Straight from the streets of New York
When I was a teenager I loved reading those sex ’n’ shopping novels that were popular in the eighties. Bonkbusters by Jacqueline Susann, Judith Krantz and June Flaum Singer kept me sane during two years of A-level English where the syllabus was dominated by Lawrence, Hardy and Plath.
I loved these writers and still do, but my English schoolmistress had a predilection for Plath, Hardy and Lawrence at their most dolorous and I had quite enough of that kind of nonsense from my own parents.
Anyway, I digress. One of June Flaum Singer’s characters lived in an Upper East Side mansion with her own dysfunctional parents and going for a slice of cheesecake at Lindy’s (which was New York City’s most famous cheesecake emporium of its time) in the years preceding the Second World War seemed terribly glamorous to me, a girl from a small country village with only the local milk bar to compare it to. The original incarnation of Lindy’s which was even mentioned in Guys and Dolls is no more, having closed in 1957, so I transferred my affections to a new joint where, one day, I might stand a chance of sitting at a banquette without requiring a time machine. Enter Juniors of Brooklyn, creators of what has often been described as New York’s best baked cheesecake and the place where Carrie Bradshaw and Big held their wedding feast.
The Juniors cheesecake has been made to the same recipe since 1950, baked in the classic New York style and this means a sponge crust, not a base made from crushed digestive biscuits. My version contains lemon zest and rum-soaked sultanas in honour of a vaguely similar Russian Easter creation called pashka, which is filled with dried fruit, nuts and sometimes, a rum sabayon.
After approaching Henry Jeffreys, drinks writer and author of Empire of Booze for advice on suitable rums, he recommended Pussers Blue Label Original Admiralty rum or a bottle of Mount Gay Eclipse and, on balance, I preferred the depth charge of rich toffee flavours the Prusser brings to the table. However, most full-flavoured rums will not disappoint.
This cheesecake is a beautiful thing but don’t worry if it cracks during baking; this happens to me sometimes and it makes no difference to flavour, and therefore to your pleasure. How to avoid this? Check your oven temperature is accurate, bake the cake in a water bath, make sure the cream cheese is nice and soft and do not over beat, stopping when the batter is smooth rather than fluffy.
TO MAKE THE SPONGE BASE:
3 oz sultanas
4 tbsp rum
4 oz plain flour, sifted
1 tsp baking powder
3 extra-large eggs, separated
2 oz plus 2 tbsp caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp very finely grated lemon peel
3 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
¼tsp cream of tartar
The night before baking, place sultanas in a bowl and pour over the rum. Leave all night to marinate.
Preheat oven to 350F/180C and butter a 9 inch springform pan. (The butter will help the cheesecake rise without clinging to the sides, causing cracking.) Pour the flour, baking powder and salt into a bowl and mix well. Set aside.
Beat the egg yolks in a large bowl and beat for 3 minutes on high, using a mixer. After 3 minutes, add 3oz of sugar in a slow stream and beat for around 5 minutes until the batter leaves thick, pale yellow trails in the bowl. Stir in the vanilla and lemon peel. Drain the sultanas well and incorporate.
Slowly sift the flour mixture over the batter and fold in, using a spoon then stir in the melted butter. Using a scrupulously clean bowl and beaters, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar until they are frothy then pour in the last 2 tablespoons of sugar and beat until the whites reach the stiff peak stage. Fold in a generous tablespoonful of whites into the batter then add the rest until just incorporated. Don’t over mix. Spoon the batter into the springform tin and bake until the top of the cake springs back lightly when touched. This should take, at most, 10 minutes, because you want a lightly golden top, and not browned. Remove from oven and cool.
FOR THE CHEESE CAKE TOPPING:
4 x 8oz packets of cream cheese at room temp
12 oz caster sugar
2 oz corn flour
1 tbsp vanilla extract
2 extra-large eggs, beaten
6oz double cream
Keep the oven at the same temperature. When the cake tin has cooled, lightly re-butter the sides of the pan down to the surface of the cake if necessary.
In a large bowl, add one of the packets of cream cheese, 2 oz of the sugar and all the cornflour then beat with a mixer at low speed until creamy, around 3 minutes. Add the rest of the cream cheese, turn the mixer to high and add the remaining sugar and all the vanilla. Add the eggs in 3 lots, beating well after each addition. Now pour in the cream, turn off the mixer and fold it in by hand only until it is incorporated and no more.
Pour the batter over the sponge base and level it off. Make a water bath by placing the springform tin into a large roasting dish containing enough water to come up an inch around the sides of the cake tin. The cheesecake will need to be baked until the centre still jiggles a little when you shake the pan; the baking time is about an hour but watch the cake carefully.
Switch the oven off, open the door and leave the cheesecake inside to set and cool off, When it is cold, cover and refrigerate, preferably overnight again, as this cheesecake simply gets better and better, the longer you can bear to leave it as the sponge base, all soft and rum-infused from the sultanas, melds with the baked topping as the cake matures.