With American’s predilection towards easy and inexpensive, it’s difficult to comprehend just how cheesecake became a family gathering staple. Yet, from Brooklyn splurges at Junior’s Restaurant to Midwestern family reunions, there are few desserts that elicit as strong a sigh of delight — and sense of home — as this finicky, cheese-based custard.
That delectable indulgence doesn’t come easily. From top-notch chefs to down-home cooks, everyone agrees: If there’s one thing to keep in abundant supply when baking a cheesecake, it’s patience.
“It’s not something you just decide to do in the evening,” says Michelle Melcher, who won the blue ribbon for baked cheesecake at this year’s Iowa State Fair, which hosts the largest state-fair food competition in the country. In fact, for best results, you’ll want to start a couple days in advance, since cheesecake’s texture and flavors deepen as it sits.
Once you set out to make the cake, you’ll actually need several hours before you open the oven, says George Geary, author of “125 Best Cheesecake Recipes.”
“The biggest thing is room temperature of the ingredients,” says Geary, former pastry chef for Disney Corp. That means setting out the eggs and cream cheese at least three hours before you start; other dairy can be set out closer to production.
When buying your supplies, go for the best you can afford. “You can’t cheat on these ingredients, because that’s all that’s in there,” says Jolene Worthington of Chicago-based Eli’s Cheesecake, which includes sour cream in the batter, a hallmark of “Chicago-style” cakes. (New York-style cakes, the other heavy hitters in the U.S., use heavy cream instead, for a denser cake.)
Purists try to avoid industrial cream cheeses, which frequently rely on gums for thickening, but home cooks’ best bet is to make sure they’re using cream cheese from just one source. “Gums are really important to commercial cream cheese, but you never know which cream cheese uses which kind or combination,” counsels Worthington. Mixing and matching brands can result in a batter dry in one spot and creamy in another.
While you let the eggs and cheese come to room temperature, take advantage of your downtime to pre-bake the crust, a step that helps ensure it will be crisp. While professionals swear by crusts made from scratch, home cooks can get by with crumbled shortbread cookies or graham crackers. The crust should cool before you add the batter.
Your goal for the batter is simple: Smooth, thick and velvety. Lumps generally come from the cheese, so spend plenty of time beating it smooth — and add the sugar in gradually. “Sugar liquefies and it makes the mix too runny,” says Alan Rosen, third-generation owner of Junior’s Restaurant in Brooklyn. “So don’t put all the sugar in at once.” The same goes for eggs, which you should add one by one, beating the batter just until each egg has been incorporated. Use a slow mixer speed, and don’t overmix — too much air in the batter will make it crack as it cools.
Once you’ve poured the finished batter into the cooled crust, make sure your oven is at the right temperature. Trusting your oven dial is a gamble — even it it’s off just 25 degrees , it can make a big difference — so invest in an oven thermometer. There are several schools of thought when it comes to the baking, and all of them — from water baths to high-heat — focus on avoiding cracks in the top.
Your best bet? “Rely on your recipe and your oven,” says Melcher. You can’t use a toothpick to test if the cake is done, so it’s all about eyeballing it. When the edges are dry, but the center is just slightly more jiggly than Jell-o, it’s done.
As you let the cake cool, you may want to diverge from the experts, who sometimes obsess over avoiding the cracks. While it might pay off to let the cake cool gradually — turn the oven off, crack the door and wait for it to come to room temperature — nobody will notice the cracks if you’ve gotten the texture and flavor right.
Remember, what makes a great cheesecake, says Rosen, isn’t flawless presentation. “Dense, rich, moist,” says Rosen. “Those would be the words.”
The Perfect Cheesecake
Baking is tricky business, and deviating from accepted standards can be risky. As such, this recipe, tailored for a moderate sweetness and thick, creamy texture, closely tracks New York cheesecake recipes found in “The Joy of Cooking” and “The 125 Best Cheesecakes.”
- 40 oz (5 packages) full-fat cream cheese, at room temperature
- 1 ½ c sugar
- 3 T. all-purpose flour
- 1 t vanilla
- ½ t grated lemon or orange zest (optional)
- 5 eggs at room temperature
- 2 egg yolks at room temperature
- ½ c heavy cream at room temperature
- 1 baked cheesecake crust (see below)
1. Bring cream cheese and eggs to room temperature.
2. Preheat oven to 500 degrees.
3. Bring heavy cream to room temperature. (Measure out the amount first and set it on the counter just as you begin making the batter; it should be room temperature by the time you need it.)
