When I made my ill-advised decision to go to cooking school, I chose a certificate program in pastry and baking. This choice was motivated by two factors: first, I’d heard that work in the pastry kitchen was slower paced and less stressful than work on the hot line. (This is indeed true—in the same way that life in Gitmo is less stressful than life in Abu Ghraib). The second motivator was my love of fancy desserts – they’re fun to make and even more fun to eat. Who wouldn’t want a career where you get to work with chocolate every day?
But the strangest side effect of my short life in professional baking was the crazy craving I got for savory foods. My five-hour nightly cooking school classes—where we turned out endless mousses, pies, and cakes—started right at dinnertime. So I’d arrive home at midnight longing for a big bowl of chili. Or braised lamb. Basically, anything salty or spicy and NOT sweet.
And my lust for savories only grew after I graduated and actually started getting paid to make desserts. At the (seriously dysfunctional) five-star hotel where I landed my first culinary gig, my colleagues and I in the pastry shop were free to eat as many day-old cookies and éclairs as we wanted, and we did so with impunity. Our stringent quality-control standards also required us to eat lots of goodies straight out of the oven. But nothing made us happier than the occasional plate of taco salad or bruschetta brought over by Paco, the garde-manger chef, or the occasional treat of bacon or sausage liberated from the main kitchen in the dead of night by Bob, our graveyard-shift baker.
My classmates and instructors back in cooking school clearly shared my craving. One night, a tray of fried chicken arrived in our training kitchen – the leftovers of a project from another class – and we tore into it like a pack of starving hyenas. And any time a savory item worked its way into our curriculum, we'd throw ourselves into it with lustful urgency. Beef Wellington Night—tucked into our course on puff pastry, croissants, and danishes — was one of the best nights of my culinary training, if not my life.
To encourage culinary awareness and creativity, our instructors worked more and more savories into our program, often in unexpected places. The most surprising of these was the seemingly repulsive—but addictive—savory cheesecake. Who would have expected that gorgonzola, prosciutto, and shrimp could pop up in a course entitled "International Patisserie, Custards, Fillings, and Creams"?
But pop up they did—and to amazing effect. The first thing we learned about savory cheesecakes was how to get our heads around the idea. It only took a taste of the chef’s demo cheesecake to convince us not to think of a Sarah Lee cheesecake gone bad, but of a creamy, piquant terrine, prefect for spreading on toasted baguette slices as a buffet appetizer. Or, as we presented them in class, cut into modest slices and served with a vinaigrette-dressed mesclun salad, garnished with toasted nuts, as a first course.
Of course, we didn't make savory cheesecakes in class just to prove it was possible. Our goal was for us to learn how to make great cheesecakes, period. The secrets to making cheesecakes of any sort can be summed up in two words: low and slow.
Like their sweet counterparts, savory cheesecake fillings have a cream cheese base. We learned to beat the cream cheese until soft and completely lump-free, using a mixer with a paddle attachment, before adding the other filling ingredients: this ensured that no unpleasant lumps would appear in the filling. But unlike standard cake batters, cheesecake batters must be mixed gently, at slow speed. Beating the batter too fast and hard would whip too much air in the filling which would cause it to rise, then sink, in the oven, which would make the top of the cake crack. (One of our instructors told us why so many commercial cheesecakes come topped with a thick layer of sour cream: to hide the cracks.)
Also, cheesecake fillings are technically baked custards, and like flans and related preparations, need to be baked in a water bath: this keeps the filling moist, ensures even cooking, and prevents excess browning.. And cheesecakes like a long, mellow bake at relatively low heat: this ensures the eggy, creamy filling merely sets, rather than scrambles.
Below is my version of a savory cheesecake. It’s flavored with blue cheese and sage, and based on a recipe developed by one of my instructors (his included a swirl of pesto and a sprinkling of chopped prosciutto, instead of the sage). The crust is my innovation—or rather, my mistake: on Cheesecake Night, I put the butter for the crust on the stove to melt, and went off to do something else. When I returned, the butter had not only melted, but browned. The instructor who caught the near-catastrophe said that the browned butter was not only still usable, but potentially better than plain butter. And it was.
BLUE CHEESE AND SAGE CHEESECAKE
(Makes one 10" cheesecake or two 6" cheesecakes)
1 cup panko (Japanese dry bread crumbs)
1/2 cup walnuts, toasted and finely chopped
3 tablespoons butter
Preheat oven to 325°. Lightly grease the bottom of a 10" round cake pan or spring-form pan (or two 6" round cake pans), and line the pan or pans with a 10" circle (or 6" circles ) of parchment paper. Melt the butter and cook over medium heat until lightly browned. Combine with remaining ingredients. Press into a thin (about 1/8" thick) even, firmly packed layer on the bottom of the prepared pan (or pans). Bake until crust is set and lightly browned. Set aside the cool while preparing the filling. (If using spring-form pans, double-wrap them in foil to waterproof them--the next stage of cooking will involve a water bath.)
1-1/2 pounds cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup sugar
6-1/2 ounces sour cream
4 tablespoons cornstarch, sifted
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 large eggs, beaten
1 pint whipping cream
1-1/4 cup finely crumbled blue cheese (Gorgonzola or Maytag)
2 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
1 tablespoon melted butter
Salt and black pepper to taste
Lower the oven temperature to 300°. In a mixer with a paddle attachment, mix the cream cheese and sugar together on low speed until they are thoroughly combined and the cheese is soft and free of lumps. (Scrape down the sides of the mixer bowl frequently while mixing the filling.) Mix in sour cream, then the beaten egg and lemon juice.
Separately, combine the whipping cream and cornstarch, then stir them into the cream cheese mixture. Briefly saute chopped sage in the melted butter and cool. Fold the blue cheese and cooled sage into the filling. Adjust seasoning with salt and black pepper to taste.
Pour prepared batter into the crust-lined cake pan (or pans). Place the pan or pans inside a larger roasting or baking pan; fill this larger pan halfway with room-temperature water. Bake the cheesecakes, uncovered, in the water bath until set (about an hour for larger cakes; about 50 minutes for smaller ones.). Cool completely in pan before serving. If using a springform mold, gently remove the outer ring of the mold once the cake has cooled. If using a cake pan, place it briefly over a stovetop burner to warm the bottom and sides and the cake, run sharp knife dipped in hot water around the edge of the pan to loosen the cake. Place a plate over the cake pan and flip the cake onto the plate. The cake will now be upside-down (crust-side up) on the plate. Now place a serving plate over the cake and flip it over again; the cake will now be be right-side up.