Experimenting in the kitchen can be a creative and rewarding experience. Crave something you can’t find a recipe for? Trust yourself and make it up! That’s Amaan Akhtar’s motto in this article on the fun as well as the difficulties he had while baking a cheesecake using only his intuition (and some ingredients and cooking supplies, of course!).
When it comes to cooking and baking, many of us are used to following a recipe according to an instruction’s guidelines. And truthfully, there is nothing wrong with this. None of us are expected to have the culinary skills of a professional chef/baker in the kitchen (unless it is our job, of course). Most of the time we are usually following a recipe word-for-word because it is a new experience for us: it may be the first time we are attempting to create a culinary dish that we’ve never heard of before, or we hope to at least re-create something we have seen, heard of, or eaten recently. However, there are occasions when we decide to sift through old family recipes – tried, tested and wholeheartedly approved meals in our household, that remain a favourite staple in our hearts (and bellies) over the years.
Although the guidelines for these traditional household recipes are consistent, there are many instances when they are tweaked and improved upon. I personally find that this is where the true beauty of cooking lies. When we prepare cuisine that we are familiar with, we have an opportunity to do something creative with the dish: through experimentation with the addition, alteration, or removal of ingredients, we can conjure up something truly unique and unexpectedly delicious.
My Inspiration for This Culinary Experiment
Growing up in a British-Pakistani family meant that my childhood was exposed to a diverse range of flavours, herbs, and spices. Both of my parents love to cook and bake all manner of things, and their rich experience with culinary experimentation in the kitchen led to many wonderful, tasty family meals. And this greatly influenced the way my siblings and I cooked food.
For instance, if it weren’t for my Dad’s relentless pursuit to master the perfect ratio of flavour for each individual layer of a trifle, I would never have learned the importance of how the gradual increase in the quantity of an ingredient can make a whole world of difference. Additionally, I would not fully understand how crucial it is to always taste-test the food to determine the appropriate amount of seasoning, without observing my Mum’s ritual of making a huge batch of meat filling for her samosas on special family occasions.
Because of these lessons and more, as I grew older I was able to independently improvise whenever I had to make food for myself. When I then attended university, I gained a lot more freedom and creativity to explore different types of cooking: many of my friends were from overseas, which meant that I got to experience and learn the methods for making their traditional, authentic food as well. So while I would never say that I’m on the same level as a professional, these collective experiences allowed me to be well-versed in cooking and confident enough to rely on my own intuition whenever I made a meal from scratch.
However, while this was the case with most types of cooking, I always fell short in one particular area – baking. It never became my forte, to say the least. I think this is because baking poses more of a technical challenge; with each and every ingredient used in a baking recipe, you need to carefully consider how the textures, different densities, and other factors all effect how the final product will turn out. And while a slightly overcooked dinner can still be edible and appetising, a baked good will not be. For example, one of the worst baked desserts I have made was the result of my attempt to make it ‘healthier’ – not thinking twice about it, my girlfriend and I decided to substitute in coconut sugar and coconut oil into an upside-down apple cake. Needless to say… it came out as a sludgy mess: the coconut oil in the batter made the cake too moist, so it didn’t set properly while cooking in the oven. And the overall taste was overpowered with a cinnamon-coconut flavour, that became sickening after a few bites.
Therefore, much to my disappointment, I never had the confidence to creatively explore the world of baking. And instead I religiously stuck to baking recipes’ instructions just to ensure that it would at least taste good.
However, after recently being inspired by viral Tasty cooking videos, the Great British Bake-Off, and my little sister’s Instagram success with her exceptionally creative baked treats, I decided to venture into the art of baking once more. The challenge was simple: to make a dessert completely from scratch, by selecting every ingredient ourselves and eyeballing each of the measurements. I wanted to see whether my intuition could prove fruitful when baking this way. At least then, I couldn’t blame it on a bad decision to choose an alternative ingredient in (an already tried and tested) recipe.
