Monday, October 19, 2009

An Indian-themed cheesecake for Diwali

Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, has always been my favorite of them all. Even as a young child, I loved to hang out in the kitchen, watching my mother as she skilfully kneaded dough, ground nuts and spices, and stirred the boiling vats of syrup that would eventually become mountains of delicious sweets and savories to eat and share. My sister and I would be up at the crack of dawn to have the ritual oil bath and don our new clothes. Then, our guests would arrive to enjoy a huge, traditional South Indian spread for breakfast; and before we fell into a food-induced coma, we'd head out to visit friends and family with trays of goodies for them. In the evenings the neighborhood would come alive with the glow of the rows and rows of oil lamps that we'd set out; and the sky would light up with dazzling fireworks.

Here in the US, Diwali is a far more tame affair, since it is celebrated only by a small minority. Since this year's festival occurred over a weekend, I was keen to continue the festival tradition by inviting some friends over for a vegetarian Indian meal. Since Indian sweets can be a bit too sweet for most non-Indian palates, I knew I'd have to pick a dessert from another part of the globe. I finally settled on cheesecake, whose rich creaminess provides a good foil for spicy food. A good basic cheesecake recipe is very useful to have in your recipe file - you can mix in any number of added flavorings to suit your need! And the good part is that it needs to chill overnight before serving, so you have to make it ahead of time and thereby avoid any last-minute rush. In honor of Diwali I decided to flavor it with some of our favorite ingredients for festive sweets: saffron, cardamom and pistachio.

I mixed in some pistachio paste into one half of the cheesecake batter, poured it over the crust and let it bake until just set. The other half of the batter had saffron and cardamom and went over the first layer. The layers ended up mixing in the center, where it was probably not as fully set as the periphery when I poured the second batter on top; still, the bi-color effect came through and I was quite pleased with the results!

Saffron-pistachio (Kesar-pista) cheesecake (Makes 8-10 servings)
1 cup graham cracker crumbs
1/3 cup skin-on almonds, ground
3/4 stick (6 tbsp) butter, melted
2 tbsp sugar
Pinch salt
3 8-oz packages cream cheese, softened
1 cup sour cream
1 cup sugar
3 large eggs
Grated zest of 1 lemon
Optional flavorings (use different ones if you wish):
1/4 cup pistachio paste
Generous pinch saffron threads, dissolved in 1 tbsp warm milk
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
Preheat the oven to 350F(180C). Wrap an 8" springform pan in a double thickness of aluminium foil. Have a large baking dish ready that is big enough to hold the springform pan with room all around to pour hot water - this will be the bain-marie or water bath to bake the cheesecake in.
Mix the ingredients of the crust in a food processor. Press the mixture firmly into the base of the prepared pan. Bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes, until browned. Remove to cool and turn the oven temperature down to 300F(150C).
Mix the filling ingredients in a stand mixer, food processor, or by hand with an electric mixer. Scrape down the sides from time to time to ensure everything is well mixed. Divide the mixture into two equal parts. Mix the pistachio paste into one half, pour into the pan, and place the pan into the water bath with enough hot water to come halfway up the sides. Bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes, or until just set.
Meanwhile, mix the saffron liquid and cardamom into the other portion of the filling. Spoon the second batter gently (gently, unlike what I did!) over the part-baked cheesecake, return the pan to the water bath in the oven, and bake for another 45-50 minutes. The cake should still be jiggly in the center.
Turn off the oven and let the cake stand in the cooling oven for an hour. Remove the cheesecake from the water bath after an hour has passed, and let cool completely. Refrigerate overnight before serving. Cut into portions with a knife that has been dipped in hot water, and rinse the knife in hot water in between cuts.

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