Last week, I read Nora Ephron’s classic semi-autobiographical novel Heartburn from 1983, which is about a cookery writer whose husband leaves her while she’s seven months pregnant. It’s funny* and incredibly perceptive about many things, food writing included. It reads like a rom-com, and Ephron later became famous for writing and directing films (When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless In Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, among others), so it’s not surprising that it became a film starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson three years later.
As well as being very humorous and enjoyable to read, Heartburn also has 15 simple but lovely recipes sprinkled throughout the book, many of which play some role in the narrative direction of the story. (I love novels and memoirs with recipes in them).
For example, there’s a recipe for her signature vinaigrette, which seems to be the only thing her estranged husband still wants from her (she holds out). There’s the recipe for buttered almonds which is not really a recipe at all but instead a quip about her mother, who was, according to our heroine, a ‘washout at hard-core mothering’. ‘Had I been able to talk to her at this moment of crisis, she would probably have said something fabulously brittle like ‘Take notes’. Then she would have gone into the kitchen and toasted almonds. You melt some butter in a frying pan, add whole blanched almonds, and sauté until they’re golden brown with a few little burned parts. Drain lightly and salt and eat with a nice stiff drink. ‘Men are little boys,’ she would have said as she lifted her glass. ‘Don’t stir or you’ll bruise the ice cubes.’
There’s also a recipe for a baked cheesecake, originating from the family cook Amelia who later married her father. ‘Everything she made was the lightest, the flakiest, the tenderest, the creamiest, the whateverist. She would stand at the kitchen counter – kneading dough for yeast rolls, making curls from carrots, rolling butter into balls – and tell me her secrets’.
Lovely though it sounded, I didn’t actually follow the recipe given for baked cheesecake in the book as I had a plate of blueberries in the fridge that needed using, but I loved the simple, straightforward feel of Amelia’s cheesecake recipe (‘she always said she got it from the back of the Philadelphia cream cheese package’) and decided I wanted to make a similarly basic sort of baked cheesecake. Nothing fancy. A little sharpness, here and there. Perfect.
And baked?, you ask. Yes, always. Having had good baked cheesecake a few times over the years, mainly in the States, I’d take it every time over regular unbaked cheesecake. I love the canelé-like texture of the outside rim of the baked version; the more muted sweetness; the denser, less claggy texture; the lack of gelatine. I love the look of it, too, all pristine layers, silky richness and caramel tones and a little cragginess on the outside. It’s a classic, through and through.
BAKED BLUEBERRY & YOGHURT CHEESECAKE
Feeds 8+ with leftovers. Best made ahead of time (even the night before if possible) so that the flavours can develop. Serve with the compote and some crème fraîche.
55g butter, melted, plus extra for greasing
225g pack ginger nut biscuits (if your pack is 200g just reduce the butter to 50g, no point opening another packet)
1.5 tsp vanilla extract
450g 10% Greek yoghurt
2 heaped tablespoons of crème fraîche
280g full-fat soft cheese, at room temperature
3 heaped tbsps ground almonds, plus a pinch more to sprinkle
145g caster sugar
2.5 tbsps plain flour
finely grated zest of 1 small lemon
3 large free range eggs, beaten
300g fresh blueberries
For the blueberry compote
Handful of fresh or frozen blueberries
Large pinch of caster sugar
A long squeeze of fresh lemon juice
Preheat your oven to 180°C. Grease a 23cm non-stick springform cake tin with butter (base-line it with a circle of baking parchment also if you want to remove it from the base part of the tin to serve; I wasn’t fussy).
Blitz the biscuits in a food processor or bash up in a large bowl using the base of a mug till you have a fine crumb. Mix the biscuit crumbs with the ground almonds and melted butter and spoon into the tin. Press down hard all over the biscuit mix with a spatula to form it into a dense, cohesive base. Chill for 10 minutes or until needed.
Mix the cream cheese, caster sugar, yoghurt, flour, vanilla extract and lemon zest. Using electric beaters, beat until mixed then slowly add the eggs, continuing until well blended and slightly fluffy.
Stir most of the blueberries into the mixture and pour it into the tin. Scatter the remaining blueberries over the top of the cheesecake, pushing them lightly down into the mixture. Finish with a sprinkle of more ground almonds. Bake for about 40-45 minutes or until golden and just set (oven-dependent, so you will need to use your judgment; check the cheesecake after 35 mins to see how it’s doing). Turn off the oven and leave the cheesecake inside with the door slightly ajar until it has completely cooled. Once it’s cool, wrap the whole tin up in tin foil and refrigerate until needed – the longer you can leave it the better; overnight is actually best if possible.
For the compote, simmer the blueberries, sugar and lemon juice in a small pan until the berries burst. Check the sweetness versus acidity, adding more sugar or lemon juice as required. Refrigerate until needed. Remove the springform surround and serve with the baked cheesecake with the compote and a dollop of crème fraîche.
“I look out the window and I see the lights and the skyline and the people on the street rushing around looking for action, love, and the world’s greatest chocolate chip cookie, and my heart does a little dance.”
*Nora Ephron’s sharp, smart, urbane wisecracks about Jewish life in big American cities are surely the cultural predecessor (and perhaps even the mainspring inspiration source), for Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino’s exquisitely wonderful new TV series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which I would highly recommend and will probably watch again in a few months’ time. You’re a lot, Midge.