Burnt and delicious

Basque burnt cheesecake is popular again. The Sunday Times taste tests 10 cakes

ST PHOTOS: TIMOTHY DAVID
The judges (from left) Ms Tan Hsueh Yun, chef Alysia Chan, chef Anthony Yeoh and Mr Wong Ah Yoke.
The judges (from left) Ms Tan Hsueh Yun, chef Alysia Chan, chef Anthony Yeoh and Mr Wong Ah Yoke.ST PHOTOS: TIMOTHY DAVID

The Basque burnt cheesecake, the hottest cake of last year, enjoyed a resurgence amid the circuit breaker baking frenzy, during which home bakers cleared out flour and cream cheese from supermarket shelves.

The cake also sold well at restaurants, cafes and bakeries then and continues to be a hit now.

The beautifully burnished cake – which originated in Spain’s Basque Country – is said to have been created 30 years ago at pintxos bar La Vina in San Sebastian.

Baking it at a very high temperature results in a charred top and caramelised corners, while its cream cheese centre retains an underbaked, soft and gooey texture.

In Singapore, the trend kicked off last year when Olivia Restaurant & Lounge in Keong Saik Road, which serves Spanish cuisine, offered its oozy version.

Since then, other cafes and restaurants have created their own versions with durian, Milo and tea.

But which original Basque burnt cheesecake is the best?

The Sunday Times (ST) did a blind taste of 10 cakes. From more than 30 options in town, we shortlisted 12 cakes sold at well-known Spanish restaurants as well as popular cafes and bakeries.

However, Muslim-owned homebased business Paparch, one of the hottest brands now, is sold out till the first half of next month; and the cake by FlouRice – started by a home baker – did not arrive in time for the tasting.

The judging panel comprised ST food editor Tan Hsueh Yun, ST food critic Wong Ah Yoke, chef Anthony Yeoh of Summer Hill bistro in Sunset Way and chef Alysia Chan, formerly of The Black Swan restaurant.

Each cake could get up to 10 points for taste, texture and appearance – up to a total of 120 points from the four judges. The tasting was done at Summer Hill.

To the judges’ surprise, the cakes from local brands trumped the more pricey ones from prominent restaurants.

The top spot went to Grub cafe at Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, followed by Keong Saik Bakery and Bakery Brera & Fine Foods in Empress Road. Wildfire Chicken & Burgers at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and Spanish restaurant Esquina in Jiak Chuan Road were in fourth and fifth place respectively.

To stir things up a little, the judges also tasted and graded Ms Chan’s homemade Basque burnt cheesecake – which had a pronounced blue cheese flavour and crunchy crust. Its score fell within the top five, but it was not included in the shortlist as it is no longer for sale.

Ms Chan said: “I put a crust for mine because it provides a good counterpoint to the creaminess and softness of the filling, so you get a nice bite and textural contrast.”

She was disappointed at the overall standard of the cheesecakes she tasted and questioned why some are so expensive. “We know the cost of ingredients such as flour, eggs and cream cheese are not that high. Why charge $50 for a cake?”

She added that the cake is easy to make, having done one by blending the ingredients and baking it in an air fryer.

Mr Yeoh was pleased to see that local, smaller players fared so well in the test. He awarded more points to those that offered contrasting flavours, such as citrus notes and blue cheese.

Ms Tan said: “Every time we do one of these blind taste tests, it always shows how the most popular ones don’t always deliver. “Some float via word of mouth rather than actual quality. When you taste them blind and compare with others, you see where they are lacking.” 

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Top five Basque burnt cheesecakes

No.1

GRUB


ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

Where: Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, 510 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1; call 8891-9298 or order at shop.grub.com.sg

Price: $9++ (dine-in) or $10.50 nett (online) a slice; $80 nett (includes free delivery) for an 11-inch cake at shop.grub.com.sg

Score: 91 out of 120

Verdict: The unanimous winner for its well-balanced flavour. Mr Wong Ah Yoke and Mr Anthony Yeoh liked its airy, light texture. “There is a nice and creamy texture and the outer layer is airy like a Japanese cheesecake,” Mr Yeoh added. Ms Tan Hsueh Yun pointed out a “lovely” hint of acidity in the cake. She and Ms Alysia Chan gave Grub’s cake their highest scores for appearance. The judges agreed that the $80 price tag for a 2kg cake was reasonable for its large 11-inch size, which can feed many people.

