(A very late) Ramadaan Mubarak!
After the permissibility of gelatine was questioned by the local Ulema, I’ve had a niggling doubt about its ‘halaalness’. It appears that gelatine has turned into the nail polish of the food world. Some say it’s halaal – while others like SANHA say it’s completely forbidden. Then again, with some debatable practices, SANHA itself is not exactly a paragon of virtue – which leaves us back at square one: confused.
Do I still eat marshmallows? Definitely. Do I still have soft jelly sweets and Clover Sour Cream and Vital capsules? Definitely. But lately I’ve decided to start cutting back on the gelatine in my baking. Appeasing the conscience? Definitely.
Enter agar agar. Made from dried seaweed, it’s a fine off-white powder that’s also known as China grass powder – or falooda powder. It’s been used in Asian countries as a gelatine substitute for years.
The problem with agar agar, however, is that there’s a limited amount of information about how to use it. Substituting gelatine with agar agar is tricky. Too little and it doesn’t set. Too much and it becomes a solid chunk of dessert (it’s nasty, trust me). It also needs to reach boiling point to be ‘activated’.
So after some trial and error, lots of anxiety, and buckets of prayers, I present to you the airy agar-agar cheesecake.
Try making this for Eid – it offers a break from the really rich, chocolate-y things on display on the Eid table.
AGAR AGAR STRAWBERRY CHEESECAKE
Makes one 20cm cheesecake
For the agar agar gel
2 ¼ teaspoons agar agar powder
6 tablespoons cold water
For the fresh strawberry puree
220g hulled and chopped ripe strawberries
2 tablespoons water
For the base
90g butter, melted
200g Nuttikrust biscuits
1 tablespoon sugar
For the cheesecake batter
250g cream cheese, left outside the fridge for an hour
1 cup whipping cream
¾ cup sugar (if you like your cheesecakes very sweet, bump it up to 1 cup. I used brown sugar because we don’t usually keep white sugar.)
- Mix the agar agar with the 6 tablespoons of water. Set aside while you prepare the base.
- Crush the biscuits and mix with melted butter and sugar. Press into a well-greased 20cm springform pan and place in the freezer.
- Place the sliced strawberries in a saucepan together with the 2 tablespoons of water. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and puree the strawberries using a stick blender.
- In a clean small saucepan over moderate heat, bring the agar mixture to a simmer. Once it starts thickening, whisk until it forms a thick translucent gel. Whisk this gel into the saucepan of strawberry puree. Bring the mixture to a boil. Cook for about 30 seconds. Set aside to cool.
- On low speed, beat together the cream cheese and the sugar until combined, not dissolved.
- Beat the whipping cream until it forms firm, not stiff, peaks. Whisk the cream into the cream cheese mixture, one third at a time. The mixture will be quite stiff.
- Finally, whisk the now-just-warm strawberries into the cream/cream cheese mixture. Whisk it into the mixture in thirds (as always) – after the first addition, work quickly. Pour it on to the cold biscuit base. Level the surface.
- Refrigerate for at least 5 hours. This cheesecake is best enjoyed after at least a day, when the strawberry flavour has had time to meld with the cream cheese.