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Comment: Cheesecake lessons.

Our guest columnist Philippe Agnese, executive pastry chef at Atlantis The Palm, Dubai, talks about his association with cheesecake and delves into its history:

Although cheesecake is not our oldest known cheese product, its diversity, old history and varied processing method makes you wonder why we consume such few types of this dessert.

As much as this cake can be intriguing while opening a world of eating options, I can only recall - and this is just thinking at the top of my head - that most of the global understanding of cheesecake today revolves around the "baked and unbaked" forms, along with the fact (and it would be safe for me to say this) that an incredibly high percentage of them are made using only and mostly cream cheese.

Huh? France has 'merely' 542 officially recognised cheeses, Swiss people can talk about cheese all day and still wrestle on clarifying what is the right fondue, Italians use as many cheeses as they eat pasta- and so on- I should stop here and not even dare mention the rest of the European, Arabic and Latin countries. It is with despair and sorrow that somehow I feel deprived, but eager to find out more about the unique source behind such a wonderful, old and traditional product.

Therefore, considering all the above, I would like to discuss the vast options, if not only just scratch the surface and explore the various categories, processing methods and origins of the baked cheesecake.

The earliest period of cheesecake-making goes back a good 4,000 years in Greece. The first recalled method is as easy as pounding the cheese, adding flour and honey and cooking the cake on wood fire or under heated bricks.

Besides being a great way to preserve soft cheese, it would serve as an eminent source of energy, and in fact, it is said to have been served to the athletes of the first Olympic game in 776 BC. At that time, the cheesecake is still flour based with yeasty aroma that would develop over an extended shelf-life.

As it spread from Greece to other part of Europe, first via the Romans using it for various occasions such as religious offerings and good long storable source of energy for the soldiers at war, the method changed slightly as we noticed the introduction of beaten eggs in the mixture, slowly resulting in the fading of the yeast cake flour-based method.

The natural progression eventually would see the creation entering an oven chamber to make the first baked cheesecake.

By the 18th century, most Europeans would pass on their family recipe. Therefore, New York benefitted from various kind of cheesecakes during the wave of European migration to America.

Textures and flavours are quite extended as Switzerland sees lighter cheesecake using quark; Italy using ricotta; England, Ireland and the rest of the Kingdom using soft cheese such as cottage cheese or other sort of fresh clotted cheese.

France on the other hand uses few sweetened cheesecake recipes as beside the "white cheese / Fromage Blanc", cheese is strongly implanted in the French gastronomy as a savoury ingredient. Nonetheless, we see quite significant varieties and techniques using stronger cheeses.

So as you can gather, using different methods, flavours and textures are not new to people and nothing stops us from experimenting with cheesecake as long as cheese exists.

In a basic cheesecake recipe you would have approximately the following ratio: 60-65% cream cheese, 20-25% sugar, 12-15% egg. By taking the above ratio and playing with different mixing methods, baking styles and diverse cheese textures and strengths, you will see some exciting and unique results.

Some of the mixing methods include: kneading; pate a bombe; sabayon; creaming; chiffon; souffle; using French meringue; and, using Italian meringue. I just wish to trigger an interest for cheesecake lovers in seeking their personal favourite in terms of taste, texture and aspects.

Keeping in mind that there are many more kinds of cheeses being made which are not mentioned here, that many other ingredients such as fruits, nuts, berries, chocolate, and coffee combine and blend fantastically with cheese, it would be easy to say that there is a universe ahead of just playing with what started as just "curdled milk"!

So much more could be said on this topic, but the important thing is to enjoy and to keep on saying - Cheese!

Philippe Agnese is the executive pastry chef at Atlantis The Palm, Dubai, and won the title of 'Pastry Chef of the Year' at the Caterer Middle East Awards 2013.

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Publication:Hotelier Middle East
Date:Oct 31, 2013
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