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
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)
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.