I enjoy Christmas as much as the next person but I find myself positively dismayed whenever I see shortcrust mince pies and Christmas puddings appear on supermarket shelves in early October. There's a perverse commercialism to it that rubs me the wrong way. Some may argue the point for planning early for the big day. For me it just feels like we're wishing our lives away. If there's one thing that gets me truly excited about the upcoming holiday season it's the addition of cherries and mangoes to the shelves of my local fruit shop. One of my strongest memories of childhood Christmases is eating nothing more than a whole mango and a few slices of left-over leg ham for breakfast on Boxing Day morning. And cherries, well, cherries are one of life's great edible pleasures regardless of the day. In fact, I'm devouring a bowl as I write this.
The recipe below for no-bake cherry cheesecake is one of my Mum's specialties. You never really forget how good it is, with its sweet biscuit base, creamy centre and cherries scattered throughout the centre and laid generously on top, but each time she makes it I'm reminded just what a crowd pleaser it is - perfect for a big family celebration over the holidays. Mum visited us recently to help out both on the farm and with my nesting preparations (yes, they've already begun even though the baby is not due until March). As one of eight children, I guess hard work is ingrained in her psyche. We were so impressed by her dedication and swift efficiency to everything we asked of her, whether it be weeding the veggie patch or picking peas or sorting out our over-stuffed storage room. Now that she's returned home Oliver and I often look at each other and ask 'Where's Frannie?' when a large order comes through and we need help trying up bunches of rhubarb or harvesting silverbeet. Of course, I couldn't let her leave without passing on this recipe. There appears to be a lot of elements but overall it's a pretty no-nonsense, quick way to an impressive dessert.
No-bake Cherry Cheesecake
250 g digestive biscuits (the remainder of the packet goes nicely with cups of tea)
125 g butter, melted
Blitz biscuits in a food processor or smash them good with a rolling pin until you reach the consistency of fine bread crumbs. Add melted butter until combined. Press biscuit mixture along the base and sides of a 23cm springform tin. Mum uses the base of a water glass to pat down the mixture ensuring even distribution. Cover and place in the fridge for 30 minutes or until firm.
Cream Cheese Filling
500 g full fat cream cheese (this may seem like a lot but we're going for full deep-dish action here - the more cheesecake the better)
1/2 cup caster sugar (you can add more if you like but I prefer to let the creamy cheese flavour shine through)
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
juice of 1/2 lemon
300 ml thickened cream
1 1/2 teaspoon Gelatin
1 Tablespoon warm water
Beat cream cheese and sugar with an electric mixer until smooth and creamy. Once combined, fold in vanilla essence and lemon juice. Set aside and wash and dry beaters. Place beaters, cream and a bowl in the fridge and once cold whip all 300 ml of cream until it thickens or soft peaks form (placing everything in the fridge first will help it thicken faster). Fold into cream cheese mixture. Mix gelatine in the warm water until dissolved. Add to mixture and combine thoroughly.
415 g tin black cherries (of course you can use fresh but I've added the tin amount so you can make this recipe all year round. The juice from the tin makes a lovely glaze and wouldn't be easy to replicate with fresh)
1 Tablespoon brandy
1 Tablespoon arrowroot powder
Strain cherries, retaining the juice, and place aside. Over a low heat, warm the juice from the tin. In a separate bowl combine brandy and arrowroot powder until a smooth paste is formed. Add to cherry juice and stir until mixture thickens.
Slice all the cherries in half. Don't waste too much time on this, no one's judging your knife skills. Pour half the cream cheese mixture into the biscuit base tin and smooth out. Scatter about half the tin of cherries on top then add the remaining cream cheese mixture making sure the layer of cherries in the middle is completely covered. Smooth out again for an even surface. I asked Mum why we couldn't just mix through half the cherries with the cream cheese mixture but she advised against it as the juice from the crushed fruit will stain the mixture. Basically, doing it her way will result in a more impressive finish once you slice and serve your cheesecake. Add the remaining halved cherries until they basically cover the surface. Stir cherry syrup then pour over the top covering the entire cheesecake. Refrigerate overnight or for as long as you can stand to wait (at least 3 hours). Enjoy simply as it is. No need for extra cream or ice cream.
Speaking of Christmas, my book Yes, Chef! would make a fab Kris Kringle gift or stocking filler and is now available from all good bookstores or online through Booktopia. Read an extract here.
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