At supper with the charming Italian flatmate and her equally charming boyfriend (I am a welcome extra wheel because I always bring dessert) we discussed the decor of their future apartment (or, they politely argued, I concentrated on the saffron risotto).
He likes black and white with just a touch of colour. He is French, of course. She is a walking rainbow. He has been known to scold her gently for wearing purple and red together. Her room mirrors her colourful personality, an honest representation of herself.
Decorating cakes should follow the same rules, to reflect what is inside. Pierre Hermé believes strongly that it should be minimal, and should enhance not hide. (An error I certainly committed in my final exam when there was a dent in my tutti frutti entremets. I did indeed use all of the fruits to cover it up.) Hermé’s vanilla tart has a line of real vanilla seeds on a shiny white glaze. That is all. The reason that it is minimalist and not simply boring is that he delivers on his visual promise – the execution is perfect, the tart is a concentrated explosion of vanilla. A sort of dessert sincerity. At work we place a dried vanilla bean on our apple tart because it contains a compote made with a spidery tangle of vanilla pods. However we also put chopped pistachios on the lemon tart, the acid-green contrasting prettily with the yellow when there is no pistachio in the tart itself: false advertising.
One of my favourite people – who detests cooking – asked me what on earth was the point of ‘dressing a plate.’ I compared it to ‘bookcase styling,’ a term I came across on the internet. The step-by-step guide to artfully arranging knick-knacks and bibelots just so on the shelves treated the (very few) books as an afterthought – or a stand for pretty vases. The same goes for dressing a plate: if all the drizzles and sprigs of parsley obscure the actual food, then the fundamentals have been lost somewhere between the kitchen and our mouths.
To see my bedroom with its stacks of books, haphazard wall of gilt frames is to know that I am far from being a minimalist. But I like my desserts to be fresh and simple, clean flavours and lines – and the garnish should reflect that.
We carried on discussing furniture – there was a violent disagreement over the idea of a violet pouffe – until I brought out the cheesecake. Made with Quark I brought back from Germany specially, it was light and tangy with a hint of lemon. It was baked in a loaf tin for neat oblong slices befitting a dinner party, that showed the pink bloom of the raspberries inside. It was neither rich nor cloying, more akin to the dense German kasekuche I had had in Stuttgart. That one had had a poppy seed topping; I adapted the idea and put the poppy seeds in the biscuit base for a bitter crackle, and covered the cheesecake with a thin layer of whipped cream instead. It might seem redundant, cream on top of cheese, but it works. Then a few diagonal lines of poppy seeds and candied lemon zest. Simple. Fancy. It was much appreciated – and because it was not too sugary nor too creamy, even those that normally hate cheesecake approved.
The charming flatmate left this week (interestingly, on the day that the Japanese traditionally celebrate casting out devils and inviting in good spirits!) to move in with the boyfriend. Soon there will be a new, and nice, French girl. For now I am alone in the apartment, its walls now bare, the bookshelves gone. In lieu of buying more, and trying in vain to style them, I shall make myself this cheesecake and actually read a book instead.
Raspberry and poppy seed cheesecake
adapted from Valentina’s recipe, one that I have been meaning to make for years now
75g butter, melted
175g plain biscuits, crushed
35g poppy seeds
80g raspberries (fresh or frozen)
450g cream cheese, quark or drained fromage blanc*
150g caster sugar
zest of 1 lemon
100g cream, whipped
lemon zest, poppy seeds, fresh raspberries
*I have tried all the cheeses below, each are delicious, but have a slightly different texture – however the fromage blanc needs draining 24 hours beforehand. A goat’s milk fromage blanc is particularly tangy and interesting. Drain in a colander lined with a tea-towel, leave in the fridge for 24 hours or more with a heavy weight on top. Start with about 800g to get 450g in the end.
Grease a 24cm-long loaf tin and line with paper (makes it easier to lift out when cooked). Heat oven to 180C.
Either bash the biscuits in a plastic bag with a rolling pin to crumbs, or blend in a food processor. Stir in melted butter and poppy seeds and press firmly into tin.
Mix cream cheese or quark, sugar, eggs and lemon zest. Pour half into tin, scatter over raspberries then pour in the rest.
Bake for 50 minutes or so. The cheesecake will be golden brown and just set, and will come away from the side of the tin.
Lightly whip the cream and spread over the cooled cheesecake. Decorate with thin diagonal stripes of poppy seeds and crushed raspberries, or whatever takes your fancy.
(Still good the next day, were it to be prepared ahead, refrigerated and decorated last minute.)