I’m a big fan of cheese plates at the end of a meal. But as a pastry chef, I'm also a dessert lover.
Despite my better intentions at the beginning of a meal, it’s fairly rare that I actually have the cargo capacity for both a cheese plate and a dessert. I end up in an unhappy position of indecision. With this concern in mind, I began toying with dishes that could double as a dessert and composed cheese plate. After finding some beautiful grapes and bandying thoughts with Tyler, we struck an idea: a blue cheese cheesecake with a grape accompaniment.
To make the cheesecake, I acquired a lovely gorgonzola. Though my initial idea was to essentially swap out a portion of cream cheese for blue cheese in a standard cheesecake recipe, the reality of muddling the gorgonzola's beautiful blue stipple into gray blech was too painful to follow through. Instead, I diced the cheese and folded it into a basic cheesecake base. This way, the beauty and flavor intensity of the cheese could be preserved in exciting little bits and bursts throughout the otherwise mellow cake.
As for the type of cheesecake, I still can't rely on our tweaky ovens (which are also located up a flight of stairs, a big tripping hazard), so I decided to go the no-bake route. Usually, this type of cheesecake is lightened with whipped cream or a Swiss meringue (a cooked meringue in which the whites and sugar are heated thoroughly over a water bath before whipping) and set with gelatin. For the blue cheese cheesecake, however, I opted for an Italian meringue, created by pouring a hot sugar syrup into whipping egg whites—normally a touch more stable than its Swiss counterpart.
In lieu of the gelatin, I chose agar, a seaweed-based thickener (and therefore a vegetarian alternative to animal-based gelatin) that has a significantly higher melting point than gelatin, yielding products that are more temperature-stable with a slightly more spongy, toothsome texture. (Gelatin-based foods will weep and melt more quickly at room temperature.) Both choices helped to achieve the desired effect: a sturdy cake that cuts well, with a mouth feel approximating the paste of the gorgonzola.
For the grape component, Tyler and I were particularly excited by the prospect of carbonated Concord grape juice. My husband and I had recently made some at home with our new Soda Club carbonator, and the result was delicious: sweet, though not as sweet as soda, tart, fizzy and light. This experiment had also left us with a countertop covered in purple stickiness (Soda Club explicitly states that you are not to use the carbonator for anything but straight water), so I decided to try carbonating the juice in a pressurized, fully-contained canister. Unfortunately, there was some confusion with the purveyor. They were supposed to supply the carbon dioxide cartridges we ordered for our canister this week, but when they didn't, we weren’t able to go the route of carbonated grape juice. Instead, I used the concord grapes that I’d bought at the market, coupled with some red wine, star anise, and cloves to make a syrup in which I lightly cooked beautiful little, raisin-flavored champagne grapes.
Their tart-sweet flavor countered the richness of the cheesecake, and brought lovely little bursts of juice to the table. Paired with a crunchy oatmeal crumble, in lieu of crust, and rich walnuts, coated in a buttery honey caramel infused with rosemary, we had a dessert that seamlessly integrated elements one might ordinarily find on a cheese plate—an ideal choice for the indecisive.
- 2/3 cup whole milk (150g)
- 2 tsp agar powder
- 1-1/2# cream cheese (2.5 8-ounce blocks or 672g)
- ½ cup sugar (105g)
- ¼ cup water (56g)
- 4 large eggs whites (~125g)
- Pinch of salt
- 7 ounces quality blue cheese, small dice (196g)
Wipe the inside of an 8X8-inch square cake pan with a moist paper towel. Gently ease a sheet of plastic wrap into the pan, taking care to press the plastic all the way into all of the corners and smooth any wrinkles with a dry cloth or paper towel.
Place milk in a small saucepan. Sprinkle agar over the surface of the milk and set aside.
Place cream cheese in a heat-proof mixing bowl set over a pot of simmering water. Stir occasionally as you measure the remaining ingredients.
When cheese is completely smooth and melted, remove the bowl from the heat and place sauce pan of milk and agar over medium heat. Stirring occasionally, bring the mixture to a full boil to fully dissolve the agar (mixture will become very thick at the boil, so be sure to stir well at this point to keep from scorching). Immediately blend agar mixture into warm, softened cream cheese and set mixture aside.
Combine sugar and water in a small sauce pan and place over medium-high heat. Meanwhile, place egg whites and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Whip whites on medium speed as the sugar syrup cooks. When sugar syrup reaches the soft ball stage (235-245F), turn the mixer speed up to medium-high (whites should be white, with a dense foamy texture) and carefully pour the hot syrup down the inside of the mixer bowl, into the whipping whites. Once all of the syrup has been added, reduce the mixer speed slightly, and continue to whip the meringue until firm peaks form and the outside of the mixing bowl is just warm to the touch.
Working quickly and gently (the agar begins to set quickly once the batter has been lightened by the meringue), pour about ¼ of the cream cheese mixture into the meringue and loosely fold together (mixture does not have to be homogenous, just swirled and fairly evenly distributed). Loosely fold about half of this meringue mixture into the cream cheese mixture. Then add the remainder of the meringue mixture, along with the diced blue cheese, and fold all together, until the mixture is fairly homogenous and the cheese pieces are well distributed. Immediately turn this mixture into the prepared cake pan, pushing gently into all of the corners and smooth the surface with an offset spatula.
Wrap the pan loosely in plastic wrap and refrigerate until set. Cut with a knife dipped in hot water. Cake will keep wrapped in the refrigerator for 3 or 4 days.