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How Chef Ayako Kurokawa Makes Burrow's Sensational Cheesecake

Welcome to Upper Crust, a series that shines the spotlight on New York's most exciting pastries and the chefs who make them

Burrow, a tiny little pastry shop in the middle of Dumbo, could be called the Arcade Bakery of Brooklyn. Just like that acclaimed destination for viennoiseries, pizza, and very good bread, Burrow is tucked away in the lobby of an office building and so easy to miss from the street, you may find yourself double-checking your Google Maps directions. But forge on through the ancient tiled entryway of 68 Jay Street and there it is at the back, behind glass walls. Like Arcade, Burrow shows some classic French influences, in pastries like crisp sables; custardy, caramel-edged mini far Bretons; and buttery wedges of gateau Basque. But Burrow has plenty of qualities that set it apart from Arcade, too: It serves cookies and cakes, not breads, and it has a distinctly Japanese bent, visible in items like its sliced sponge cake roll filled with coffee cream, or black sesame and roasted green tea flavored cookies. It also has an aesthetic unlike Arcade or any other bakery, for that matter.

Burrow’s chef and co-owner, Ayako Kurokawa, moved to New York from Japan to work as a pastry chef first at Danny Meyer’s MoMA restaurant, The Modern, then at the Plaza Hotel before branching out on her own. She originally only made special-order cakes and cookies while hopping from one borrowed kitchen space to another, but eventually she and her husband, Wataru Iwata, landed the kitchen space on Jay Street. For the first year they only used it for production, but then, Iwata says, "Ayako’s best friend started telling her what a great space this is." She suggested turning the front into a cafe and even offered to help. And so, about two and half years ago, Burrow was born.

Kurokawa’s talent for made-to-order sweets is obvious, even in Burrow’s day-to-day items. She has a distinct aesthetic style, which is at times charming, at times beautiful, and always innovative, if only in small ways. It, along with her baking talent, is visible in everything from her cute puff pastry cookies braided into pigtails to her stunningly lifelike butter cookie portraits and elegant mousse cakes. And it’s apparent in her cheesecake, which stays far away from the heavy, plain-vanilla dessert you might expect. While eating certain cheesecakes can feel like plowing through a brick of sugary cream cheese, slices of Kurokawa’s diminutive version are light and not too sweet, balanced by a nutty, still-crisp cookie base and a smear of orange marmalade hidden beneath a layer of whipped cream. And though the cheesecake has been a staple of Burrow’s menu since the beginning, each one has been decorated with an attentive, delicate hand, as if it were a special order for some fairy birthday party. Here’s how she does it.

Kurokawa begins with large chunks of cream cheese and butter, both at room temperature so that they will mix together evenly. She lets the cream cheese churn in the mixer for a few seconds on its own, smoothing it out, then adds the butter. This mixes on high speed long enough to completely blend the two ingredients, but no longer. "You don’t want to whip it too much," explains Kurokawa, because incorporating too much air will mess with the texture of the finished cake. Next she adds a little sugar, again mixing thoroughly but not too much. The mixture is now smooth and soft, like buttercream frosting.

Then come three egg yolks, and again a brief and furious beating – with a pause to scrape down the bowl – to make sure no cream cheese chunks remain. Next Kurokawa pours in lemon juice and milk, blending until the mixture is smooth and soupy like crepe batter, then splays open half a vanilla bean, scrapes out the fragrant seeds with a paring knife, and drops them in the bowl. Here is where the recipe starts to veer away from standard American cheesecake recipes: Some American recipes will also call for a little lemon juice, for flavor, but few incorporate milk. Japanese recipes, which yield a fluffier cheesecake often described as "cotton soft," do.

But the main difference between a Japanese cheesecake and an American one is that a Japanese cheesecake incorporates meringue, which gives it that airy texture – think of it as cheesecake souffle. Kurokawa does this, and she also takes it one step further: She adds whipped cream. In a fresh bowl she measures out heavy cream, sugar, and a splash of rum. She whisks these until the cream turns billowy but still liquid and pourable, so that it mixes smoothly into the batter. In another clean bowl, Kurokawa does the same with egg whites, sugar, and a little cornstarch for strength. She beats until the whites are thick and opaque but still fluid, not yet able to hold a peak.

The whipped cream goes into the cream cheese batter first, but Kurokawa doesn’t quite pour all of it in. She puts the bowl of leftovers in the fridge, "so I can whip it later for the topping," she explains. With a few deft strokes of the spatula, Kurokawa blends the whipped cream into the batter, then dumps in all of the meringue. This she folds in gently but quickly, spinning the bowl while pulling the batter in from the sides. The result is soft and smooth but not deflated.

Kurokawa splits the batter between two six-inch pans with removable bottoms. She wraps them in foil to seal them, then places them on a sheet pan in the oven and pours an inch or so of hot water around them. The water heats more slowly than a metal pan in the oven, so it will bake the cakes more gently and keep them from cracking or slumping. The steam generated will also keep their tops from drying out. When the cakes come out, they look like a toasted marshmallow, slightly puffy and golden brown on top.

Now the cakes – still crustless – have to be chilled or even frozen before the next step, otherwise they’ll fall apart. But once Kurokawa has a cold, firm cake, she can pry it from the metal cake bottom and match it with its cookie base. The crust, which has already been baked and cooled, is a relatively basic shortbread, buttery and crumbly and laced with bits of walnut. It gets its ruddy brown color not from brown sugar but from red beet sugar, which Kurokawa prefers because "you process it more slowly." It is, in other words, at least a little bit better for you than cane sugar. The cookie has been pressed into a six-inch ring mold then baked, so that when the cheesecake is placed on top, the two fit seamlessly. It’s a rather French approach to assemble the components this way after they’ve all been baked, and an ingenious way to make sure the crust is never soggy.

To finish assembling the cake, Kurokawa first spreads the surface with the thinnest possible layer of a chunky orange jam she made herself. Pulling the whipped cream out of the fridge, she beats it until it’s thick and firm, then spreads it over the surface of the cake. With practiced strokes of the offset spatula, she evens out the edges and smooths the surface until it resembles a half-inch of freshly fallen snow. Then, one by one, she drops decorations onto the plane. First, perfect squares of candied orange peel, like luminous, cubic gems. Then raisin-y, scarlet goji berries, and finally a few fennel fronds, delicately plucked with tweezers. There wasn’t too much rhyme or reason to these toppings, Kurokawa says: "The first time I made this, I just used whatever I had in the fridge." And, she adds, "you can’t really taste them." Instead, pretty yet spare, they signal that this is something lighter and fresher than your average cheesecake, bright with citrus and grounded with nutty cookie. It’s elegant enough for a party, but luckily it’s sold by the slice.


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