
- Pour the filling into the prepared crust and bake for 30 minutes till the cake has set but still a little wobbly in the centre. Switch off the oven, open the door and leave the cake in the oven to come to room temperature.
- After the cake has cooled, leave in the fridge for several hours, preferably overnight to chill and set.
- To make the chocolate ganache, heat the cream in a pan till almost boiling. Turn off the heat and add the chopped chocolate stirring vigorously till the chocolate has melted and the mixture attains a glossy, pouring consistency. Leave to cool.
- To assemble the cake, arrange the praline on top of the cake and drizzle generously with the chocolate ganache. Chill for 30 minutes and serve.