‘Old Delhi’ Cheesecake

Along with railways and a mind-boggling bureaucracy, the British are also assumed to be responsible for India’s unbridled passion for biscuits. In fact biscuits were spotted in India as early as 1660 when French traveller Francois Bernier tasted “sweet biscuits flavoured with anise”: It wasn’t until 1847 that British firm Huntley and Palmers began to ship the colonialists’ favourite tea-time treats.

One of the first desi biscuits was the nan khatai which, despite tasting like a crumbly, buttery Scottish shortbread laced with cardamom, is actually a legacy of early Dutch settlers in Surat who introduced bakeries to the town. When the Dutch left, Indian bakers continued to turn out fresh loaves but as the colonial custom dwindled, so did the sales; locals never acquired a taste for European bread and it invariably went stale on the shelves. Happily, customers discovered slices of these “crunchy” loaves were perfect for dipping in tea and bread started to be made purely to be turned into biscuits, a process which survives today at the Diamond Bakery in Old Delhi where a delicious brioche-style loaf is made into rusks.

When the Surat bakers started to experiment with Dutch Butter Biscuits, nan khatai, meaning “bread with six ingredients” (typically flour, semolina, butter, sugar, cardamom and nuts), was born, soon travelling on to Mumbai and almost every tea stall in India.

I first tasted nan khatai, hot off the pan, in Old Delhi and I never return from my frequent jaunts there without a big bag of warm, crumbly delights under my arm. I recently had a surplus and decided to turn them into a cheesecake base.

Cheesecakes aren’t difficult to make but there are a few cardinal rules. First, a real cheesecake does not contain gelatine. Second, and this might sound obvious but I’m constantly amazed at what passes for cheesecake, there has to be cheese, preferably Philadelphia. You also need a good quality cream or mascarpone and I’ve also added malai for an additional sour note. I’m happy to report that the humble nan khatai continues to surprise—it gave the cheesecake a tantalizing other-worldly flavour, a semolina crunch and a spicy hint of the bazaar in every bite: If I’d been asked to bake a tribute to Old Delhi, this would undoubtedly be it.

Incidentally, the last time I went to get nan khatai, I was a little early and the sellers I normally buy from hadn’t yet rolled out their carts. I would have returned home empty-handed if my enterprising rickshaw driver hadn’t managed to track down the nan khatai wallah—whose family has been baking biscuits in the backstreets longer than Britannia— in one of the more obscure gullies. If you want a good dollop of Old Delhi in your cheesecake, and I can think of no good reason why you wouldn’t, look him up in Roshanpura, off Nai Sarak, Old Delhi.

Old Delhi Cheesecake

Ingredients

300g plus a few extra nan khatai biscuits

80g Amul (what else?) butter, melted

400g mascarpone cheese

300g cream cheese

150g caster sugar

3 large eggs

1 egg yolk

150ml cream (malai)

Zest of 1 orange

Zest and juice of 2 lemons (nimbu)

1 tsp real vanilla extract (not essence)

Method

Preheat oven to 170 degrees Celsius. You will need a 22cm, loose-bottomed baking tin (the springform variety is ideal here) and a large roasting tin which the baking tin can fit into. Fill a kettle with water and bring to the boil.

Melt the butter in a saucepan. Crush 300g nan khatai either in a food processor or put them in a plastic bag and bash away with a rolling pin. Mix the biscuit crumbs into the butter then tip into the baking tin. Press the nan khatai to cover the bottom and provide a smooth base. Put the tin in the freezer to harden while you make the topping.

Put the mascarpone, cream cheese, sugar, eggs, egg yolk, orange and lemon zest into a bowl, then beat either with a handheld mixer or wooden spoon and strong arm until the mixture is completely smooth. Then gently fold in the lemon juice, malai and vanilla extract.