4. In large mixing bowl, beat cream cheese until creamy, 30-60 seconds.
5. Scrape bowl and begin to gradually add in sugar, scraping sides of bowl and beating until smooth and fluffy.
6. Beat in flour and, if using, citrus zest.
7. One by one, add in eggs and egg yolks, beating just until blended after each addition.
8. Mix in vanilla and cream.
9. Pour batter into baked and cooled crust, running batter over back of spatula so that the mixture spreads evenly in the pan.
10. Tap pan against countertop a few times to settle air bubbles in the batter.
11. Place in pre-heated oven; make sure temperature really is 500 on the oven thermometer.
12. Bake for 10-15 minutes.
13. Turn oven down to 200 degrees. Bake for 60 minutes longer.
14. Bake until edges are dry and center looks damp and slightly more jiggly than Jell-o.
15. Turn oven off, leave door ajar 1-4”, and let the cake cool in the oven for at least one hour.
16. Remove to a rack and let cake cool completely to room temperature
17. Remove springform sides of pan.
18. Cover and refrigerate for up to two days.
19. Top with: fresh fruit, sour cream, fresh lemon peel, glazes. (see one suggestion, below.)
Shortbread Cookie Crust
- 5 oz plain shortbread cookies (You do not need to add butter; there’s enough in the cookies already.)
1. Preheat over to 350 degrees.
2. Put cookies in ziploc bag; press out extra air and seal bag.
3. Using rolling pin, crush cookies to very fine crumbs.
4. Measure out 1 ¼ cups of crumbs, and pour into 9” springform pan.
5. Using the flat bottom of a glass, press the mixture over the bottom of the pan, spreading crumbs evenly.
6. Bake crust until lightly browned and firm to the touch, 10-15 minutes.
7. Cool before adding filling.
Graham Cracker Crust
- 1 package of graham crackers from 14.4. ounce box
- ¼ c unsalted butter, melted
- 3 T sugar
8. Preheat over to 350 degrees.
9. Put crackers in ziploc bag; press out extra air and seal bag.
10. Using rolling pin, crush cookies to very fine crumbs.
11. Measure out 1 ¼ cups of crumbs, and mix in small bowl with butter and sugar.
12. Pour into 9” springform pan.
13. Using the flat bottom of a glass, press the mixture over the bottom of the pan, spreading crumbs evenly.
14. Bake crust until lightly browned and firm to the touch, 10-15 minutes.
15. Cool before adding filling.
Easy, Fancy Caramel Apple Topping
The easiest way to get over a cracked cheesecake? Cover it up with a simple topping. My family always used sour cream topped with pie filling, but this autumnal treat takes all of 15 minutes to make, uses fresh ingredients you likely have around already, and looks phenomenal. Just don’t apply the glaze more than 6 hours in advance—otherwise, it will start to melt and become runny.
- 1 apple
- Juice from ½ lemon
- 2/3 c sugar
- 1 stick cinnamon or 1/8 t cinnamon
- ¼ c water
1. Cut apple into quarters, then cut the core out of each quarter.
2. Cut each quarter into thin slices.
3. Toss in small bowl with lemon juice (this will help them stay white, instead of turning brown.)
4. Arrange apples on top of cheesecake as desired; most common is a sort of “pinwheel” or “flower” pattern in the center.
5. Place a large bowl filled with cold water near the stove.
6. Place sugar and cinnamon in small saucepan.
7. Drizzle with water.
8. Set sugar over medium heat, and without stirring, gently swirl pan by handle until syrup clarifies.
9. DO NOT LET the syrup boil before it is clear; remove from heat as necessary to achieve this.
10. Once syrup clears, increase the heat to high and bring to rolling boil.
11. Cover tightly and boil for 2 minutes.
12. Uncover pan and cook until syrup begins to darken.
13. Remove cinnamon stick.
14. Swirl lightly by handle and cook until syrup turns brown.
15. Moving quickly, dip bottom of saucepan in the cold water to stop the syrup from cooking.
16. In a thin stream, immediately pour over apples and top of cake. You must move quickly—the candy will begin to harden as soon as it cools.Mixture will bubble and froth, but will calm down to create a glass-smooth glaze.
Tracie McMillan is a Brooklyn-based writer who covers food and social issues.