Cheesecake was not a part of my life as a child. The first time I had it was as a teenager, at some party or another, and everything single thing about that event has fallen away except that it was the first time I tasted cheesecake – this time-stopping moment in which the dull clouds parted to reveal this sweet, rich, suave, glowing nexus of perfection.
Entire restaurant empires have been built on a foundation of cheesecake – lemon, New York style, chocolate, white chocolate, turtle, carrot cake, pumpkin, coffee, peanut butter, caramel, black forest – cheesecake in a cup – cheesecake poppers – cheesecake on a stick. As far as I am concerned, you cannot go wrong with any of them. It’s cheesecake, man! In the last year or so, we’ve run across a few versions that incorporate chevre – mild goat cheese – and we love them, too. For this version, we chose to blend cream cheese and goat cheese for a pastry that is mildly tangy, the tang boosted a bit with lemon juice.
We did a fair amount of experimenting to arrive at this recipe – fine, we were not exactly suffering. For the first version that we made, we used a crust based on gingersnaps. That was OK, but for the second version, I went with my favorite cheesecake crust, based on roasted hazelnuts.
When you are choosing hazelnuts, keep in mind that this crust will taste better if the hazelnuts are freshly roasted. If you have the choice between roasted and unroasted, it is worth the extra bit of work to roast your own.
Here’s how to roast and prepare hazelnuts. Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Pour the hazelnuts onto a rimmed baking sheet in a single layer – they should not crowd together. Slide the sheet into the hot oven. After 5 minutes, open the oven door and stir them. Do the same after another 5 minutes. They will start turning light golden brown and be done some time between one and four minutes later, depending on their size and the neurosis of your oven. Don’t let them blacken – if that happens, you will have to throw them away, so it is better to lean on the side of a little undone.
While all this is going on, clear a spot on your counter or table and lay out a clean bath towel. When the hazelnuts are done, slide the sheet out of the oven and pour the nuts onto the bath towel. Set the sheet aside (I usually open the back door and lob it onto the porch). Close up the towel, twist the top and roll, roll, roll, roll, roll. You are rolling the skins off the hazelnuts. This part feels gratifying.
After a couple of minutes, open the towel cautiously. There will be a modest amount of loose hazelnut skins. They are very thin and lightweight and ready to float around and land everywhere on your table and your face. Do not laugh at this point. It will just make things worse. Pick out the hazelnuts and put them in a bowl. Then carefully fold up the towel, clean side out, and take it outdoors and shake out the skins. Some will perversely cling to the towel; those will come out in the wash.
Like me, you will probably have to change clothes, and there will still be a residue of hazelnut skins hanging around the table. Yes, I am making this process sound a lot worse than it actually is. Let the hazelnuts cool in the bowl. After you measure out what you will need for the crust, save any extras for a great snack – I like to have a few when I get home from work so I don’t go wild and eat, well, all the cheesecake.
Chevre cheesecake with hazelnut crust
For the crust
2 cups roasted hazelnuts
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons butter, melted
For the filling
2 8-ounce packages cream cheese
12 ounces chevre (we use Costco’s or Trader Joe’s)
1/2 cup sour cream (or crème fraîche)
1-1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Scant 1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon flour
For the compote
1 cup blueberries, divided in half
1 cup strawberries, topped and cut into big chunks
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1. Make the crust. Put about 2 cups of hazelnuts into the food processor with 1/4 cup of sugar and process in bursts until the hazelnuts are finely ground. Go carefully! I process this in bursts, taking off the lid and stirring everything to ensure that the nuts grind finely and evenly. You do not want to overprocess and turn this into a mass of hazelnut butter. Working in bursts and keeping an eye on the outcome are essential to yield a consistency that is fine-ground without releasing the oils that will turn this into a butter.
2. Turn the hazelnuts into a small bowl and add 2 tablespoons melted unsalted butter. Mix until everything is blended together.
3. Prepare the springform pan: butter or oil the bottom and sides of the pan. Press the hazelnut mix into the bottom only of the pan. You don’t have to use all of it. The idea is to have an even, thin crust.
4. Prepare the cheesecake batter. About an hour beforehand, take the cheeses, the sour cream and the eggs out of the fridge and let them come to room temperature.
5. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Put the cheeses in a big mixing bowl and, using an electric hand mixer, beat until they are mixed together. Scrape down the sides. Add the sour cream, vanilla, lemon juice, salt, and sugar and mix again until everything is incorporated together. Scrape the sides again, if possible, scraping with one hand while wielding the mixer with the other (you don’t have to worry about this juggling act if you have a stand mixer).
6. Add eggs and beat again. At this point, the batter will suddenly become sleek and fluffy in appearance – it will just look beautiful and you will know it is right. Finally, sprinkle the tablespoon of flour over all, and mix again very briefly.
7. Bake the cake. Scrape and pour the batter into the prepared springform pan and slide it into the center of the hot oven. Bake for about 50 minutes. Bake until the edges are set and slightly pulling away from the side, the top is subtly golden, and the center is still slightly wobbly. I am not talking about a general overall wobble but something more subtle, concentrating in the maybe three inches of the center. If the top cracks, that is OK.
8. Meanwhile, make the compote. Put half the blueberries, all the strawberries, water, lemon juice, and sugar in a pan. Turn on the heat and simmer. After 5 minutes of simmering, add the rest of the blueberries. Cook five minutes more. Remove from heat. Let it cool. You may also serve this on pancakes, French toast, ice cream, or plain yogurt.
9. Cool the cake completely. When it has cooled, run a knife around the edge, loosen the springform ring, then remove it. Cut into wedges – this should produce at least 12 wedges – plate, spoon the compote artfully on the plate, and serve.
Other crust ideas. In our initial version of this, we used gingersnaps for the crust. We liked it – that came out OK. The traditional American graham cracker crust would work wonderfully with this recipe, or you could use any cookie that you like, just any at all, ground up in the processor and mixed with butter. The next time I make this, I will probably base the crust on chocolate chip cookies.
Top this. Instead of compote, you can use whole fresh blueberries or raspberries, or fresh sliced strawberries, or mango cut into little chunks, or sliced, sauteed apples or pears. Or you can just eat the stuff straight. It’s awesome. I admit it.
Individual cheesecakes. Instead of using a 9-inch springform pan, prepare 10 or 12 6-ounce ramekin cups (I just used the humble glass Pyrex ones that are sold in grocery stores all over North America). Oil the ramekin at the start. Press a little hazelnut mixture into the bottom, spoon in the batter, and bake for 20-22 minutes. Cool completely, run a knife around the edge, and, to serve, turn out on a dessert plate. Spoon compote or fresh fruit around it.