Old Fashioned Cheesecakes

These cheesecake recipes come from a favourite book – All About Pastries, from the All About… Confectionery Series by H.G.Harris & S.P Borella (circa 1900). The recipes are all for commercial quantities, but I’ve become quite adept at scaling them down to more manageable batches.

They were simpler times back then, and ‘cheesecakes’ weren’t always made of the cream cheese that is so widespread today. Much as the term ‘pudding’ originally described a texture, thus accounting for its use to describe both savoury black/white puddings, and sweet Kentish pudding pies, ‘cheesecake’ was used to describe a soft and light texture in a pastry case.

Before refrigeration, cheese curds weren’t available year round, especially as cows were sometime slaughtered in the winter when food sources were scarce. So with typical ingenuity, recipes were developed to achieve the same delicious morsel using other ingredients. Ground almonds were popular, and in commercial bakeries, cake, biscuit and bread crumbs have all been employed to produce a tender tartlet filling.

These two cheesecakes provide a nice comparison, because they also illustrate how one’s choice of pastry can affect the overall success of a recipe.

In the photograph above, the cheesecakes on the left are made with sieved cooked potato. The tartlets on the right are made with curd cheese. The cheesecakes on the left are made with buttery puff pastry, while the ones on the right are made with a very dry and crisp cornflour shortcrust. This is the combination of filling and pastry recommended in the book, but for science I decided also to swap them round, and bake the potato filling in shortcrust and the curd filling in puff pastry. It was not a success. Or rather, it was successful in confirming my belief that contrast is everything.

  • When the filling is rich, use a plain, unsweetened pastry.
  • When the filling is humble, use a rich, butter pastry.

This rule is of mutual benefit, because of the contrast between the two. The pastry adds a texture as well as a flavour contrast to the filling. Baking the rich filling with the butter pastry just made for a finished tartlet that was both heavy and overly greasy. Baking the potato filling with the crisp shortcrust made for a disappointing dry and desiccated bite. Bear this need for contrast in mind as you create your own pastry/filling combinations.

Potato Cheesecakes

Potato Cheesecakes

If you don’t have any maraschino, you could use a little lemon or orange zest, or almond/vanilla instead.

Potato Filling
75g cooked, sieved floury potato
75g unsalted butter – softened
1tsp maraschino liqueur
60g ground almonds
60g caster sugar
1 large egg
1 large yolk

  • Press the potato through a sieve. This is easiest when the potato is still warm.
  • Add the butter and maraschino and beat together until light and fluffy.
  • Whisk the egg and the yolk together, then whisk into the potato mixture.
  • Whisk in the ground almonds.
  • Add the sugar and just stir it enough to combine.
  • Transfer to a container, cover and chill for at least 30 minutes.

To assemble
2 sheets ready rolled puff pastry, all-butter if available
raspberry jam
a few slivered almonds to decorate
small fluted tartlet tins approx. 5cm in diameter

  • Grease the tartlet tins.
  • Unroll the pastry and cut into rectangles the approximate size of your tins.
  • Line the tins with the pastry, making sure to press it firmly into the fluted sides.
  • Using the ball of your thumb, press the base of the tart thin, thereby easing the edges of the pastry up the sides of the tin. If it rises above the top edge, that’s fine.
  • Chill the lined tins in the fridge for at least 30 minutes, to relax the pastry.
  • When the filling and pastry are thoroughly chilled, remove from the fridge.
  • Trim the pastry flush with the top edge of the tartlet tins using a sharp knife.
  • Put half a teaspoon of jam into the bottom of each tart case
  • Fill the tartlets 2/3 full with the potato filling , making sure it is spread to the sides of the pastry (to prevent the jam from bubbling up/through).
  • Scatter a few slivers of almond over the top.
  • Heat the oven to 210°C/190°C Fan.
  • Bake until the pastry is cooked and the filling puffed and browned. This will take 15-20 minutes. You need to judge how cooked you want your pastry to be. In the picture above, the pastry is baked, but not browned and the filling a delicate colour. Longer baking will brown the pastry, but the filling will also darken considerably, unless you cover them. Given the delicate nature of the filling, I think the lighter colour on the pastry is more suitable, but it’s only a personal preference.
  • Allow to cool in the tins for 10 minutes before removing to a wire rack.
  • Serve at room temperature.

Curd Cheesecakes

Curd Cheesecakes

Pastry
225g plain flour
60g cornflour
140g unsalted butter
ice cold water

  • Put the flours and butter into the bowl of a food processor and blitz until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
  • With the machine running, gradually add the cold water a tablespoon at a time until the mixture comes together in a ball.
  • Tip the mixture onto a floured surface, knead smooth then wrap in clingfilm and chill for 30 minutes.
  • Grease some tartlet or cupcake tins.
  • Remove the pastry from the fridge and roll out to a thickness of 4-5mm.
  • Cut out circles using a pastry cutter the same diameter as your tin indentations. Turn them over (so the side rolled by the rolling-pin is against the metal of the tin) and smooth into the sides of the tins.
  • Using your thumb, press the pastry on the base of the tins thin. This motion will ease the edge of the pastry to the top of the tins.
  • Chill the tin in the fridge while the filling is mixed.

