Homemade cheesecake is simple if you follow the rules

December 20, 2019

As we started planning our holiday dinner, I wanted an elegant dessert that could be made a few days ahead, which led me to cheesecake. Before we discuss how to make a delicious cheesecake, let’s consider where it was invented. According to food historians, cheesecake probably originated in ancient Greece.

A combination of cheese mixed with honey and cooked into a “cake” was likely served to the athletes at the first Olympic games in 776 BC. The Romans brought the rich, high-energy dish to Europe, ultimately adding eggs and a crust. From there, the recipe found its way to the Americas. And with the invention of cream cheese in 1880, the dessert evolved into the modern version we enjoy today.

You will find two different types of cheesecake: Italian and New York style. The former is made with ricotta cheese, creating a lighter, drier and more cake-like texture. It’s often flavored with lemon zest to add color and bright notes. The more familiar dense, creamy New York-style cheesecake incorporates tangy sour cream along with softened bricks of cream cheese.

Many cooks are daunted by the prospect of making cheesecake, but the process is quite simple if you consider a few guidelines. It’s essential that all the ingredients start at room temperature so everything blends together nicely. It’s especially important for the cream cheese, which if used cold guarantees a lumpy result.

There is no alternative to the springform pan. Having the ability to remove the sides from the bottom allows you to remove the cooked cheesecake from the pan without turning it upside down to tap it out onto a platter. Even if advertised as nonstick, be sure to butter the inside bottom and surrounding latched side piece to help the release go smoothly.

Mix the batter thoroughly, but not too much. You want it smooth, but you don’t want to add too much air to the mixture. Otherwise it will rise too swiftly as it bakes, giving it the opportunity to fall and crack in the oven. The sequence of adding ingredients does matter, and the mixing speed should be reduced when adding the eggs.

Most recipes call for a water bath, which means setting the cake pan in a roasting pan of water while it bakes. Considering the incomplete seal of the separate pieces of the springform pan, you can see the potential for water to seep in, no matter how much aluminum foil you wrap around it.

I prefer to remove the top oven rack, place the cheesecake on the middle rack and set a pan of water on the bottom rack, providing enough humidity to help the heat disperse evenly. Remove the cheesecake from the oven when the edges and top have set, but the center is ever-so-slightly loose. It will continue cooking and firm up as it cools.

Resist the temptation to cut the cheesecake as soon as it comes from the oven, and don’t place it in the refrigerator immediately. Allow at least 2 hours for the cake to cool to room temperature on a rack. If you try to chill it too soon, the condensation will form a blotchy, damp patch on the top surface. Also, the abrupt temperature change could open a crack.

And, if your cheesecake does develop a crack, there are two ways to fix it. The first is to wait until it’s completely chilled. Run an icing knife under very hot water, dry it and smooth over the crack to make it vanish. If that doesn’t work, make a chocolate ganache sauce to hide the flaw.

As for slicing the cheesecake, there’s a large group of dental-floss fans who claim a thin, tautly held strand (not mint-flavored) will allow you to saw cleanly through for a perfect slice. Alternatively, use a very thin, sharp knife rinsed under hot water. Be sure to clean the knife after each slice to keep the edges sharp.

If baking isn’t on the agenda, Sara Lee has been taking care of those chores for years and the frozen versions are a reasonable option; just be sure to factor in time for the cheesecake to defrost. Finally, you can add to the holiday festivities by decorating slices as reindeer (see photo). Mini Nilla wafers become ears, chocolate M&Ms are eyes and cinnamon candies create a red Rudolf nose.

New York Style Cheesecake

1 3/4 C graham cracker crumbs
1/2 C melted butter
1/4 C sugar
pinch salt
4 8-oz packages cream cheese
1 C sugar
1/2 C sour cream
2 t vanilla
3 eggs

Make sure all ingredients for the cheesecake are at room temperature. Coat the inside of a springform pan with nonstick cooking spray. Make sure the latch is closed and the sides are tightly set into the bottom. Preheat oven to 350 F. Remove the top oven rack. In a mixing bowl, combine the graham cracker crumbs, butter, sugar and salt to a smooth consistency. Transfer to the pan and evenly press the mixture across the bottom and up the sides. Bake the crust until lightly golden, about 8 minutes. Set aside while preparing the batter. Using a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, mix the cream cheese and sugar on medium speed until smooth, scraping down the sides of the bowl often. Reduce speed to low; mix in sour cream and vanilla. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing just until combined. Pour the filling into the pan and spread evenly. Place the pan on the middle rack and place a roasting pan filled halfway with water on the bottom rack. Bake until the center is almost set, but jiggles slightly, and the edges are set, about 60 to 70 minutes. Carefully run a knife around the inside of the pan to separate the cake from the sides. Allow the cheesecake to cool on a rack while still in the pan for at least two hours. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for six hours or overnight. Release the sides of the springform pan before slicing.

Chocolate Ganache

18 oz dark chocolate
2 1/4 C heavy cream

Break the chocolate into chunks in a clean, dry stainless steel bowl; set aside. In a small saucepan, warm the cream over medium-low just until it starts to bubble; don’t let it boil over. Pour the hot cream over the bowl of chocolate pieces and allow to stand for about 2 minutes to melt. Whisk the mixture until smooth. The ganache is now ready to be poured. For a spreadable ganache, cover and let stand at room temperature until completely cool.

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