Making the Dessert
While picking which type of dessert to bake, my girlfriend and I chose to stick to a cheesecake since we had had some experience making them and they commonly have well-defined layers: a base, a filling, and (sometimes) a topping. This would make it easier to break down which ingredients we needed for each layer of the dessert. Our next task was to pick the flavours for the dessert that would complement each other. For us this was easy, as we are both avid coffee lovers. So why not pair coffee with chocolate? Our final decision was to make a mocha-themed cheesecake with an Oreo biscuit base, coffee-flavoured filling and topped with chocolate ganache.
Now we had to work out the quantities for each ingredient. To start with the base, we decided on using two full packs of Oreo biscuits - where we separated the cream from the cookies and placed these biscuits into a sealed plastic bag and crushed them down with a rolling pin. Next, we added the biscuit bits into a bowl and added about half a cup of melted butter, and then proceeded to mix thoroughly. Once this formed a compact structure, we placed the biscuit mixture into a nine-inch springform tin, and patted it down evenly, before baking in the oven for 10 minutes at around 180C°.
Afterwards, we proceeded to work on the filling for the cheesecake. Now this part was pretty challenging: while we already agreed on using roughly one kilogram of cream cheese, we did not want it to be too sweet, so it could retain its strong coffee taste. So instead of using sugar, we added around a cup of stevia sweetener to the mix. Once we creamed this together with an electric mixer, it was time to add the flavourings.
Vanilla extract is used in most sweet baked goods because it adds a rich base note of flavour – even when it isn’t the main flavour for the dessert. Therefore, to enhance the richness of the coffee taste in the cheesecake, we added at least one teaspoon of it to the mixture along with three teaspoons of coffee extract. But to get the rich, tasty notes of freshly brewed coffee seeping through the cake, we also played a bold move: we opted to use a strong concentration of French-press coffee in the mixture. Now, in many coffee dessert recipes they use instant coffee granules as it is a dry ingredient which won’t affect the texture of the mixture too much. So when we decided to add more liquid to the recipe in the form of this fresh cup of coffee, we were naturally hesitant. Especially since we still needed to add a couple of eggs in the mix as well.
However, we gradually added about half a cup of coffee, and tasted-tested it often so the right amount of coffee flavour oozed out of the mixture. Once we were satisfied with this and mixed in the eggs, we put the mixture on top of the biscuit base in the tin and put the cheesecake mixture into the oven for roughly 45 minutes at 180C°.
Finally, we let the cheesecake cool down in the fridge for a few hours before we made a start on the ganache. This part is relatively easy: we melted one and half bars of cooking chocolate (225g) in a heat-proof glass bowl over a boiling pot of water, and then added an entire 300ml pot of heavy cream. This we then poured on top of the cheesecake, and the final product was left in the fridge overnight before we tucked into it the next day.
Overall, the final result was a success! From the picture below you can see that we achieved definitive layers in the cheesecake and it looked very impressive for a recipe made up on the spot.
Although it looked incredible, when we sliced through the cake a minor issue arose: the chocolate ganache had formed a thick layer on top, its heavy density pressing down onto the cheesecake filling and base. This meant that as we cut a slice each, the ganache unfortunately pushed out some of the firm cheesecake mixture through the sides. While this is not a terrible thing (since the ganache itself was a delicious topping) , it is something to bear in mind – if we used less, then it may have been easier to cut the cheesecake in a presentable way. Nevertheless, the flavour in the cheesecake was extraordinary: the creamy chocolate taste of the ganache paired well with the coffee cheesecake filling, and this was further complemented by the mellow taste of the chocolate biscuit base.
With everything considered, I think that this experiment taught me some interesting lessons. It reminded me how amazing it feels to not follow any guidelines, and instead openly explore a recipe by using my creative intuition alone. Also, by considering not only the flavours you want to hit your taste buds, but also how every ingredient will combine together, you certainly develop some culinary intelligence and a new insight into the art of cooking. Lastly (and most importantly), this experiment emphasized to me how exciting and delicious any meal - whether cooked or baked – can become, when you make it from scratch. While it is more convenient to rely on ready-made meals to sustain our energy levels throughout the day, sometimes it proves more appetising to make something different for a change. Even if the thought of making a new meal from scratch can be daunting, it always proves to be a riveting, mindful experience that you will enjoy (certainly afterwards anyway!).
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