Curd Filling
150g curd cheese, well drained
75g unsalted butter, softened
50g caster sugar
1 large egg
zest of 1/2-1 lemon, according to taste
1/4 nutmeg, grated

  • Sieve the curd. Don’t skip this step, thinking that it is soft enough. Forcing the curd through a sieve gives it an incredible lightness which allows it to combine smoothly and easily with the other ingredients. Since there will be some loss in the process,  the actual amount required for the recipe is 115g.
  • Whisk the butter and sugar together until light and creamy.
  • Add the egg and whisk in thoroughly.
  • Add the flavourings, then lightly stir in the curd.
  • Chill until required.

To Assemble
raspberry jam
small fluted tartlet tins approx. 5cm in diameter

  • Put half a teaspoon of jam into the bottom of each tart case
  • Half fill the tartlets with the curd filling , making sure it is spread to the sides of the pastry with no gap (to prevent the jam from bubbling up/through).
  • Heat the oven to 200°C/180°C Fan.
  • Bake until the pastry is cooked and crisp and the filling puffed – 15-20 minutes. The filling will lose its puff as it cools. This is normal.
  • Allow to cool in the tins for a few minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.
  • Serve at room temperature.

Sweet Shortcrust Pastry

This pastry has been scaled down from a recipe I found in a Victorian/Edwardian commercial bakers’ book. It’s an all-butter (and therefore vegetarian) pastry  and includes a small proportion of cornflour. This makes the pastry extra crispy, which isn’t always easy with an all-butter pastry. It also gives it a really smooth, almost silken, dry feel which makes it very easy to handle.

60g cornflour
225g plain flour
140g butter
1 large egg
85g icing sugar
ice-cold water

  • Put all the ingredients into the bowl of a food processor and blitz until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
  • Gradually add the water, one tablespoon at a time, until the mixture comes together in a ball.
  • Knead smooth, then roll out.
  • Cover with plastic and chill for 30 minutes.

 

Spiced Strawberry Tart

Jane Parker, 1651 adapted from The Good Huswife’s Jewell, 1587

I was drawn to this recipe because it involved spicing strawberries and baking them in pastry, both details being so different from how we tend to use strawberries today. Originally, I was delighted to find the recipe in Jane Parker’s manuscript recipe book¹ but some months later, when I found an earlier version in a cookery book from the previous century, it became at once both more interesting and more delightful. Thomas Dawson’s recipe for strawberry tart², was published in the middle of the reign of Elizabeth I, and is, in all honesty, a little sparse on the level of detail to which our 21st century eyes are accustomed when it comes to recipes. Indeed, it is so brief I can quote it in full below:

To make a tart of strawberries

Wash your strawberries and put them into your Tarte and season them with sugar, cinnamon, and ginger and put in a little red wine into them.

No quantities, cooking times, or even mention of a pastry recipe. It would appear Jane Parker also thought a little extra detail was required, and her recipe is as follows:

Jane Parker's Recipe
Source: MS3769, Wellcome Library Collection

Whilst there’s still no pastry recipe, we do have more detail in terms of presentation: the tart should be shallow, the pastry lid should have diamond cutouts, baking time of 15 minutes and a sprinkling of spiced sugar over the baked tart. These additional details, to my mind, highlight the fact that, even if she didn’t actually make the tart herself, Jane Parker definitely got the recipe from someone who had, as these details are precisely the kind of personal touches an experienced cook would note down for future reference.

After centuries of refinement, the strawberries we now use are impressively large but much milder in flavour than those that would have been used for this originally Elizabethan tart. If you can find sufficient wild strawberries either to mix with your ordinary strawberries or, decadently, to use on their own, their deep aromatic flavour, together with the wine and spices, will make for a much more robust flavour to this unusual Tudor tart.

Spiced Strawberry Tart

1 batch of Sweet Shortcrust Pastry

600g fresh strawberries
3 tbs caster sugar
1tbs cornflour
1tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
½ tsp coarse ground black pepper
60ml red wine or port
Milk for glazing
1tbs caster sugar
1tsb ground cinnamon

  • Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan/gas 6.
  • Roll out the shortcrust pastry thinly. The thinner the pastry, the less time it will need in the oven and the freshness of the strawberries will be all the better for it.
  • Cut out four lids for your tarts. Cut them generously so that there is sufficient pastry to form a seal with the pastry lining the tins. Use a small diamond cutter or any small shape, to cut a lattice into the lids. Be careful not to cut too close to the edge, otherwise they will be tricky to attach to the rest of the pastry.
  • Gather the trimmings and re-roll the pastry.
  • Grease and line four individual pie tins with the pastry. Let any excess pastry hang over the sides for now.
  • Prepare the strawberries: Remove the stalks and cut into small pieces, either 4 or 8, depending on the size of the strawberries.
  • Put the cut strawberries into a bowl and sprinkle over the red wine. Toss gently to coat.
  • Mix the sugar, cornflour and spices together. Sprinkle over the strawberries and toss gently to mix.
  • Divide the strawberry filling amongst the tins and smooth over.
  • Moisten the edges of the pastry and place the lids over each tart. Press firmly to seal, then trim and crimp the edges
  • Brush the tops with milk and bake for 12-15 minutes until the pastry is cooked and lightly golden.
  • Mix the remaining caster sugar and cinnamon together and sprinkle over the hot pies.
  • Cool on a wire rack.

¹ MS3769, Wellcome Library.
² The Good Huswife’s Jewell, 1587