Jurassic Cheese Cake is a benchmark in the art of fusion desserts.
Chenna Podo (the one we know today) isn’t really the oldest cheesecake in the world. That distinction goes to the Greeks, who created the first cheesecake way back in 2000 BC by pounding a wheel of cheese into soft mush - an iteration that Romans advanced by adding sugar and milk into. And yet, its relatively new ancestry has done little to keep Chenna Podo, a 19th century Nayagarh specialty, from earning its rightful place as one-of-the-kind sweet masterpieces when it comes to desserts.
Chef-owner Sabysachi Gorai spoke to Bawarchi.com’s Madhulika Dash on the history of this classic Oriya dish: Unlike cheesecakes that eventually took on sugar, fruits and even heavy cream to get their gourmet taste and appearance, Chenna Podo remains a rustic version that gets its flavour charm mostly from a single fresh cheese (ricotta or chenna) and the way it is baked, which fascinatingly uses the technique of wrapping the cake in leaf and baking it in a kiln.” It is this technique, adds Chef Gorai, “where instead of beating it like the Greeks, heat was manipulated to create a dessert that is rich and balmy on the palate.”
The technique creates a dessert that fits all palates- even those with diabetes can enjoy this dessert. Chenna Podo initially was made with little else than freshly prepared chenna (curd cheese) and suji. A lot of flavour that the dessert acquired was from the sal leaves and the klin and how it was slow baked for hours instead of the quick 40 minutes timer these days. And even when sugar and eventually ghee was used thanks to Andhra Pradesh’s Poothareku, which, adds Chef Gorai, seems to have inspired the Chenna Podo, “it was more for aesthetic value and keep it evenly sweetened rather than a key essential.” Of course, over the period of time, an increase addition of sugar, milk powder and nuts became an acceptable part of the recipe to give it a more palate relevancy.
Yet, says Chef Gorai, who began researching on his IHM Bhubaneswar days’ favourite sweet for Mineority By Saby (India’s first mining community based restaurant), “the newer additions haven’t made travelling possible for Chenna Podo, which is still tested on the following: quality of cheese, the lush golden brown crust, which is achieved only in a klin or a desi coal oven, and the sweetness – which is on par with Salepur’s rasagulla: sweet enough to tickle your palate.” So how did Chef Gorai recreate the dish that has hardly travelled outside Odisha, and then go about giving it a new avtaar?
The challenge, says the culinary wizard, "was to replicate the original and began with creating the chenna, which has to be slightly softer than the one used to make gulab jamun. And the secret to that isn’t only the milk composition (you need full cream. Period), but also the curdling technique that would ensure there is no added flavour to the chenna.” The answer came in terms of using home bred lemon juice and then washing the chenna in cold water to get rid of any lemony flavours. The texture of the chenna, he says, “had to be really malleable and softer.” Next, was the cheese cake mix. The idea of adding rice powder and suji was to give the chenna, texture and structure of a cake, says Chef Gorai, who chose chenna water to not only keep the suppleness intact but also get the sweetness quotient of the cake batter right. What many people don’t realize, he explains, “that fresh chenna water (whey) is not only a good source of protein but also of sweet lactose and can work a similar magic as conventionally egg whites or curd adds to cake.” ‘
The main challenge however was the baking. So instead of baking it as a conventional cheesecake, Chef Gorai decided to go the custard way instead: encased in a double boiler, where the heat is constantly cranked up. A double boiler, he says, “works much like the sal leave covering that chenna podo has with that added effect of no browning or hardening of sides.” The other trick that came handy to get the real deal was adding sugar to the cake in stages. The reason for this, reveals Chef Gorai, “was two-fold: to keep it moist, balance the sweetness and manipulate the caramalisation on the cake.” Result: the chenna podo not only has the trademark lush brown base but also a uniform creamish hue overall.
The idea of presenting Chenna Podo as a cake instead of the plain vanilla style was to make it appealing. “I decided to add the element of crunch and unsweetened whipped cream just to balance off the sweetness considering that khaja, which is the Indian brilliant answer to filo pastry puffs and a temple offering in Odisha which predates Chenna Podo, is sweet too.” And thus was born the Jurassic cake.