While visiting Iceland earlier this year, I stopped at a tourist cafe on the black sand beach in Vik for a slice of skyr cheesecake, and I can't stop thinking about it. I mean, that's the life of a pastry chef; visit one of our planet's most iconic basalt formations, and walk away with indelible memories of cheesecake.
But it was a great cheesecake, okay?
It had an almost cloud-like consistency, underpinned by the tang of skyr, and it was rich enough to suggest whipped cream folded in. It reminded me of vanilla mousse crossed with a no-bake cheesecake, but with a presentation more in-line with that of a New York cheesecake (tall, straight sides, and crust along the bottom alone).
Slowly, I've been working toward a version of my own, a dessert that's as light as mousse, as tangy as cheesecake, and visually impressive enough to be a centerpiece dessert—all without even glancing at an oven. Because it's so airy and tart, it provides a wonderful counterpoint to the richness of a hearty meal, making it a natural contender for the holidays.
Before I dive into the recipe and technique, please note that I'm making no claims of authenticity here. I've had exactly one (1) slice of skyr cheesecake, so the best I can do is replicate my own memory of that experience. That's doubly true given the lack of traditional skyr in the US, where most (if not all) brands are rennet-free formulas that are much like Greek yogurt.
Thanks to that quirk of localization, both skyr and Greek yogurt will get the job done in this recipe—which isn't to say all brands are created equal! Look for those that contain nothing but milk and active cultures; spotting any sort of gum or pectin in the ingredients list is a sure sign its water content is too high (in other words, its consistency is controlled by thickening agents rather than straining).
I've tested this recipe across two brands of Greek yogurt (Fage and Chobani) and two brands of skyr (Siggi's and Icelandic Provisions), and all perform well, with subtle differences in flavor and volume apparent only in side-by-side tastings. What's important is to start with a brand you enjoy; the cheesecake will magnify, not disguise, its character.
I like this cheesecake best with the bitterness of dark chocolate wafers in the cookie-crumb crust, but feel free to start with whatever sounds best to you.
I used my own DIY Oreos as wafers, as I tend to have a stockpile of scraps hanging out in my freezer (again, that's the life of a pastry chef), but there's no shame in store-bought.
If you can't find Nabisco's Famous Chocolate Wafers, do take the time to scrape out the filling in store-bought Oreos or try chocolate grahams instead; gluten-free alternatives to any of those options will do nicely as well.
As with my New York Cheesecake, I like using an 8- by 4-inch non-reactive loose-bottom pan to give the cheesecake some dramatic height, but, of course, you can adapt the recipe to whatever equipment you have on hand.
After lining the bottom insert with foil, I prepare the crust right in the pan by gently mixing the cookie crumbs with salt and melted butter, then compressing everything into an even layer.
With the crust ready to go, it's time to start on the filling. It may be a no-bake affair, but like any mousse, it takes a few bowls to prepare and hold the individual components. In this case, bloomed gelatin, whipped Greek yogurt or skyr, and Swiss meringue.
Here, I bloom unflavored powdered gelatin with vanilla extract and water, but other liquids (like milk or cream) will work equally well. As sheet gelatin is not readily available in American supermarkets, and its bloom strength can vary wildly by brand and grade, I have not tested it in this recipe.
The next step is to whip Greek yogurt or skyr with cream until stiff, at which point it can be popped in the fridge while making the Swiss meringue.
If that's something you've ever made before, whether to top a chocolate cream pie or as the basis of Swiss buttercream (or even for my homemade Klondike bars), then you'll be in familiar territory here.
If not, it may help to click around to familiarize yourself with the technique, which I've written about extensively in the articles linked above. It's not a difficult process—egg whites and sugar are warmed over a water bath and then whipped until fluffy and light—but managing the water temperature can be tricky for beginners, who may fear increasing the heat as needed to cook the meringue in short order.
The idea is to quickly cook the meringue to about 175°F, a process that should absolutely not take any longer than 10 minutes. It's okay for the timing in a recipe to vary by a minute or two here or there, based on the equipment in a given kitchen, but if things seem to be moving more slowly than that, feel free to turn up the heat.
During this time, continually scrape and stir the mixture of egg whites and sugar to ensure nothing scrambles against the sides of the bowl. As the mixture warms, it will transform from a dark and translucent mixture, an opaque, almost white syrup. It should be totally creamy, with no lumps of cooked egg (which will either indicate insufficient stirring or excessively strong heat from the water bath).
Once the meringue is fully cooked, toss it on a stand mixer and whip until thick and roughly tripled in volume, but still a little warm. Meanwhile, carefully melt the bloomed gelatin until liquid and quite warm, anything above 100°F but below 212°F will be fine.
Transfer about 1/3 of the meringue to a large bowl, then add the warm gelatin all at once, whisking quickly to combine. From there, the remainder of the meringue can be added, followed by the mixture of whipped cream and Greek yogurt or skyr.
At this stage, the "cheesecake" can be seasoned to taste with additional salt or an extra splash of vanilla extract if it seems too sweet. From there, the filling is scraped into the prepared pan and smoothed into an even layer.
Cover and refrigerate the cheesecake until fully set and no warmer than 40°F (4°C); the exact timing can vary, but I'd budget at least six hours to be safe.
In practice, however, this is always an overnight process for me as I'd rather take advantage of its make-ahead nature than race the clock to prepare and serve it all in the same day.
When fully set, unmold the cheesecake by loosening the sides with a thin knife or offset spatula. Place the pan on a wide jar (or some similarly sized object), then pull down on the sides to drop the outer ring away from the bottom.
With a springform pan, the cheesecake may tear a little as the outer ring expands when the latch is released (another reason I love my loose-bottom pan).
Finally, I use an offset spatula to loosen the cheesecake from the bottom insert, so I can slide it onto a cake stand or serving platter.
From there, the cheesecake can be served immediately or wrapped in plastic and refrigerated until needed, up to one week from the day it was made (a shelf life that has more to do with flavor and freshness than food safety).
Because the cheesecake itself is so tangy, thanks to the Greek yogurt or skyr, I'm not wild about pairing it with fruit. Instead, I enjoy it with bittersweet toppings; think caramel sauce and chocolate shavings or garnishes like Valrhona Crunchy Pearls, malt balls, or classic chocolate sprinkles.
Between its tangy flavor, airy texture, no-bake technique, and long shelf life, this simple cheesecake is a strong contender for any holiday menu. It won't compete with other recipes for the oven, it can be knocked out well in advance and is almost a palate cleanser after a rich and heavily spiced meal.