Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Star of the Summer (Strawberry mascarpone cheesecake)

I've told you before how, in my family, cheesecake is a celebratory affair. This is even more true for Aaron's birthday, for which it is a mandatory offering. "What kind of cheesecake would you like for your birthday?" is a standard question come August. This year was especially telling, because he laid out his entire hierarchy of berries, in which strawberry is king. This is perfectly fine by me - strawberry is my favorite, too, and undoubtedly a perennial star of the summer.

Star of the summer
In folklore, literature, and art history, strawberries represent sweetness, humility, modesty, purity, and simplicity. Vikings associated them with Freyja, the Vanir goddess of beauty, love, and fertility, and Christian monks made much decorative use of strawberries, seeing the trifoliate leaves as representative of the holy trinity. The associations with humility and modesty come from strawberry plants' low-mounding habit and the tendency for berries to found concealed beneath leaves. In ancient Greece and Rome and up until the 14th century, strawberries were more often the result of wild forage than cultivation, and this likely colors the narrative of strawberry as pastoral fantasy. As I love noting the genetic modification of our food products, it should be remembered that natural European strawberries tended to be quite small, and more often round or cylindrical than bulbously conical. It was only with the infusion of cultivars from Virginia and Chile that the modern strawberry achieved what we consider its "natural" size and shape. 

Au naturale?
Modern strawberry production is also a bit less than natural and the source of some dispute. Due to the delicacy of the berries, they still must be harvested by hand, which drives up costs. There have been labor disputes over strawberry production in the past, and will likely continue. Moreover, the precious berries are prone to pests, resulting in around 300 pounds of pesticide being used per square acre for industrial strawberry production each year, placing the strawberry on the Environmental Working Group's "Dirty Dozen." These hazards can be skirted by seeking out strawberries from local producers and farmer's markets. You'll note the berries you find tend to be smaller, but also riper and sweeter.

I was torn on how to prepare this cheesecake. Most renditions of "strawberry cheesecake" seem to consist of a plain cheesecake with strawberry sauce or strawberries on top. I wanted a pink, strawberry-infused filling. The renditions that go this route are actually no-bake "cheesecakes," stabilized with gelatin. This can be an appealing option for several reasons: the resulting dessert is pristinely colored (baking encourages browning) and doesn't require a hot oven, but I tend to become oddly pedantic on some issues, one of which is that, without baking, such desserts are no cheesecake, but merely a cream cheese mousse. I think the extra effort of baking a cheesecake pays off, and any browning can be decorated away.

Strawberry mascarpone cheesecake 

Cracked cheesecakes are a tragedy. To avoid such mishap, bake your cheesecakes in a hot water bath, and allow them to cool in the oven before chilling. This modulates the temperature and helps ease the custard into setting evenly, whereas temperature shock causes it to break apart. Serves about 12.

For the crust:
10 ounces shortbread cookies, crushed
4 tablespoons butter, melted

For the filling:
1 pound cream cheese
1 cup strawberry jam
1/4 cup white sugar
4 eggs
1 cup sour cream
10-15 drops red food coloring 
1/4 cup flour

For the topping:
6 ounces strawberry jam
Fresh strawberries, hulled and thinly sliced

Preheat the oven to 350 F and grab a 9-inch springform pan.

To make the crust, combine cookie crumbs and melted butter in a large bowl, then press into the springform pan.

Under pressure
Par-bake the crust for 10 minutes, then set aside on a wire rack to cool as you make the filling.

In a large glass bowl, beat together the mascarpone, strawberry jam, and white sugar. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, then stir in the sour cream and food dye. Lastly, sprinkle in the flour and mix until just incorporated.

Pour the filling into the prepared crust, set the springform pan into a roasting pan, and fill roughly halfway with hot water.

Pouring it on
Bake until just set, about 1 hour. Turn off the oven, prop the door open, and allow the whole apparatus to cool over several hours.

Once the cheesecake reaches room temperature, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate several hours, or overnight.

To serve, beat jam with a wire whisk until fluid and glossy, then spread over the top of the cheesecake as a glaze, using the back of a spoon or a pastry brush. Arrange sliced strawberries in a scalloped pattern and serve.


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