When my husband, Alex, and I first met in the Basque Country in 2006, we drank a lot of coffee together. In bakeries and bars all around the Parte Vieja in Donostia-San Sebastián, a coastal city known as “the pearl of the Cantabrian Sea,” we threw back countless espressos on the way to and from our daily double shifts at Alex’s pintxos bar and restaurant, La Cuchara de San Telmo.
The Story Behind the Famed Basque Country Cheesecake
But one coffee date stands out: when Alex invited me to La Viña, birthplace of the locally beloved cheesecake that was (little did we know at the time) poised to set off something of a global cheesecake revolution.
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We sat at a small table, under shelves lined with springform pans of parchment-haloed cakes, and barely spoke as we swooned over the massive slices chef-owner Santiago “Santi” Rivera portioned out for us.
At a quick glance, La Viña’s cheesecake resembles a huge washed-rind cheese, with its caramel-hued “rind” and creamy interior—firmer at the edges and exquisitely soft and spoonable in the center.
But similarities to funky washed-rind cheeses end there: The flavor of La Viña’s cheesecake is the perfect balance of milky, tangy, and sweet, with hints of warmth and bitterness from the deeply caramelized exterior. No vanilla, citrus, or other flavorings interfere with the delicate balance produced by just five ingredients: cream cheese, eggs, sugar, heavy cream, and flour.
La Viña–Style CheesecakeWho says cheesecake needs to be fussy? This version has just five ingredients, an easy method, and a sweet backstory.
La Viña was opened by Santi’s parents and aunt and uncle in 1959, and Santi grew up in the restaurant. By the 1990s he was running the kitchen, and one of his objectives in making the restaurant his own was to perfect his family’s cheesecake recipe.
Unlike other popular cheesecake styles in Europe and the United States at the time, for his version he opted to forego any kind of pastry or cookie crust and to bypass the fussy step of baking the cake in a water bath. He found that he could create a sort of natural caramelized “crust” and maintain a surprisingly creamy interior by baking the custard at an uncommonly high temperature. Above all, Santi wanted the cheesecake to be simple but refined.
Fast-forward to the present, and Santi’s cheesecake has become a global sensation thanks, in part, to social media and the explosion of gastro-tourism. Chefs, journalists, and bloggers around the world have celebrated, imitated, and reinterpreted La Viña’s cheesecake to the delight of their diners, readers, and followers. To some, the La Viña–style cheesecake has come to be known simply as “Basque cheesecake” or “Basque burnt cheesecake.”
Burnt? While it’s indisputable that La Viña’s cheesecakes sport deeply caramelized edges and mottled tops, referring to La Viña’s style of cheesecake as “burnt” is curiously exaggerated. Many chefs and writers even proclaim that the more intense and uniform the “burnt” top, the better.
Cheesecake at La Viña, however, is not described as burnt; it is simply tarta de queso: cheesecake. When my husband recently asked Santi what he thought of the “burnt” designation, he shrugged and said, “It’s marketing.”
In the test kitchen, our goal was to stay true to Santi’s original recipe but to fine-tune the details to help home cooks achieve consistently extraordinary results. Many recipes call for beating the ingredients together with a stand mixer, but this can incorporate unwanted air into the custard.
Springform PansHave you ever ruined a cheesecake? We’ve been there, too. But never again: We tested every top-selling springform pan to find the best on the market.
Taking a cue from the cooks at La Viña, who combine ingredients in large buckets using gigantic immersion blenders, we got the smoothest, most wonderful texture when we used a food processor. We adjusted the amount of cream slightly to make it easier to process all the ingredients in a single batch.
Perhaps the most important fine-tuning we did was around temperature: By ensuring that all our ingredients were at room temperature when we started and by nailing a target internal temperature (155 degrees in the center) for the cooked custard, we could repeatedly produce perfect results.
Basque Cider Salted Caramel SauceA luscious sauce for drizzling on cheesecake and other desserts.
Lining a round pan with parchment paper can be awkward, so we lightly moistened the paper before crumpling and uncrumpling it, which made it supple and easy to work with. Giving the overhanging parchment paper a trim with kitchen shears before baking enabled the heat to circulate more evenly over the cake and created more consistent caramelization.
To complement the cheesecake’s unique tang and caramel notes, we made a simple salted caramel sauce, inspired by a sauce made by Ana Rodríquez, chef de cuisine at La Cuchara, using traditional Basque hard cider.