Saturday 8 December 2012

Cheesecake with a Fresh Plum Topping

I think plums are overlooked in this country as a noble festive fruit, and I blame the raspberry. Before I warm to the topic, though, here is a picture of my new Christmas dessert: a baked cheesecake with a trembling topping of  tart-sweet plum purée.

The tiny strawberries on top of this slice are from my patch of wild strawberries.
The fruit withered in the heat before it had a chance to ripen properly.
There was a time in South Africa when a tin of Koo cling peaches was considered a compulsory ending to a Christmas feast, whether plonked in a bowl with vanilla ice cream, or layered  in an extravagant trifle consisting of sherry-soaked Swiss roll, greengage and cherry packet jelly, lurid Moirs or Bird's custard and a final flurry of whipped cream.  (I have to wipe away a little tear remembering this sort of pudding: the stalklets of angelica, the chocolate shavings, the glacé cherries and silver balls and nibbed almonds...)

Raspberries and their fashionable purées, coulises and compotes have elbowed our glorious South African tinned peaches off festive menus (at least they have in well-heeled homes; a tin of peaches is still a luxury in many households). I suppose this is inevitable, given that this quintessentially British fruit is now grown locally, and is freely available both fresh and frozen  in our supermarkets.  A plethora of British cookery programmes on South African pay channels has helped to drive sales of raspberries and enthuse local food writers, to the point that you cannot open the December issue of a food magazine without seeing raspberries smallpoxing the surfaces of every cake, ice creams and pavlova in sight.

I'm not knocking raspberries - they're glorious and beautiful - but, like cherries, they're not a fruit that grows with any abandon in our hot country, and so they are ruinously expensive.  I reckon that if you're planning to feature magnificent South African fruits on your festive menu, it's best to stick to the ones we do best in the hot summer months, and those are mangos, litchis, watermelon, peaches and, best of all and most fitting for Christmas, plums.

The wide variety of beautiful plums that fill supermarket shelves from the end of October to the last days of April always tempts me to fill my basket to overflowing . I love the scent and dusky taste of a good plum, whether it's oxblood-red inside and out, or crimson-skinned and fleshily yellow on the inside, or purple and brown as the best prune plums are.

Plums are so versatile. They make brilliant  jams, jellies and sweet-sour Asian-style sauces. You can pickle them, chutney them and compote them, or simply serve them in a shining pyramid surrounded by greenery, as the centrepiece on a Christmas table.

So here is my celebration of December plums. This is a dense-textured baked cheesecake scented with vanilla and lemon zest, glazed all over with a lightly jellied topping of puréed poached plums.  It takes a while to make - and you can do this over a day or two - but it's easy, and the only real effort you will have to make is waiting patiently for everything to chill.

Christmas Cheesecake with a Fresh Plum Topping

1 x 200 g packet tennis or shortbread biscuits, or biscuits of your choice
80 g unsalted butter, melted
3 x 250 g tubs good-quality cream cheese, at room temperature
1½ cups (375 ml) caster sugar
3 extra-large free-range eggs
2 tsp (10 ml) vanilla extract or essence
finely grated zest of a small lemon
1 Tbsp (15 ml) cornflour

For the plum purée:
7 just-ripe, juicy red plums
1 cup (250 ml) water
½ cup (125 ml) white sugar
a thumb-length strip of lemon zest

For the glaze:
1½ cups (375 ml) plum purée
1 Tbsp (15 ml) water
1½ tsp (7.5 ml) powdered gelatine

Heat the oven to 170 ºC, or 160 ºC if you have a fan-assisted oven. Break up the biscuits and whizz them to fine crumbs in a food processor.  Stir in the melted butter. Press the crumbs evenly over the base of a non-stick 24-cm springform cake tin.

Use the side of a small glass gently to flatten the biscuit base, rolling it around in a circle. Chill the crust while you make the filling.

Put the cream cheese and caster sugar into a large bowl and, using a rotary beater, whisk until just smooth and combined. Beat in the eggs one by one, then whisk in the vanilla, lemon zest and sifted cornflour.