About the cake: Grub’s chef-owner Mervyn Phan, 41, started selling burnt cheesecakes in original and kaya flavours last October. About 20 cakes of each flavour are sold a week. No secret ingredients are used, he said. He conducted many trials to get the trickiest part – the texture and balance in flavours – right. He believes more variations of the cake will pop up and that the craze is here to stay for a while. He added: “The burnt cheesecake is a great to eat when done well, light and creamy with a smokiness to cut through the richness.”

  • The bottom five

  • Bland and dense – those were the judges’ main gripes about the Basque burnt cheesecakes that landed in the bottom five.

    They were also surprised and disappointed that three of the five are from notable establishments – Lolla in Ann Siang Road, one-Michelin-starred Basque Kitchen by Aitor in Amoy Street and Olivia Restaurant & Lounge in Keong Saik Road.

    The other two cakes that did not impress came from No Sleep Club in Keong Saik Road and halal-certified cheesecake chain Cat & The Fiddle.

    Olivia’s cheesecake, for example, is the first Mr Wong had when the restaurant opened last year and he recalled being “blown away”.

    But during the taste test, the judges did not like its soft crust. Ms Tan said the punch of blue cheese she had expected was “muted”.

    For Lolla’s cake, the judges noted an overwhelming smoky flavour, which Ms Tan and Mr Wong said reminded them of bacon.

    The cakes are also pricey – Basque Kitchen by Aitor charges $78 for an eight-inch cake for delivery on Oddle; while Lolla’s six-inch cake is $74.90 if you order via Chope.

    The cakes from Cat & The Fiddle, No Sleep Club and Basque Kitchen were also on the dense side.

    The judges pointed out that in a blind tasting, they could taste no difference from a regular cheesecake.

    Mr Wong said: “I like the contrast in textures – between the top and centre – of a Basque burnt cheesecake. I didn’t find that in many of the cakes we tried, so it’s very disappointing

No.2

KEONG SAIK BAKERY


ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

Where: 41 Keong Saik Road; call 6909-3199

Price: $7.50 a slice, $62 for a seven-inch cake

Score: 81 out of 120

Verdict: Within the first few bites, the panel commended the citrusy flavour, which it noted gave the cake an edge over its rivals. Mr Wong said: “There is a nice balance of acidity and I like the smooth texture.” Ms Tan enjoyed the soft texture, noting that the cake has “some personality” because of the lemon flavour.

About the cake: The flourless cake uses four types of cheese and lemon zest, said Mr Tan Yuzhong, 32, owner of Keong Saik Bakery.

He added that the cakes may not be as oozy in the centre compared with other brands that sell only whole cakes. “It’s a trade-off we had to make in order to maintain the structural integrity of the slices that are suitable for sale.”

Keong Saik Bakery sells about 150 slices of burnt cheesecakes daily, with the original flavour being the most popular. Other flavours include Two-Face (half original and half matcha) and Mao Shan Wang durian.

Before he started selling burnt cheesecakes a year ago, Mr Tan sold burnt cheese cruffins – muffin-shaped croissant pastry filled with cheese custard.

No.3

BAKERY BRERA & FINE FOODS


ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

Where: 01-05, 8 Empress Road; call 6492-5428 or order at www.bakerybrera.com/shop

Price: $8 a slice, $66 for an eight-inch cake

Score: 79 out of 120

Verdict: Mr Yeoh gave this cake the highest score for appearance and enjoyed its textural contrast of caramelised crust and creamy centre. The judges agreed the cake was on the sweet side and could be cloying if they ate more than a slice. On the cake’s yellow hue, Ms Chan noted that “amazing eggs” are likely to have been used.

About the cake: Bakery Brera’s owner Thrina Low, 55, revealed that special ingredients used include Singapore-farmed pasteurised eggs with orange yolks, vanilla pods and essence, premium Jamaican rum, and housemade sour cream.

She started selling the cake four months ago, and what the judges tried is already the third version.

About 350 slices of the original, hojicha, and matcha flavours fly off the shelves each day. Demand was further fuelled during the circuit breaker period after raving social media posts by customers.

She said: “Demand continues to soar, as if this burnt cheesecake is a new discovery. People aren’t just doing walk-in orders, but they are also ordering online for themselves and friends. The hype isn’t dying down any time soon.”

No.4 

WILDFIRE CHICKEN & BURGERS


ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

Where: 01-15 Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Campus 1, Wing A, 80 Bencoolen Street; call 9198-2673 or order at wildfire.oddle.me

Price: $6 a slice, $48 for an eight-inch cake

Score: 69 out of 120

Verdict: The judges detected an “umami flavour”, with some guessing the mystery ingredient could be miso. Mr Yeoh said: “There’s something Japanese about it, which is interesting and I like it. I would like some acidity, maybe lemon, to balance the saltiness.” Ms Tan noted that her piece had a grainy texture and suggested that the cake could have a softer, more liquid centre.

