Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Classic cheesecake + cheesecake 101

This past weekend was Easter, so you know my parents were planning a delicious Sunday meal after church.  I started compiling recipe ideas for dessert roughly a month before that dinner.  Ricotta cake, mousse rolls, carrot ginger cupcakes, the list kept growing... until I talked to my mom (happy birthday today, Mom!).  She reminded me that there are a few ridiculously slightly picky eaters in my family, so I should try to keep it simple.  Keep it simple!?  Come on, Mom!  This is my moment to shine, impress, have people bow down at the splendor of the most satisfying after dinner treat this world has ever seen!  Hmph, fine, I'll comply.

A friend calmed me down and convinced me to go with cheesecake, since that excluded only my brother-in-law, who openly admits he doesn't really care for dessert.  I've made cheesecake plenty of times in the past, but it's always been gussied up somehow -- vanilla bean cheesecake, Oreo cheesecake, pumpkin cheesecake bars, just to name a few.  The thought of making a classic cheesecake without any mix-ins to add flavor or topping to disguise cracks and flaws... frankly, it terrified me.  One of the biggest challenges of making a cheesecake is cooking it through without having the top crack (read: dry out) or brown excessively.  And just to make it even more interesting, I planned to bake the cake in my mom's kitchen rather than my familiar apartment kitchen.  Oh, and the pressure of being the sole dessert provider for a holiday meal?  No time to panic... yet.

Anyone who has researched cheesecake recipes knows that there are as many variations as grains of sand on a beach.  I've seen amounts of cream cheese range from one to three pounds, with or without sour cream, heavy cream, different flavoring agents, and enough cooking times/methods to make even the most accomplished cook shudder.  Since I've already found my go-to recipes for yellow cake, oatmeal raisin cookies, and even macaroni and cheese, it was time to do some experimenting of my own, scary as it may be, in order to find the quintessential cheesecake recipe.  Game on.

This cheesecake is so darn creamy it'll knock your socks (or sandals, hello summer weather in April) off.  By baking the cake in a water bath, the cheesecake stays moist, with the water to insulate the edge of the pan to ensure even cooking.  The crust is crunchy and flavorful but still takes a backseat to the cream cheese filling.  The tiniest hint of lemon is only noticeable if you're looking for it, but enough to freshen up the whole dish.  And the sour cream adds a subtle tang to the rich sweetness of the cheese and sugar.  Oh, friends, if you don't realize how much I love you after this recipe, I don't know what I can do to convince you otherwise.  And the picky eaters in the family?  They asked for seconds :)

A hopefully not-so-controversial note: Some of you may raise your eyebrows at the omission of graham cracker crumbs in the crust, and that's understandable since practically every cheesecake recipe I've ever read calls for such.  I just felt that the graham cracker thing has been beaten into the ground -- there had to be a better alternative!  Nilla Wafers have a simple flavor and slightly more crunch than graham crackers. 

Keys to a successful cheesecake
1. Have all ingredients at room temperature before you begin.  I put the cream cheese out on the counter about 6 hours prior to baking.  As for the eggs and sour cream, these can be taken out of the refrigerator roughly 1 hour before you begin.  Listen, neither will "go bad" and you'll be fine.  Having ingredients at different temperatures means that, when mixing, your batter will have lumps and bumps.  By bringing everything to room temperature, you will have a velvety smooth and uniform batter.

2. Do not overmix!  As much as I love my stand mixer, I steer clear of it when making a cheesecake so I resist the urge to crank up the speed on the beater.  I use a hand mixer on low speed and whip the cheese just until it's no longer in block form.  When adding eggs, mix just until there are no streaks of yellow.  If you go mix crazy, you'll incorporate too much air into the batter and those air bubbles will burst and cause the cheesecake to crack and fall while baking.  Keep a rubber spatula on hand to do any extra mixing by hand if you must.

3. Be patient!  Patience is not at the top of (or even somewhere in the middle) on a list of my strengths.  I'm of the belief that whatever I bake can be sampled in some way within an hour of taking it out of the oven.  Not this puppy.  A complete cooling is necessary and then a minimum of 4 hours in the refrigerator (but ideally, overnight) before consumption.  Whew.  But it's so worth it.  Sooooo worth it.

Finally, I was trying to think of the exact quote I heard somewhere about how doing something simple well is often the most difficult, which perfectly describes my experience with this cheesecake.  This comes pretty close.  Leonardi Da Vinci once said, "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."

Classic Cheesecake
(adapted loosely from a smattering of recipes)
-yields 12 modest pieces

5 Tablespoons of unsalted butter, melted
2 cups of Nilla Wafer cookie crumbs (graham crackers will also work)
2 Tablespoons granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt

5 8-ounce packages (2.5 pounds total) bar cream cheese, room temperature
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
4 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup sour cream, room temperature

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Make crust by mixing cookie crumbs, sugar and salt together in a medium bowl.  Add melted butter and mix with a fork until all crumbs are moistened.  Press crumb mixture into the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan, pressing crumbs flat and about 1 inch up the side of the pan.  Bake crust until set and beginning to turn golden, 12-15 minutes.  Let cool on a wire rack.  Reduce oven heat to 325F degrees.  (Give your oven some time to cool down.)

Set a pot of water to boil on the stovetop while making the filling.  In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat cream cheese on medium until fluffy, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.  Gradually add sugar, beating just until combined.  Add lemon juice and salt.  Beat in eggs, one at a time, until no yellow streaks remain.  Scrape down sides of bowl as needed.  Beat in sour cream.

Check to make sure that the crust and pan have cooled enough to touch.  Wrap bottom half of the pan in foil.  Pour in filling and place pan in the center of a large roasting pan (hey, now you use it twice a year!).  Carefully pour in boiling water until level reaches halfway up the side of the springform pan.  After 30 minutes, check internal oven thermometer to make sure that it has gone down to 325F; if not, lower temperature setting slightly.  Bake until just set in the center, about 1 hour and 30 minutes.  Turn off oven, prop open oven door slightly, and leave in oven 15 minutes.

Carefully remove roasting pan from oven and springform pan from water and let cool for 20 minutes.  Run a small knife around the edge of the cheesecake.  Let cool completely, until bottom of pan is no longer warm to the touch.  (Really really let it cool.  If you rush this step, you'll end up with condensation all over your cheesecake.)  Cover with foil (plastic wrap will cling to the top of the cheesecake, trust me) and chill overnight before serving.

Loosen ring of springform pan carefully and remove when ready to serve.  For smooth cuts, run a large sharp knife under hot water and wipe dry with a towel before cutting.  Wipe knife between cuts for clean slices.  Serve and, save for the incoherant "mmm" and "oh my goodness" noises, be prepared for an eerily quiet dinner table.  Don't worry, that's a good sign.

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