The Curious Cook

Cheesecake for Hilde

I am always the first to admit that I am prone to exaggeration, but sometimes hyperbole is called for. Every single person who has ever had the pleasure of meeting Hilde Kretzmann has never forgotten her. 

The mother of my best friend in all the world, Ilana, Hilde was a wonderful mixture of idiosyncrasies, very much like the unique way she expressed herself in English, peppered with some whimsical German pronunciations. Growing up in on a farm outside Otjiwarongo, Namibia, Hilde’s childhood was marked by the endlessly shifting desert landscape, which may appear barren and desolate to the untrained eye, but is in fact brim-full of life and unexpected discoveries. The desert became a direct inspiration for her exceptional pottery, which are like abstract desert landscapes moulded and rippled in clay. Extremely well informed, she read very widely, from Victorian fiction to history to international politics. For the motley crew of friends who trooped in and out of their Settler cottage in Grahamstown, she was a conduit to the world of history, evolution and (my favourite of all) the natural sciences. We spent many hours in her narrow, spotlessly clean kitchen talking about the world and drinking tea, inevitably progressing to a few rounds of a funny dice game called kniffel.

A self-proclaimed “cheese mouse” one of Hilde’s favourite Sunday night suppers was a generous wedge of cheddar and a green apple, a simple but inspired combination. We especially loved to snack on rye toast with butter and cheese and occasionally knackwurst with a dollop of spicy German mustard and sweet-and-sour gherkins.  I remember how she screamed with delight when she befriended a Cape Robin who hopped onto the kitchen table from the garden to steal a morsel of cheese. She quickly gained his confidence to pop in for his daily snack, even bringing his chicks to meet her when they were big enough!

Hilde introduced me to one of to my favourite herbs of all time, tarragon, which she grew in her lovely garden which had a hive of bees living in an old tree stump. It made the most wonderful sauce to serve with chicken or fish. One year she made something I had never tasted before – a German style warm potato salad with white wine vinegar, dill and a touch of dried mint. It was garnished with finely diced carrots and peas and was the unexpected star of our Christmas table. Make no mistake, Hilde wasn’t a stalwart cook – she cooked the way she ate, nibbling a little snack here and there and then all of a sudden producing a layer cake made with real buttercream. Cooking was fitted around her life as a heritage consultant, a mother, a gardener and a potter: very casual and by-the-by. Yet she had the ability to take new elements combined with Namibian-German cuisine, resulting in something quite unique. For me, the most memorable of all of these was her baked cheesecake with a secret ingredient: sultanas soaked in liqueur. In my imagination this links the baked cheesecake, which is made all over the world in slightly different variations, to the Baltic countries. She also told me that traditionally a German cheesecake is made with a pastry base. Hilde’s may very well be the first baked cheesecake I have ever eaten and it has been my persistent obsession ever since. This is made all the more prescient because it so inexplicably rare to find a baked cheesecake that doesn’t resemble its ugly step sister: the fridge cheesecake. The difference between the two is like chalk and um, well… cheese! I can’t express my disappointment at the countless times I have ordered baked cheesecake only to have a blindingly white, gelatinous overly sweet concoction set before me.  And I am disappointed every time. Baked cheesecake – whether it be American or German style –  is never set with gelatine and is made with copious amounts of eggs, which gives it that fluffy texture and golden baked top, offset with the dense richness of the cream cheese with its characteristic tart/sweet flavour. Forthwith, here is my tried and trusted recipe – a cheesecake for Hilde. We miss you.

BAKED CHEESECAKE

Ingredients:

1 packet of ginger biscuits, crushed

100g unsalted butter, melted

3 punnets (750g) plain smooth cottage cheese, room temperature

100ml cream whipped till soft peak stage

2ml pure vanilla extract (not essence) or one whole vanilla pod

4 eggs, separated, whites beaten until stiff

80g castor sugar

Sultanas soaked in sherry, port or any mild and fruity liqueur (KWV Van der Hum being the ultimate choice)

2 T cornflour

Zest of 1 orange and 1 lemon

Half tsp nutmeg, freshly grated

¾ tsp cinnamon

1/4 tsp salt (there is salt in the cream cheese)

¾ cup muscovado sugar for brulé topping

Begin by melting the butter and crushing the biscuits in a Ziploc bag with a rolling pin or an empty wine bottle. Mix the melted butter and biscuits together and lightly press into a spring form cake tin. I put the tin in the fridge to set while I make the filling.

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees. Separate the eggs and beat the whites till stiff. Then beta the cream until soft peaks form.  In a large mixing bowl, mix together the cream cheese, egg yolks, sugar, vanilla, cornflour and cream and salt.

When well combined add grate over the zest of the orange and the lemon with a microplane, as well as the cinnamon and nutmeg. Add the sultanas a swell as the liqueur in which they were soaking. Then with a large metal spoon, fold in the beaten egg whites.

Scrape the mixture onto the biscuit base and gently shake to even out the surface. Place in the centre of the oven and bake for 40-45 minutes until the top is golden and the filling has set around the edges.

Allow to cool at room temperature then sprinkle the top with muscavado sugar and scorch with a blowtorch or place under a hot grill for a few moments.

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