It is difficult to believe how popular cheesecakes have become these days in India which can be seen even in small cake shops and cafes. But still one can see the fascination for pastries, icing laden cup cakes which are neatly kept in glass counters for display among other savories like potato puffs, sandwiches and many more, but still it’s hard to find a good cheesecake.
The very idea of making cake with cheese might raise the eyebrows of many, who might find it awkward that the cheese is put in cake!! Since Indians have a preconceived idea that cheese is always salty, processed cheese accompanying a sandwich etc? Or the stretchy white mozzarella cheese on the pizzas, or in the vaguest of imagination some might also assume that a cheesecake is made with smelly Gorgonzola cheese. But rarely do we consider other varieties such as cream cheese, cottage cheese or our very own paneer as cheese.
In the opinion of a British celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal, who has worked immensely on origin and history associated with dishes, and researched on Britain’s oldest cook book called ‘The Forme of Cury’, which is a collection of medieval English recipes from 14th century authored by the chief master cooks of King Richard II, a dish called ‘Sambocade’ was the earliest of cheesecakes ever made. Sambocade, was made from drained goat cheese, sweetened with sugar, flavoured with elderflower baked in a pie shell.
Heston Blumenthal states, there are primarily two types of cheesecakes, baked and unbaked. A baked cheesecake is which consists majorly cream cheese, sugar, flavourings, cream and often eggs too and is baked till it’s still jiggly in the middle and often topped up with some frosting. While the second version, the unbaked cheesecake, is a bit more delicate but has a fresher taste. It is lighter and fluffier to hold on to and generally gelatin is the main contributor.
Today there are chefs who can make a decent baked cheesecake but the custard needs to be baked at the right temperature and for the right time, if over baked the texture and smoothness is lost and it becomes a dry lumpy mass. Many home chefs too make wonderful refrigerated cheesecakes, without adding gelatin, but at times such cakes when done by pastry shops are quite disappointing as they tend to add too much of gelatin so that the cheesecake stays on for longer and does not melt.
New York Cheesecake: a baked cheesecake, a bit heavy and dense as it consists of cream cheese whipped together with heavy or sour cream, eggs.
Chicago Cheesecake: could either be baked or unbaked with cream cheese, though more common are the unbaked version, it’s a bit firm on the outside but softer on the inside.
Italian Cheesecake: Made from ricotta, mascarpone and other real cheese (not cream cheese). The can be a bit dryer.
Japanese Cheesecake: Called soufflé cheesecake in Japan. Japanese like their desserts light and fluffier, even their pancakes are also very light and airy.
One thing about cheesecake which is quite interesting, that India too has its own version of cheesecake. Odisha, a state in Eastern coast of India; whose cuisine is quite underestimated or say under-popularised as compared to other Indian states. The ‘mithaiwallas’ or shopkeepers who make various sweets and snacks, have from times immemorial used cheese in India. The ‘chena poda’ of Odisha was an experimental dish by a sweet shop owner in 12th century by the name of Sudarshana Sahoo in a town called Nayagarh. Sudarshana Sahoo added some ‘gur’ or jaggery to the leftover chena or cottage cheese very similar to ricotta, along with powdered cardamom and placed it on the drowsing embers of fire of his working place and left for home for the day. The next morning to his surprise he saw a very nicely baked chena, aromatic and flavourful, thus a new sweet called ‘chena ponda’ was born. Locally in Odisha, chena ponda has acquired a very important place in the holy offering made to the Jagarnath Puri Temple. Though there have been many claims that the ancient Greeks were the ones to introduce the cheesecake, but the chena ponda of Odisha is truly Indias own version of cheesecake.
India has had a long association with ‘chena’ (curd), with the nomads who domesticated cattle for milk and the need to preserve milk later developed into an art of making curd through the process of fermentation by adding curd culture. Over a period of time, skills developed further and there was introduction of whey separated curd like ‘chena’ and ‘paneer’ (cottage cheese), which were made by purposely adding food acids like fermented curd whey or lemon juice to hot milk, further straining the curds from the whey. This strained out curds from the whey was further used in preparation of several dishes as it was a rich source of protein and over a number of years this chena thus produced from this process came to be used for making several dishes.
The region of Eastern India, especially Odisha and West Bengal can aptly be called the chena capital of India due to the varieties of dishes made from it. In these regions chena is not only used as a vegetarian option for food but also is a very important ingredient for a number of desserts. A few examples are:-
Chena Gaja: the chhena gaja remains largely popular within the state of Odisha. It’s a fried nugget made with chena and dipped in syrup.
Khira Sagara: an Odisha sweet which literally translates to ocean of milk, wherein small, marble-sized balls of chena are boiled in thickened sweet and flavoured milk. In Bengal similar sweet is known as Rasmalai
Rasabali: famed in Odisha it’s a chena doughnut, fried and dipped in milk and sugar syrup.
Chena Kheeri: thickened sweet milk and crumbled chena with a dash of cardamom.
Sondesh: a very widely popular sweet of Bengal where the chena is introduced in sweetened milk and further reduces to be dry, shaped like a flattened patty.
Chom-chom: is yet another Bengali sweet wherein chena balls are flattened put in sugar syrup till the syrup is well absorbed and then it is layered with milk cream, or rolled in dry coconut powder.
Rasagullla: chena dumplings cooked in sugar syrup and often flavoured with rosewater. Similar to the rasagulla is Rajbhog too, a kind of variation of rasagulla eaten by the royalty. It’s a bigger in size chena dumpling stuffed with chopped nuts, cardamom and cooked in saffron infused sugar syrup.
Mishti Doi: is a thickened Greek-style yogurt, sweetened with palm jaggery, filled in terracotta dishes and steamed. The palm jaggery imparts a very beautiful caramel colour as well as a very distinct flavor to it.