It’s not the lights that get me in the end, neither the store windows nor odd ads on the telly. It’s only on an ordinary day during my usual walk home, with a strong smell of burning coal in the cold, lung-piercing air.
Prokofiev is playing in my earphones and somewhere in the street, someone is roasting chestnuts and at this very moment it strikes me – Christmas is coming.
December always creeps up on me by surprise. While the loud cacophony of commerce does little to get me into the festive mood, it’s the promise of the feast that makes this my favourite time of the year, a celebration of excess, the bright fire lit right in the middle of the bitingly cold, dark depths of the mid-winter.
Polish Christmas food bares little resemblance to the Yule-time eats around here: traditional Christmas bread, much like an eastern European panettone; marzipan, for layering between sheets of dense, spiced sponge cakes, soaked with plum preserves and brandy.
There’s also the traditional Christmas Eve supper of twelve dishes, including a whole carp, glistening in the candle light.
An old-fashioned, eastern Europe-style cheesecake is the kind you’d be served were you lucky enough to be at my grandma’s at Christmas. I make it with twaróg – a crumbly, lumpy, fresh curd cheese. It’s not as rich as the creamy kind you’d normally use – but it’s all over the place on Polish shelves at the supermarkets and worth trying.
The pastry base complements the vanilla-scented curd with its buttery charm and crunch. Apart from being an endearing Anglo-Polish marriage, the mincemeat adds relief of sharp, spicy sweetness – so much better than the traditional freckle of raisins throughout the thick curd. Topped with snowy peaks of meringue, you have the orthodox krakauer cheesecake. It’s very sweet, very Christmassy and very, very good.
For the pastry base
Rice flour, 40g
Butter, 60g, diced and fridge-cold
Baking powder, barely a teaspoon
For the filling
Large eggs, 3
Zest of an orange, a good teaspoon and some for garnish
Disaronno, or another almond liqueur, a hearty drop or two
Poppy seeds, two tablespoons
Cornflour, 3 tablespoons
Serves six or eight
Baking time: 1h 15 min
Cooling time: overnight
You will need a 17 cm springform cake tin, lightly buttered and lined with parchment paper. Wrap the tin around with a single piece of aluminium foil – the cheesecake’s baked in a water bath and this prevents any water from getting into it.
Make the pastry base. In a deep bowl, rub the pieces of butter with the flours until they look like rough oatmeal. Add sugar, baking powder and just enough cold water for the dough to stick together. Shape it into a flat patty and place it in the fridge for 20 minutes to set. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 160℃.
On a lightly floured surface, roll your pastry thin with a rolling pin. Line the baking tin with the rolled pastry. Some recipes will tell you to prick the base with a fork but I find it only leaves holes for the filling to penetrate the base, resulting in sogginess – so don’t bother.
Bake it in the preheated oven for about 25 minutes, until it’s lovely and golden.
Set the oven to 140℃, put a kettle full of water on.
In a food processor, whizz up the twaróg and the milk.
Separate the eggs and whisk the whites with a pinch of salt and one tablespoon of sugar, until stiff and glossy.
With a hand mixer, beat the egg yolks with the remainder of sugar until thick and very pale. Carefully fold the egg yolks into the smooth cheese, then ditto with the egg whites. Finally, fold in the cornflour and the poppy seeds. Be gentle – the more air bubbles that are left, the lighter and better the cheesecake.
Take a couple of tablespoons of the cheese filling and fold it together with the mincemeat. Decant this lot onto the baked pastry base and top with the remaining cheese mix.
Place the cake tin in a roasting tin, pour enough water to go halfway up the tin. Carefully place the whole thing in the preheated oven and bake for 50 minutes. The cheesecake won’t be fully set by then – the middle is supposed to have a slight wobble to it. Turn the oven off and leave the cheesecake in there to cool for an hour, after which take it out, let it cool completely and place it in the fridge overnight. Garnish with grated orange zest.
Note: in the pictures they are the same cheesecakes but baked in a 12-bun muffin tin, each bun compartment lined with a circle of parchment. Proceed according to recipe, but bake for 25 minutes.
Photography by Arek Zagata