Place a large sheet of heavy-duty tin foil on the counter, and another one the same size on top of that. Place the springform tin on top and bring up the sides of the foil to make a nest around the tin (see picture below). This will prevent water from the bain-marie seeping into the tin.  Fill a large roasting tin three-quarters full with warm water.

Pour the filling into the crumb crust and place the tin in its water bath, making sure the water level is not so high that it will flow over the edges of the foil. Bake for an hour to an hour and a quarter (this will depend on the efficiency of your oven. It is done when it is slightly risen, pulling away at the edges, lightly freckled, and wobbles reluctantly in the centre when you give it a shake). Turn off the oven, open the door, and let the cheesecake cool completely in the oven.  Refrigerate, in its tin, for at least four hours.

Make the purée right away. Cut the plums in half and remove the stones. Put the water and sugar into a saucepan and bring gently to the boil, stirring occasionally. When all the sugar has dissolved, add the plum halves, turn down the heat and simmer for about 8 minutes, or until the plums are just beginning to collapse.  Remove the lemon strip, allow to cool for 10 minutes, and then whizz to a fine purée. Taste the mixture, and add a few drops of lemon juice if you think it's not tart enough. Strain (or leave it slightly coarse), cover and refrigerate until ice-cold.

To glaze the cheesecake, put the water in a little heat-proof bowl and sprinkle the gelatine over it. Set aside for a minute to sponge. Place the bowl in a pot of simmering water (the water should come half-way up the sides) and stir occasionally as the gelatine melts. When the liquid is clear, remove the bowl from the water. Measure exactly one and a half cups (375 ml) of the very cold plum purée into a mixing bowl and stir in the melted gelatine, scraping every last drop of gelatine into the bowl, and mixing very well.  Set aside for 10 minutes to thicken.

Remove the cheesecake from the fridge and run a knife round the edges. It will have shrunken away from the tin a little. Drizzle the plum purée over the centre of the cheesecake, letting it ooze lazily to the edges and trickle down the sides.  If the glaze slides right off the top, the plum mixture isn't cold enough, and you will need to let it chill in the fridge for a while.

Refrigerate for another two hours, or until the jelly has set. Gently release the cake from its ring, slide it onto a plate and cut into sections with a knife that you've dipped in hot water.  Note: you can try sliding a palette knife between the springform base and the crust to loosen the entire cake, but I don't think it's worth the risk.

Makes one 24-cm cake; serves 8.

Cook's Notes:

- Make sure the cream cheese is at room temperature when you make the filling. Cold cream cheese is difficult to whisk until quite smooth, and you may end up over-beating the batter.

- If you forget to take the cream cheese out of the fridge, you can warm the tubs (all at once) in the microwave, in 30-second bursts.

- If you'd like very thick glaze, you can apply a second layer once the first has set, using the left-over plum purée. Use one teaspoon (5 ml) of gelatine per 250 ml purée.

More of my Scrumptious plum recipes:

Fresh plum jelly with a Lemon Panna Cotta Topping

Fresh-Plum and Almond Cake

Glazed Roast Pork Neck with a Gingery Fresh-Prune Relish

Spiced Plums with Tamarind

Christmassy Plum and Tamarind Sauce

Festive Phyllo Crackers with a Spicy Plum and Almond Filling

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Kit said...

Perfect timing, Jane-Anne, and it sounds delicious. Our plum tree has an abundance of gloriously juicy plums, all of which are ripe at once. Maybe I should make some of this puree and freeze it for future plum gorgeousness.

I love raspberries but we haven't managed to grow any yet. Our youngberries however are the best ever this year - don't know why no-one really sells those here - they grow really well. We're busy freezing them for a year-round supply of berry muffins and smoothies.

I remember trifles like those too - ours always had bananas in.

Jane-Anne said...

You have a plum tree, Kit? Oh, I am so jelly (ha ha!) One of the best memories of my childhood was standing in a hot orchard eating plums straight off the tree. I love youngberries too. Hint hint. x

Kit said...

So you'd better come and visit us very soon, Jane-Anne, while the youngberries are still in season and there are still a few plums on the tree! You'd be very welcome!