About the cake: Wildfire’s co-owner Joanne Toh, 26, would only say there are a few secret ingredients to make the cake stand out from others.

Since the brand’s return last month – it shut down last year – it has been selling about 20 to 30 cakes a day.

No.5

ESQUINA


ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

Where: 16 Jiak Chuan Road, call 6222-1616

Price: $12++ a slice (dine-in); $22+ (for two mini cakes), from $46+ for a 6.5-inch whole cake. Self-collection and delivery only, from Wednesday

Score: 65 out of 120

Verdict: A good dose of salt hit the judges when they dug into this cake. While Ms Chan and Mr Yeoh found it a tad too salty, Ms Tan thoroughly enjoyed it. “I love how salty it is and prefer it to the bland ones.” However, all of them found the crust too thick. Mr Wong’s piece had a hard crust, while Ms Chan felt the ratio of crust to filling was “off”.

About the cake: Three cheeses – mascarpone, gorgonzola dolce (Italian cheese) and Fourme d’Ambert (semi-hard French blue cheese) – go into the cheesecake, said Esquina’s executive chef Carlos Montobbio, 32. His recipe is similar to that of one-Michelin-starred restaurant Zuberoa in the Basque Country, which has been making the cheesecake since 1990.

Barcelona-born chef Montobbio, who lived in Basque Country for six months, said Zuberoa uses cream cheese and Roquefort (a blue cheese made from sheep’s milk).

He started making the cheesecake at one-Michelinstarred restaurant Basque Kitchen by Aitor in Amoy Street a year ago.

During the circuit breaker period, he made three sizes for delivery and takeaway, selling up to 140 cakes a day. It remains a dine-in special, served with a scoop of Sangria sorbet.

The chef’s advice is to call ahead to ensure the cake’s availability. He said of the trend: “It’s crazy, but I can’t complain. It has helped us during the circuit breaker. We managed to keep everyone employed at Esquina, partly thanks to the cheesecakes.”


Burnt cheesecakes with a novel twist


Home-based business Bake Love has a Milo Gao burnt cheesecake, complete with Milo nuggets and dollops of Milo powder. PHOTO: BAKELOVE_SG/FACEBOOK

With the burnt cheesecake trend white-hot now, cafes and bakeries have introduced unique flavours such as durian and Milo, as well as various tea infusions.

Home-based business Bake Love (@bakelove_sg) has a Milo Gao burnt cheesecake ($46 for a seven-inch cake), complete with Milo nuggets and dollops of Milo powder.

At speciality tea shop Teaspoon Of Love (www.tspoflove.com), you get a burnt cheesecake infused with Da Hong Pao tea ($51.90 for a seven-inch cake). The tea was picked for its toasty and fruity flavours that would blend well with cream cheese, said co-founder Lydia Lim, 30.

“We wanted to elevate the burnt cheesecake with an additional depth of flavour, and needed something with a heavier body to balance the cream and cheese,” she added.

She experimented with other teas as well and is looking to infuse a smoky black tea and green tea.

Banking on the popularity of its Two-Face burnt cheesecake (half original and half matcha), Keong Saik Bakery’s owner Tan Yuzhong has rolled out an Instagram-worthy Seashore cake ($8.50 a slice, $70 for a whole cake).

The top blue-hued half – a reference to the sea – is infused with butterfly pea tea, while the bottom half has the flavour of Earl Grey tea, meant to represent the land.

The bakery’s recently launched Mao Shan Wang burnt cheesecake ($10.50 a slice, $86 for a whole cake) is an extension of its Mao Shan Wang burnt cheese cruffin.

Not every funky flavour works though.

Bakery Brera & Fine Foods owner Thrina Low’s experimentation with kinako (roasted soya bean flour), chocolate Earl Grey and black sesame flavours was met with mixed reviews.

So, instead of going crazy with flavours, the bakery offers other pastry options – a burnt cheese croissant and a hojicha burnt cheese cruffin.

For Grub bistro, a chocolate version of the burnt cheesecake simply fell flat, says chef-owner Mervyn Phan.

During Chinese New Year, he sold a limited-edition pineapple tart burnt cheesecake, featuring his mother’s pineapple jam and cookie tart crumble. It was well-received, but he is unlikely to add it to the menu as it required “too much work”.

He added: “Picking the correct flavour profile that fits the cake is important.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 12, 2020, with the headline 'Burnt and delicious'. Print Edition | Subscribe