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Basque Burnt Cheesecake Captivates Tampa Bay Dessert Lovers

Slide over, key lime pie and chocolate lava cake, there’s a new treat in town.

Basque Burnt Cheesecake has been showing up on dessert menus on both sides of Tampa Bay in recent months.

First predicted to be a nationwide hit a few years ago, the dessert went on the back burner due to the pandemic. But local chefs, eager to reinvent their offerings after lockdowns and closings, began tweaking their recipes and adding the unusual cheesecake to their repertoires.

Originally developed in Spain’s Basque region of San Sebastian, the cheesecake is unique in its composition and appearance. It is crustless and cooked at high temperatures, ideally creating a cookielike top and a creamier inside than traditional cheesecakes.

One of the first chefs to feature the dessert was Chuck Bandel at The Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg. Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí was from the Catalonia region of Spain, and Bandel travels frequently to the country to study under celebrated chefs and try their techniques in his Spanish-themed museum restaurant, Cafe Gala.

“The caramelization from the way it’s cooked almost gives you three distinct flavors,” Bandel said. “It has the caramelized top, cheesy filling and creamy texture.” He prepares the cakes and lets them sit overnight before serving. And, he said, even the chefs in Spain use only Philadelphia brand cream cheese.

Chefs from the Basque region typically serve the cheesecake with a moltenlike, very runny filling. But Bandel said many American diners might cringe at that texture in cheesecake. His version is very popular among museum guests and visitors who can enter the museum just to dine at the cafe. He serves the slices ($8 each) with strawberry Cava rose sauce.

While St. Petersburg’s Ceviche Tapas Bar & Restaurant was closed last year awaiting renovation of its new space, its chef of 22 years, Horasio Salgado, used the time to develop more than a dozen new recipes for the menu. Among them: Basque Cheesecake.

Basque Burnt Cheesecake, which originated in the Basque region of Spain, is a trendy new dessert in the Tampa Bay area. [ Kathy Saunders ]

“He probably spent a month working on this,” Ceviche owner Lee Karlins said of the chef. They sampled upwards of 25 versions to find just the right consistency for the dessert: “We ate cheesecake forever,’’ Karlins said.

While the ingredients are simple, including eggs, sugar, cream cheese and flour, the cheesecake “is very hard to make,” Salgado said. His slices are similar in appearance and taste to the cheesecake at The Dalí. Salgado serves his ($9 a slice) with a simple dollop of whipped cream and a raspberry garnish.

“We tried it with many different toppings but they just took away from the cheesecake flavor,” said Karlins, who recently sampled the dessert at two Spanish-themed restaurants in Washington, D.C. “Ours is definitely better. One was yellow and tasted like it had Manchego or some type of cheese in it, and the other was too thick and super dry.”

Since Ceviche reopened in July on St. Petersburg’s Beach Drive, Salgado has been baking 10 to 12 Basque Cheesecakes a week. “They are very popular and customers love it,” Karlins said.

Diners at Rocca in Tampa like the cheesecake so much they have been ordering it ahead when they make reservations.

Chef Bryce Bonsack, part owner of the Italian restaurant, said he makes his own version of the Basque cheesecake, adding a bit of mascarpone cheese. The menu describes it simply as “Burnt Cheesecake.” He added the dessert after the restaurant reopened in 2020 following a small kitchen fire, although he had been experimenting with recipes for a few years after seeing photos of the cheesecake on social media.

“At that time we were looking to put some new juice back into Rocca and revisiting some stuff that we had worked on before the fire,” he said. “I trialed and error-ed a few recipes and came up with a hybrid of my own,” he said. “As soon as I baked it I knew that we were on to something.”

Basque Burnt Cheesecake is among the desserts served at Cafe Gala at the Dali Museum. [ Susan Taylor Martin ]

Bonsack describes his dessert as “a bit underdone and a little bit more charred,” with the inside as gooey as Brie. “I bake it in the oven in the early afternoon and then let it come to room temperature and don’t cut it until right before service,” he said. He plates it ($12 each) with macerated strawberries and a garnish of grated, sun-dried lime.

“It sells out every night,” he said.

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