Behind the Bite: The Iconic San Sebastian Cheesecake (+ Recipe)

This blog post was originally posted on November 13, 2019 and was updated on September 17, 2020. 

This post is part of our Behind the Bite series: deep dives into the dishes that we can’t stop thinking about.

The beauty of the legendary San Sebastian cheesecake is its simplicity.

It doesn’t even have a crust, unlike its New Yorker cousin, and the list of ingredients is shorter than you’d think. 

The key factor is the perfect baking time—or rather, underbaking. The cake has to be taken out of the oven when it’s still very jiggly inside to guarantee the smooth, gooey, almost liquid texture. The outside of the cake has to be burnt brown to give it extra flavor and a slightly caramelized touch.

But where did the story of San Sebastian’s famous cheesecake actually begin? We found out the story behind the bite.

La Viña has been serving the best cheesecake in San Sebastian for decades. Join us as we go behind the bite of this foodie phenomenon!

Where it all got started 

La Viña, home of the superstar cheesecake, is a bar on the famous Calle 31 de Agosto in the Old Town of San Sebastian. This place is one of the cornerstones of the local food scene: it was founded in 1959 by the parents, uncle, and aunt of current owner Santiago Rivera.

Growing up in the restaurant, Santiago learned the secrets of Basque cuisine from an early age. When he took over the restaurant from his parents, he decided the menu was missing one key element: dessert.

Santiago turned to recipe books for inspiration, and soon began experimenting with cheesecake. By testing various versions and combining the best parts of all of them, he finally came up with a perfect combination of smooth texture and heavenly flavor. 

The famous Basque cheesecake was born.

Santiago Rivera, the chef who invented the legendary cheesecake in San Sebastian
Santiago Rivera, the genius behind the famous cheesecake.

The road to fame

By that time, La Viña was already a favorite amongst San Sebastian locals, and the cheesecake also had won the hearts of donostiarras.

But little by little, curious travelers also found the place and the hidden gem inside. Word of mouth started spreading: the world’s best cheesecake was found in a small Basque city.

Today, people from all over the world make a pilgrimage to San Sebastian, with trying the cake as the first thing on their to-do list. And they’re ready to line up in the packed bar—something that comes naturally for the locals but can be very intimidating for a visitor. 

But it’s all worth it! The expressions on people’s faces when they try this piece of heaven for the first time tell more than any words can describe. But let’s try it anyway: happiness, lust and sometimes (no kidding!) tears of joy. 

La Viña, one of our favorite historical bars in San Sebastian, also happens to serve some of the best cheesecake in the city—maybe even in all of Spain!
Everyone is all smiles when the cheesecake comes out at La Viña!

Conquering the world

Thanks to social media, great things don’t stay secret for too long in this day and age. 

Over the past couple of years, Santiago has been surprised multiple times with news of restaurants and bakeries all over the world that have started serving Basque-style cheesecake—inspired by the recipe he created!

According to our research, you can find La Viña-inspired cheesecake in New York, Istanbul, London, Melbourne, Copenhagen, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur and Chicago, just to name a few. And that list is growing all the time. 

cheesecake at La Viña
Sure, some of the copycat Basque cheesecake recipes are probably good in their own right—but nothing beats the original from La Viña.

San Sebastian cheesecake recipe

Ready to put your baking skills to the test? Here’s our recipe for the famous San Sebastian cheesecake, straight from La Viña itself. It’s the perfect sweet finale for your next dinner party, or even for the Christmas table.

No matter how you enjoy it, just be sure to serve the cake with a glass of sweet sherry—as we like to enjoy it here in San Sebastian—and success is guaranteed!

Ingredients

  • 1 kilo (2.2 pounds) cream cheese
  • 7 eggs
  • 400 grams (2 cups) sugar
  • 1 tablespoon flour
  • ⅕ liter (6.5 f oz or ⅘ cup) heavy cream

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 220°C (425°F).
  2. Add all the ingredients to a large mixing bowl and beat with an electric mixer, whisk, or a metal spoon (like they do at La Viña!) until the mixture is smooth and creamy.
  3. Line a springform pan with parchment paper, leaving enough at the edges so that it sticks out over the side of the pan. This will both prevent sticking and enable you to remove the cheesecake from the pan easily.
  4. Bake on the center rack of your oven for at least 35 minutes (for a runnier center) or up to 50 minutes. Keep an eye on it to make sure that the top doesn’t burn too much.
  5. When the cheesecake is browned and almost burnt on top, take it out of the oven. The center will still be very jiggly when you move the pan—this is how we want it!
  6. Let the cake cool at room temperature for about a half hour, then move it to the fridge to chill. This will help the center set just enough to cut without falling apart, but still retain the perfect amount of creaminess.
  7. Let the cheesecake chill for a few hours before cutting. Don’t remove it from the paper until you’re ready to serve it, as it can start to lose its shape otherwise.
  8. Enjoy with a glass of sweet sherry!
Basque-style cheesecake and sherry wine
A match made in heaven: Basque-style cheesecake and sweet sherry wine.
There’s more where that came from—check out 50+ of our favorite European recipes in our new cookbook!

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