The Food & Wine Best New Chef was shocked by how good this dessert turned out. You will be, too.

By Bridget Hallinan
Updated June 07, 2020
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Cedric Angeles; Premyuda Yospim/Getty Images

If you want to make Tavel Bristol-Joseph’s Basque cheesecake properly, you’re going to have to burn it.

For the Food & Wine 2020 Best New Chef, co-owner and executive pastry chef at five Austin restaurants (Emmer & Rye, Hestia, Kalimotxo, Henbit, and TLV), that wasn’t an easy adjustment. He’d only made New York-style cheesecake before—his favorite dessert—and when his business partners suggested he make a Basque-style cheesecake for Kalimotxo, that part of the recipe development took some working up to. There were other modifications he’d made, like paring down the ingredient list after doing some research and making some tweaks so the cake would be creamier, too. But even after he’d nailed the texture, he still wasn’t burning it enough.

“It’s very difficult for someone who’s been making cheesecake all their life, and it’s my favorite dessert, to literally put something in the oven and watch it burn,” he told Food & Wine. “There’s something in your brain that when you’ve been doing something for so long and you’re in love with it, like I am with cheesecakes, that, to make that switch to say, ‘now I am baking this cheesecake until it is absolutely burnt’—not brown, but burnt—you go into this defensive mode.’”

The first time he made the cake for the team, the top came out brown, not burnt. So he tested it several more times, pushing until it got darker and darker. Eventually, when the desired level of darkness had been reached, he tasted it side-by-side with a prior version of the cake that had cooked for a shorter amount of time, and said it was “tremendously different.” That’s what made him a believer. 

“I thought that the more burnt it gets, the more bitter it would be, and the more smoky it would be,” he says. “Which was the complete opposite. Because basically, the darker it got, it [was] more caramelized; the taste, sweeter, and it actually magnified the vanilla extract that was in there. The vanilla that you add in there, it actually amplified it, and that’s what made it special.” 

The end result is a perfectly creamy cake with a short ingredient list—just cream cheese, sugar, heavy whipping cream, all-purpose flour, eggs, an egg yolk, and vanilla extract—that comes together in about an hour and 20 minutes. If you’re tempted to make it, Bristol-Joseph shared the recipe with us and gave some advice, too, including a helpful timeframe for making sure you achieve that burnt top and why you should definitely avoid a whipped cream topping. Read on for his key tips.

Cedric Angeles

Don’t Over-Mix the Batter

After you add the flour mixture, be careful not to over-mix; otherwise, Bristol-Joseph says you’ll risk overdeveloping the gluten, which would result in a firmer cheesecake. Turn off the stand mixer first if you need to step away.

Stick to Heavy Whipping Cream

When Bristol-Joseph was developing this recipe, he said one of the keys to the creaminess was using a high-fat content heavy whipping cream, along with adding an extra egg yolk. He initially started with 35 percent, and then moved up to 40 percent. Use 40 percent if you’re able to find it (he says you can even go up to 45), and make sure you definitely use heavy whipping cream, not light cream.

Skip the Water Bath

While many cheesecake recipes call for a water bath, you don’t need one here. Water baths stabilize the temperature and even out the cooking while deterring browning. In this case, you’re cooking the cake at a higher temperature so that the top and bottom caramelize while the center remains soft and creamy.

Resist the Urge to Open the Oven 

Make sure your oven is at temperature (an oven thermometer can help), and bake the cheesecake straight for 30 minutes—don’t open the door, and let it be. (It won’t over-bake in that time, Bristol-Joseph says.) At that point, take a look and see if the cheesecake has gotten nice and dark. If not, you can let it go for a max of another five minutes. You want to avoid getting near the 40-minute mark, when the eggs and cheese start to curdle and you end up with a grainy cheesecake. 

As for testing doneness? Color and time are really the only measures you can use. If you touch the cake, it’s going to jiggle no matter what, since it puffs up in the oven. The bottom line is this: if it’s not completely dark on top, it’s not ready.

Chill It

Bristol-Joseph says he’s achieved the best results from letting the cake chill overnight—cool it to room temperature before refrigerating—and then un-molding, slicing, and serving it the following day.

Try It Plain First

To really appreciate the essence of this cheesecake, your first slice should be plain. If you want to pair it with something, try a fruit preserve or compote (ones made from dark berries like blueberries and blackberries would work particularly well).

Stay Away from Whipped Cream

Bristol-Joseph does not recommend serving whipped cream with this cheesecake, as it’s “the worst sin that you can commit.” He sees people add little rosettes on top of cheesecakes for decoration all the time, and it’s something he says he’s been guilty of, too. But the cream and cheesecake aren’t a good combination—it makes for a very heavy taste on your palate, he explains, and you lose track of the flavor when your tongue is covered in cream. 

Store It Carefully

Even though this cheesecake looks more robust than your average New York-style version, it’s actually quite soft and can break very easily. So once you un-mold the cake and put it on a serving plate, that’s where it should live as you remove slices from it—cover what’s left over with plastic wrap and place it in the fridge. As Bristol-Joseph said, it’s a special cake, and you want to make the most of every slice.

Get the Recipe: Basque Cheesecake