Cheesecake with Hazelnut Crust

This cheesecake was really lovely for several reasons, but the most revolutionary part of it was the crust. This crust may have just changed the way I will make cheesecakes forever, and I’m so glad I stumbled upon the recipe in Fany Gerson’s cookbook My Sweet Mexico, that inspired it. I’ve always loved the buttery ginger flavor of my gluten-free ginger snap crust, and that was the recipe I always fell back on when making cheesecake, but the truth is that the texture was always a bit off. It was a little soggy, a little crumbly, and oftentimes very hard to remove from the pan. This hazelnut crust had no such issues. It was toothsome and held it’s shape wonderfully and (miracle of miracles) actually slid easily off the bottom of my springform pan so I could serve it on the cake stand instead of cutting it off the pan. Hazelnuts, butter, sugar, and flour – basically it’s cookie dough. This crust tastes and behaves very much like a nice thick hazelnut cookie, which was a good base for the fluffier than usual cheesecake filling that I scented with a hint of cinnamon, inspired by Fany Gerson’s recipe. Gerson’s cheesecake included a recipe for chile-spiced quince to use as a topping. I didn’t have any fresh quince, but I had some cranberries in my fridge I wanted to use, so I created a chili-spiced cranberry syrup to serve with the cheesecake. Unfortunately I forgot to take photos before the sauce got polished off. The tang of the cranberries and subtle spice from the chilies were an exciting counterpart to the creamy cheesecake, but as I discovered while eating the leftovers and taking these photos today, the cheesecake is just as good on its own.

Luckily, I guessed right when I choose to make cheesecake for Franca’s birthday yesterday. She beamed and whispered that she’d secretly been hoping for a cheesecake as soon as she noticed it. Eight of us ate around my table here in the kitchen last night to celebrate Franca’s birthday. We had an apple-sweetened butternut squash soup, thick and creamy (but with no actual cream) that Marta and I cooked with white wine and thyme and one little potato (for added starch) then pureed with our immersion blender (perhaps my favorite kitchen tool). Continuing with the apple theme, I baked up a batch of these amazing apple, gruyere, and sage muffins from the blog Cannelle et Vanille (if you don’t already know of this blog, please have a look – she has wonderful gluten-free recipes). The muffins were just the thing to dunk in the soup, and no one noticed that they were gluten-free. We followed our soup with a big mess of salad (not unlike this one) bursting with feta, roasted golden beets, cooked barely, French lentils, candied pecans, and a dill pesto dressing. And then of course we sang a chorus of “Happy Birthday” and dug into this cake.

Cheesecake with Hazelnut Crust and Spiced Cranberry Syrup
serves 10-12
adapted from My Sweet Mexico by Fany Gerson

Note: I used spelt flour for my version of hazelnut crust, but I think an all purpose gluten-free flour would work just fine too, or a whole wheat flour.

for the crust:
3/4 cup hazelnuts
1/4 cup light brown sugar
3/4 cup spelt flour
generous pinch of salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing the cake pan

for the filling:
1 1/2 pounds cream cheese (3 (8 oz.) packages), at room temperature
1 cup white sugar
1 tsp vanilla
pinch of salt
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/2 cup sour cream, at room temperature
2 tsp cornstarch
4 eggs, at room temperature

for the syrup (optional):
6 oz fresh cranberries
3 pieces lemon peel
2 dried arbol chiles
1/2  cup brown sugar (plus more if needed)
3  cups orange juice (plus more if needed)

Preheat the oven to 350.

To make the cheesecake:

In a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat, heat the hazelnuts until they are fragrant and start to darken, about five minutes, then transfer to a bowl and let cool.

Generously butter a 9 by 3-inch springform pan

Combine the brown sugar, flour, and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Use your fingers to remove as much of the hazelnut skins as possible (but don’t worry about getting them all off if they’re being difficult) then add the hazelnuts to the food processor and pulverize until the hazelnuts are are coarsely ground,  about a minute. Add the butter, pulsing until the dough comes together in a ball. If the dough is not adhering, add a splash of cold water then pulse again.

Turn the dough out into the buttered pan, and press it down in an even layer, then bake until golden, about 30 minutes. Cool on a wire rack before adding the filling.

While the crust bakes, place the cream cheese in the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment and beat until smooth, about 3 minutes. Add the white sugar, vanilla, salt, cinnamon, sour cream, and cornstarch, then beat until smooth, about another 3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing on low speed and scraping down the sides of the bowl between each addition. Make sure there are absolutely no lumps in the batter, then pour it into the crust (once it’s cooled).

Place the filled pan on top of a baking sheet to catch any drips, then bake until the filling is just set and the top of the cake golden brown, about an hour. Give the cake a good jiggle, and if it still wiggles too much in the middle, give it a bit more time in the oven. Let the cake cool completely on a wire rack; it will finish setting while it cools.

Refrigerate until ready to serve. Before serving, remove the edge of the springform pan, then run a knife around the bottom of the crust and very gently slide the cake off the bottom of the pan onto a serving plate.

To make the syrup (optional):

In a saucepan over medium heat, cook the cranberries, lemon peel, chiles, sugar, and 2 cups of the orange juice until boiling. Turn down the heat and simmer for about 15 minutes, until the mixture is thick and has reduced in volume by about half. Remove from heat, and force the mixture through a fine mesh sieve into a medium bowl, using a rubber spatula to press out as much juice as possible. Discard the skins and pulp that remains, then pour the juice back into the saucepan. Add the additional cup of orange juice, mix well, then bring the sauce to a boil again. Turn down the heat and let simmer another 10 minutes or so, until the syrup is nice and thick. Taste it, and add more sugar if needed. If the sauce gets too thick, add a bit more orange juice before serving.

Drizzle each slice of cheesecake with syrup before serving.