Baking challenge: deep and dark and velvet – chocolate cheesecake

Denser than a black hole...but probably smoother
Denser than a black hole…but probably smoother

This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the signature challenge for week six (dessert week) of series two: a baked cheesecake.

I’m not a cheesecake lover, especially not the ice-cold, slightly crumbly wodges of dense cream cheese served up by chain cafes around the world. And yet cheesecake is, simultaneously, very dear to me, because, since childhood, my father would always order me a slice of cheesecake, or Black Forest cake, when we were in a cafe together. It became so routine that, despite not particularly liking either bake (chain cafe Black Forest cake being typically sandy, somewhat dry, punctuated by a gloopy layer of tinned cherries of cheap cherry jam), I would ask for either whenever I was with him. Even a few years ago, when we were at the British Library cafe, I asked if he wanted cheesecake. “You’ve always really liked cheesecake,” he said happily, as he polished off about 99% of the little cake. I smiled to myself and kept mum – but really, I have no idea how this conviction that I love cheesecake began.

It took a bit of work to find a cheesecake recipe I wanted to bake, and eat, for my little baking challenge, still chugging along. I’ve owned Marian Keyes’ Saved by Cake for a pretty long time, and in fact I bought it (after borrowing a copy from the library) without having read a single of her novels (I’ve since read Watermelon). I was equally charmed and bemused: Keyes is a vibrant writer and this cookbook certainly showcases her voice and dark humour. Well-known for her struggles with alcoholism, Keyes came to baking as a hobby when she was suffering an intense depression. She started to bake and it became a sort of lifeline or pressure valve, bringing her back from the brink of suicide. Cake is serious stuff – although she is clear that baking wasn’t a cure, but a way of occupying herself until such time as she became well again. Indeed, Keyes has said she no longer bakes as it reminds her of the terrible depression she suffered.

And yet, despite the unusual, and dark, provenance of this cookbook, there is a deftness and a lightness of touch, and an unashamedly acquisitive joy in baking and in the fun and sheer silliness of it. Keyes likes bright colours and edible glitter and uses them with abandon: her bakes sparkle. She is not one for pretentiousness or being bogged down in pared down, minimalist portions of dessert, and she is not above using commercial products such as packets of lime jelly. The idea that sloshing in half a bottle of blue icing into whipped cream might be a touch declasse is not one that would resonate with Keyes. And there is a reason Keyes is a popular, bestselling author: she has that uncanny ability that many writers lack to pin down an exact word or phrase which describes something perfectly, and allows you to build a perfectly clear picture in your mind of what something is like. It was her description of her Black Hole Chocolate Cheesecake – “like being punched in the stomach by a chocolate-flavoured fist” – what made me decide to make it for the baked cheesecake part of my baking challenge.

Crust, oven, table. Plus added chilling time
Crust, oven, table. Plus added chilling time

I was rewarded, because it was worth eating, despite not being a natural fan of the cheesecake. The texture of this is delightfully smooth, without any jarring, dry crumbliness, with interest provided by the crisp crust, which is made with both traditional digestives and melted dark chocolate. I sometimes find cheesecakes, especially commercial ones, to be somewhat acidic, but the sharpness of the cream cheese was tempered by mascarpone and double cream, so that it complemented, rather than competed with, the chocolate then poured in. I was surprised that the final colour was somewhat light – a deep and polished chestnut rather than chocolate labrador, but the taste is gratifyingly rich.

This is a recipe that comes together relatively quickly and easily. The only potential pitfall is that, because the base is quite dark to begin with, it can be difficult to tell if it is catching – mine did blacken a little (my oven’s calibration is really off and it is running very hot), which was unfortunate. Also, the crust does set very hard and is somewhat difficult to cut as a consequence. Patience and a hacksaw…

Study in blue, and cheesecake
Study in blue, and cheesecake

This cheesecake is traversed with cracks – difficult to avoid with a cheesecake – and like many dense cakes it sinks in on itself. It’s also not a half hour job; though simple to put together, a lot of lengthy chilling is required at various stages. A good one to do if you have snatches of time to yourself over the course of a day.

Black Hole Chocolate Cheesecake
From the charming Saved by Cake, by Marian Keyes (occasional revised instructions and adaptations from me)

For the base

  • 100g dark chocolate
  • 50g unsalted butter (well, Marian doesn’t specify, but unsalted is what I used)
  • 200g digestive biscuits (I didn’t make my own for this.On some level, this may be a fail)

For the filling

  • 200g dark chocolate
  • 200g mascarpone
  • 200g full-fat soft/cream cheese (Marian specifies Philadelphia but I went own brand. Also, full-fat is necessary to give the requisite texture – light soft cheese tends to be more watery which is not a good thing in a cheesecake context)
  • 50g golden caster sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, for some added depth
  • 150ml double cream

You will need a 23cm round springform tin and a handheld electric mixer (though this could, conceivably, be made by hand).

  1. Grease the sides of your springform and line the base with baking paper. I usually open the clip of the springform, make the parchment circle a little bigger than my base and clip it in to ensure it’s taut. I then trim the edges if necessary.
  2. For the base, melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water. Melt the butter in a saucpan.
  3. Smash the digestives into crumbs. You can put them in a freezer bag (or similar) and pound them ferociously with a rolling pin, or you can put them in the food processor as I did. Once blitzed to crumbs, add the melted butter and chocolate. If making in the food processor, blitz them together until well combined.
  4. Press the chocolatey biscuit mixture into your lined springform tin, pressing it in to completely cover the base and come up the sides a little. To press this in evenly, I like pressing my clenched fist into the base – you can feel the depth changing if there’s any unevenness and it’s really nice to get a bit tactile with food sometimes.
  5. Chill the base in the fridge for at least an hour.
  6. Once ready to make the filling, preheat the oven to 170C.
  7. Melt the 200g dark chocolate for the filling in a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water (maybe even the same bowl and pan you used earlier, to save on washing up!). Let it cool.
  8. In a large bowl, beat together the soft/cream cheese and mascarpone together with the sugar, eggs, vanilla and black pepper using an electric mixer until completely smooth and combined, ensuring that the ingredients are completely amalgamated.
  9. Pour in the double cream, whisking. Finally, add the cooled chocolate, continuing to whisk. Scrape down the sides of the bowl a few times with a spatula and continue beating. Once all the ingredients are incorporated and the mixture is totally homogenous – no flecks of white or darker streaks of chocolate to be seen – pour the mixture on top of the set biscuit base and bake for 40 minutes.
  10. Once baked, do not open the oven – instead, keep the cake in the switched-off oven for at least 2 hours, and preferably overnight.
  11. Once this step has completed, remove the cheesecake from the oven and chill in the fridge for at least six hours, preferably overnight.
  12. Once this step has completed, you can remove the cheesecake from the fridge and release the springform catch. If the cake looks like it’s flush against the tin and won’t budge, take an offset metal spatula, pour boiling water over the spatula and then dry it completely. Gently prise the offset spatula around the edge of the cake before releasing the catch.
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