A few years ago I found myself exploring an area of London that I had never been before. It was a far cry from the areas that I had been spending so much of my time during university. As I was casually meandering down Upper Street in Islington, I stopped dead in my tracks when I caught glimpse of the biggest meringues I had ever seen out of the corner of my eye. Now, even though I don’t really care much for meringues, what was beyond the mountain of giant white rock like meringues flecked with luscious red raspberry was utterly appealing. I stepped inside, amongst the hustle and bustle and gawped at the array of freshly baked cakes that lay in front of me for a good ten minutes before I decided on which one I wanted to take away with me. I’m not very good at making decisions at the best of times so present me with a huge range of delicious looking cakes and we have a problem.
Stood on a cake stand was a baked cheesecake with a muddle of caramelized macadamia nuts on top. It was the most rustic looking cake out of the bunch – the rest had been so perfectly created and each one stood in uniform like a bunch of neat soldiers on parade. I took it away in a box and shortly after the first bite declared it the best cake I had ever eaten. The café in question is, of course, Ottolenghi in Islington. Co owner and chef Yotam Ottolenghi is, in my eyes, a genius. After going on and on to my friend about the cake, she took note and bought me his first cookbook for my birthday a couple of years ago. The first thing I did was flick through the back pages to see if the cheesecake recipe was featured. And it was. I was so happy. But despite having the book for so long, I had never attempted baking it, until last weekend when I had friends around for a dinner party. It was the perfect opportunity.
You need a lot of time and patience with this cake as there are a few different stages. I would recommend setting a few hours aside at the weekend. I couldn’t believe how well it turned out, particularly as I’ve had a couple of caramel disasters in my time. Another bonus is that it keeps in the fridge for three days afterwards (if you can make it last that long). I urge you to bake this cake. The lucky people who get to eat it will love you forever.
Caramel and macadamia cheesecake
For the cheesecake
400g good quality ricotta cheese, at room temperature
(if it seems too watery, hang it in muslin overnight to drain)
200g good quality cream cheese, at room temperature
120g caster sugar
2/3 vanilla pod
4 free-range eggs, lightly beaten
60ml soured cream
Icing sugar for dusting
For the base
160g dry biscuits
(I used HobNobs, but you can use any digestive biscuits)
40g unsalted butter, melted
For the nut topping
150g macadamia nuts
90g caster sugar
For the caramel sauce
65g unsalted butter
160g caster sugar
100ml whipping (or double) cream
Preheat the oven to 140ºC/Gas Mark 1. Lightly grease a 20cm springform cake tin and line the base and sides with baking parchment.
To make the base, whiz the biscuits to crumbs in a food processor (or put them in a plastic bag and bash with a mallet or rolling pin). Mix with the melted butter to a wet, sandy consistency. Transfer to the lined tin and flatten with the back of a tablespoon to create a level base.
To make the cake batter, put the sugar and cream cheese in a mixing bowl. Slit the vanilla pod lengthways in half and, using a sharp knife, scrape the seeds out into the bowl. Whisk by hand, or more easily with an electric mixer, until smooth. Gradually add the eggs and soured cream, whisking until smooth. Pour the mixture over the biscuit base and place in the oven. Bake for about 60 minutes, until set; a skewer inserted in the centre should come out with a slightly wet crumb attached. Leave to cool at room temperature, then remove the side of the tin. Transfer the cake to a cake board or plate – but you can serve from the tin base if that proves tricky. Now chill the cake for at least a couple of hours.
To prepare the nut topping, scatter the nuts over a baking sheet and roast in the oven at 140ºC/Gas Mark 1 for about 15 minutes, until golden. Remove from the oven and set aside. Line a baking tray with baking parchment. Place the sugar in a saucepan with a very thick base (it is important that the layer of sugar is not more than 3mm high in the pan, so choose a large one). Heat the sugar gently until it turns into a golden-brown caramel. Do not stir it at any stage. Don’t worry if some small bits of sugar don’t totally dissolve. Carefully add the toasted nuts and mix gently with a wooden spoon. When most of the nuts are coated in caramel, pour them on to the lined tray and leave to set. Break bits off and chop them very roughly with a large knife. It’s nice to leave some of the nuts just halved or even whole.
To make the sauce, put the butter and sugar in a thick-bottomed saucepan and stir constantly over a medium heat with a wooden spoon until it becomes a smooth, dark caramel. The butter and sugar will look as if they have split. Don’t worry; just keep on stirring. Once the desired colour is reached, carefully add the cream while stirring vigourously. Remove from the heat and leave to cool.
To finish the cake, dust the edges and sides with plenty of icing sugar. Spoon the sauce in the centre, allowing it to spill over a little. Scatter lots of caramelised nuts on top. The cheesecake will keep in the fridge for 3 days.