Photo by Sarah Shatz
Anyone who has encountered a towering wedge of New York-style cheesecake understands the impact just seeing the dessert can have on a meal. Such stature and poise and quiet grace. Everything else becomes irrelevant. You begin to wonder if your fork is big enough to sink down through the filling, through the press-in crust, and then if you somehow manage to get a full stroke on your fork, how you'll ever get all of it past your teeth.
Yet, despite the diva-like dessert's ability to flirt with its bare, unfrosted sides and supermodel height, cheesecake is actually much more like the girl next door, the undercover Goldilocks of the dessert world. Cheesecakes appreciate an even keel. Nothing should be too hot, nor too cold; everything needs to be just right. We’re here to help you sort out this densely creamy dessert's dual personality.
- A food processor is handy for grinding cookies or crackers, but a heavy-duty plastic bag and a mallet (or rolling pin) will do in a pinch.
- A handheld electric mixer or stand mixer will make creaming the filling a breeze.
- A springform pan is a must -- being able to remove the outer ring allows for easier slicing.
- A baking pan large enough to hold the springform pan is needed to create a water bath.
Types of Cheesecake
Cheesecakes can be either dense and cakey or light and creamy. Recipes can fall anywhere on that spectrum.
- New York-style cheesecake is dense and creamy with a graham cracker crust.
- Italian-style cheesecake is made with ricotta cheese and tends to be fluffier.
- No-bake cheesecakes rely on the fridge or freezer to solidify the filling (whipped cream folded into the batter or gelatin can also help give the cheesecake shape). Note that frozen ones are best consumed the day they emerge from the freezer as refreezing the dessert alters the texture.
- Savory cheesecakes are made in the exact same manner as their sweet counterparts, but with little or no added sugar. Serve them in small portions for an appetizer or larger wedges alongside a salad, as you would a quiche.
Creating the Crust
There are essentially two kinds of crusts for cheesecakes: crumb based and dough based.
- Ground or crushed cookies, crackers, and nuts are mixed with just enough melted fat (butter, coconut oil, you name it) to come together.
- Graham crackers, ginger snaps, chocolate or vanilla wafers, matzo meal, or even dried breadcrumbs work.
- Drier cookies and crackers will produce a finer grind, soak up more butter, and a more uniform crust.
- Ground nuts will usually need a bit of flour or finely ground cookie crumbs to help them stick together.
- This style of crust is just mixed together and pressed into the pan (either the very bottom or up the sides of the pan, as desired), and then usually pre-baked and cooled before the filling is added.
- Shortbread dough or pie dough make excellent cheesecake crust.
- For cheesecake, roll out the dough more thinly than you would for cookies or a pie, and then line the interior of the springform pan and blind bake the crust before adding the filling.
- Puff pastry can also be used -- check out lorinarlock's easy approach to encasing cheesecake in a puff pastry "boat."
Create a seal for the springform pan with a layer of aluminum foil; running a knife around the edge of the chilled cheesecake will help ease it out of the pan (photos by Sarah Shatz)
Fill It Up
- Not surprisingly, cheese is at the heart of the filling. Traditionally cream cheese and eggs are combined to produce a creamy batter.
- Sour cream is often added to smooth out the denser cream cheese. Heavy cream (whether whipped or not) can serve the same purpose (but it won't add any tang like sour cream).
- Ricotta cheese should be drained or combined with a starch (cornstarch or matzo meal are typical) to rid the cheese of any excess liquid.
- Fresh goat cheese, farmer’s cheese, or mascarpone can also be combined with cream cheese to change the focus of the filling.
- Though granulated (or superfine) sugar is typical, substituting natural sweeteners, such as maple syrup or honey, is a great option for adding extra flavor.
- All filling ingredients should be at room temperature. This will help to achieve a smooth, lump-free batter.
- Mix filling gently and slowly so as not to incorporate air bubbles, which can lead to cracks.
- Bake in a low oven over a long period of time to ensure a slow, even bake -- a water bath will help with this process.
- Don’t overbake -- cheesecakes are done when they still exhibit a slight quiver. Overbaking dries out the cheesecake and can lead to cracking.
- Cool the cheesecake gradually -- do not pop it right into the fridge, which could result in cracks or a sunken center.
- To ensure perfectly presentable pieces, dip a long slicing knife in a tall, deep container filled with warm water (a pitcher or spare utensil crock works well), and then dry the knife with a clean towel and use the barely heated knife to slice into the cheesecake. With each cut, clean, re-warm, and dry the knife in the container of water.
- Adding extra liquid to a cheesecake too far in advance will give the liquid (syrups or fruit juices, typically) time to seep into the cheesecake, creating breakages, changing the texture, and muddying the appearance. Instead, serve liquid toppings with each slice when you're ready to serve.
- Add warm spices or fresh herbs to the crust.
- Fruit spreads can be swirled into the cheesecake batter for an artsy effect or spread thinly atop a chilled cheesecake before slicing.
- Fall fruit and vegetable purées (pear and apple butters; roasted pumpkin) blend seamlessly into the creamy cheese base.
- Grate fruits and vegetables and add them raw (or sautéed) to the filling for more texture.
- Flavor whipped cream and smooth a layer over the chilled filling (see the Cappuccino Cheesecake shown at the top of the page).
- Drizzle melted chocolate or homemade fruit syrup over the cake just before serving.
Photos by Joseph De Leo (left) and James Ransom
Basil, Tomato & Pancetta Savory Cheesecake (pictured above, left)
Vanilla Bean Cheesecake (Tart)
Easy Spiced Pumpkin Refrigerator Cheesecake
Goat Cheese Cheesecake with Roasted Rosemary Pears
Cappuccino Cheesecake [Food52] (pictured at top)
Lime n' the Coconut Mini Cheesecakes [Food52] (pictured about, right)
What's your favorite cheesecake combination? Do you have any tricks for ensuring a perfectly cooked filling? Share your tips and techniques in the comments section below.
Like this post? Check out last week's From Scratch topic: Spice Rubs 101.