NEW YORK (Feb 7): The majority of desserts that break the internet are modern creations that have been either carefully designed to entice Instagram users, such as the cotton-candy milkshake, or a reverse engineered hybrid, like the cronut.
The newest sweet to captivate Americans is neither. Nor, at almost three decades old, is it really new. It’s not even particularly pretty to look at; it’s burnt.
A Basque-country crustless cheesecake has cropped up around the U.S., from tiny apartment kitchens—thanks to love from sites such as Food52 (yes, you should make it, too)—to such exclusive dining spots as Dialogue in Los Angeles. Essentially, it’s a typical cheesecake, but with textural twists like singed edges and a gooey core.
Basque cheesecake may look like a bungled home-ec project—cratered, blotchy, and scorched—but it’s this “Shrek factor” that makes the cake so beguiling. Looking at one, you’d never imagine its center would ooze lazily, like Epoisses, or that its puffed edges would dissolve on your tongue, as cotton candy does. Nor would you predict that its caramelized burnt corners would become so addictive.
The cake was birthed behind the swinging door at La Viña in Spain’s San Sebastián, a neighborhood pintxos (skewered snack) joint whose bartenders remember your name. Though the region has had a long love affair with custards, this creamy dessert didn’t exist until La Viña created it. The ingredient list is shockingly short: cream cheese, sugar, eggs, cream, and, depending on whom you ask, flour. The bar uses good old Philadelphia cream cheese; this was a relatively new ingredient in the Basque region in the 1970s, and locals embraced it.
“We began recipe testing after combining ideas from various cookbooks,” says Santiago Rivera, the owner, in an interview with La Vanguardia, a Catalan newspaper. The winner emerged from a blasphemously hot (400F) oven. It was so toasted on all sides that nobody missed the crust. That was 29 years ago, when the restaurant baked one or two cheesecakes a day for a mostly local crowd; today’s turnout averages 20, and the bar area might as well be the floor of the UN. (Note to potential cheesecake pilgrims: La Viña is under renovation through late spring.)
A handful of glowing articles earned La Viña national fame about a decade ago; slowly, Basque cheesecake went global. It first caught on in Asia, particularly in Japan, Turkey, and Malaysia, where an article on the seven best places offering burnt cheesecake in Kuala Lumpur was published in September.
Rivera has been approached by bigwig investors, ranging from Emirati sheikhs to Korean businessmen, to take the La Viña brand international, but he has consistently demurred. Burnt cheesecake may have cropped up on almost every continent, yet the only place to sample the original is at his 60-year-old bar.
That’s not to say the copycats are unworthy. Stateside, Alex Raij was one of Basque cheesecake’s earliest evangelizers. She introduced it to New Yorkers—a tough cheesecake crowd, to say the least—at her Basque restaurant, Txikito 10 years ago. Raij thinks the present could be the cheesecake’s big moment. More people are “coming around to embrace bitter and burnt flavors,” she says. Txikito’s latest iteration adds a hefty dollop of labneh to the cake, with Espelette chili-spiked pineapple on the side.
Katie Button, the el Bulli-trained chef at Cúrate in Asheville, N.C., calls Basque cheesecake “magical” because it “goes against everything we’re taught about classic cheesecake baking, which is to avoid color by using low oven temperatures, water baths, and a slew of other tricks.” Button’s take on the dish throws sheep’s-milk cheese into the batter and a spoonful of strawberry-red wine compote on top. “People tell us it’s the best cheesecake they’ve ever had,” she said.
Even the king of viral desserts, cronut creator Dominique Ansel, is getting in on the Basque cheesecake game. He Instagrammed a picture of the cake from La Viña in September and was so taken with it that he’s added a version of it to his tasting experience, U.P., at Dominique Ansel Kitchen in New York, starting Feb 13. It’s already sold-out.
Ansel was tight-lipped on the specifics of his recipe, perhaps because, in spite of the simple ingredient list, the devil is in the details. Nobody knows that more than Dave Beran, chef at the 18-seat restaurant Dialogue in Santa Monica, who embarked on a months-long quest to recreate La Viña’s cheesecake following a trip to San Sebastián. “It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to make,” says the James Beard award-winning chef, an alum of Alinea in Chicago. “There are so many variables: the temperature of the ingredients, the way you mix them, the bake times, and rest times.” His experiments paid off: Basque cheesecake is the only dish at Dialogue that never goes out of rotation and is the restaurant’s birthday cake.
Both Beran and Marti Buckley, the author of Basque Country: A Culinary Journey Through a Food Lover’s Paradise, agree that most online recipes for La Viña cheesecake are bunk. The closest things you’ll find to the original recipe are probably the one printed in Buckley’s book, which draws from trustworthy sources, or a hot tip or two from former La Viña employees.
Basque cheesecake is an enigma: ugly, yet alluring; burnt, yet undercooked; and easy to make, yet almost impossible to perfect. And unlike most fleetingly famous viral desserts, it’s sticking around, thanks to deep local roots and worldwide appeal. So turn up your ovens, pick up your forks, and forget everything you think you know about cheesecake.