Take the tin out of the freezer and wrap two layers of aluminium foil around the outside—this step is important as the cheesecake tin will be baked in water, so the tin has to be completely sealed. Pour the creamy mixture on to the nan khatai base and place the tin on the roasting tray. Slide the tray into the oven then carefully pour enough boiling water into the tray to come halfway up the sides of the tin. Baking over water in this way keeps the cheesecake smooth and moist.

Leave the cheesecake to bake for about 1 hour. The top will be firm with still a bit of a wobble in the middle. Switch off the heat but leave the cheesecake to cool in the oven.

When completely cool, gently remove the cheesecake from the tin and use the remaining crushed nan khatai to press on the sides.

This cheesecake really needs nothing else, it’s perfection as it is although I couldn’t resist gilding the lily a little with a few Old Delhi falsa berries. Some sour cream might be nice too.

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16 thoughts on “‘Old Delhi’ Cheesecake

  1. Hi,
    Great blog!
    Could you tell me where I can find mascarpone cheese in Delhi?
    I’ve never seen it at any speciality food store where you get cream cheese.
    Thanks!
    P.S. I have a feeling you too watched Nigella Lawson’s cheesecake episode. :P

  2. Hi Aishwarya – You can get mascarpone at any of the grocers in Khan Market, INA or at Modern Bazaar in Vasant Lok. Flanders make a really nice and inexpensive version.
    I didn’t see the Nigella episode but have all her books so I know she’s quite keen on cheesecake – who isn’t?

  3. Pingback: ‘Old Delhi’ Cheesecake « fast food combo

  4. Dear Pamela,

    I have had Nan Khatai in Chinese restos in North America under a different name.

    I always thought the Khatai was a variation on Khitai which meant “chinese”.

    May be some other readers might be able to shed more light on this naming?

    Narender in Chandigarh (earlier in Toronto)

  5. Hi Narender – you could be right – I think there are lots of different theories as to the origins of Nan Khatai although the Dutch/Surat one seemed logical and it’s the one I come across most

  6. Hi,
    Thanks for the info.
    I only asked about Nigella because she used the same roasting tin-aluminium foil method that you described.

  7. Hi Pamela,
    Really enjoy reading your weekly columns in Mint. Keen baker that I am, I do love cheesecakes in particular and I did make some with Flanders Kwark. Yes it’s not that rich, but I think it does work quite well. Would love to get your take on this.

  8. Hi Natasha – glad you’re enjoying Mint and the blog. I think the Flanders Kwark makes a respectable cheesecake but not as unctuous as something like Philly cheese

  9. Hi Pamela,

    I found your post searching for Nan Khatai recipes. As simple as the ingredients sound , the perfect nan khatai taste and texture is near impossible to re-create.At least, not in my everyday kitchen.
    Pure pleasure reading your posts!
    -R

  10. Wow, great blog! Just discovered it via a tipoff from ‘EatingAsia’ who run another great food blog…

    I couldn’t find one at first glance but is there an RSS feed for the blog? Would certainly make it easier for me and probably a lot of other folk to keep up on the posts…

    Keep up the good work!
    Rick

  11. Thanks Rick – oops, I was tinkering with the settings (always a mistake!) and lost the rss – back now!

  12. Great, works a treat!

    Just to introduce myself, I was born and brought up in London to parents who migrated to the UK from India in the late 1960′s. As a young boy growin up in London I used to love our regular trips back to India to visit family and also indulge in all the great food whether home-cooked or off the street. It’s strange but at the time we wouldn’t think twice about eating from a cart on the street at that age. Now after twenty more years it takes a bit more ‘mental effort’ for me overcome my Western-bred thoughts on hygienec/safe before I eat at a street side stall…

    My most favourite food memories are from the Punjab (my mother is from Amritsar and father from Jullundhur). Aloo Tikki, Gol Gappe, Chole Bhatura… Mouthwatering!

    I’m so happy to see someone blogging on the subject to bring these amazing foods to new eyes and also to remind those of us who have had the pleasure to enjoy them just how great they are.

    Regards
    Rick

  13. can u plz write about nan khatai authentic recipe, looked all over internet, havent found a good one till now :(

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