The simplicity of cheesecake has tremendous appeal, but making it can be confusing and intimidating when it doesn’t turn out as planned. I have run into the same problems as everybody else (including some bizarre disasters that have not been chronicled anywhere else--exploding cheesecake, anyone? That's a whole post unto itself). But it's worthy tackling, and conquering, because it's a perfect make-ahead dessert for all sorts of celebrations (especially when it’s as easy as my 1-2-3-4 cheesecake that follows). Here are a few of my tips:
Bake the Cheesecake at a Low Temperature
When a cheesecake is cooked in a too-hot oven, it cracks or sinks in the center. This happens as the result of the tension created by temperature differences in the filling. Most cheesecakes are made with a simple custard-like filling: eggs, sugar, cream cheese, and perhaps some sour cream.
Be Careful Not to Overbake
Have you ever had a dry, grainy cheesecake? Most restaurants seem to specialize in this variety, but it can happen at home, too. Like too-high temperatures, overbaking can make cheesecakes dry and cracked. As the cake bakes, its web-like protein structure of egg and cheese tightens. If baked too long, the web begins to squeeze out the moisture it holds, resulting in a crumbly, weepy cheesecake rather than a velvety confection. It can be tricky to tell when a cheesecake is done, because it looks underdone when it is done, so here is my rule of thumb for doneness: gently shake the pan at the minimum baking time (i.e., if it says bake 50-55 minutes, check at 50). If the filling ripples, it’s not done. If it doesn’t move, it’s overdone. And if it just barely jiggles, it’s just right.
Set a Pan of Hot Water in the Oven
You can do this in one of two ways: (1) set a cake pan or Pyrex pan full of hot water on the lowest rack in the oven, or (2) wrap the bottom of the cheesecake pan in heavy-duty foil, set it in a large roasting pan, then fill the roasting pan with an inch of hot water. The water equalizes heat penetration (lessening the likelihood of cracks) and minimizes moisture loss for an extra-creamy final product.
Go One Step at a Time
Lumpy batter is a sign of impending doom. If you try to mix everything at once, the end product will be garbage pail-worthy. The reason is simple: cream cheese is made from smooth particles of cream molded together. Liquid ingredients need to be added to the cheese in small portions to blend in smoothly (i.e., you really do need to follow that direction for adding one egg at a time). Lumps of cheese will form if eggs or other liquids are added too quickly.
Use a Non-Reactive Pan, Preferably Nonstick
I learned this lesson the hard way, early on. I made a strawberry cheesecake in an age-old aluminum springform pan. I awoke the next morning to find that my pale pink cheesecake had morphed into a stinky, grey beast; the acid in the strawberries had reacted to some of the exposed scratched areas of the pan. I've eaten cheesecake I've dropped on the floor, but this one went down the garbage disposal, post-haste. My favorite is one made by Cuisinart.
Slice with a Thin Knife…or Dental Floss
For perfect slices, cut the cheesecake with the thinnest knife you own, or use a piece of unwaxed dental floss (this really does work, beautifully, but do be sure to use a very long piece and pull it tight to make clean cuts.)
Type cheesecake into Google and you get more than 12 million hits. So why do you need another recipe? Because this one is so easy, you can memorize it without trying. It’s as easy as counting to 4:
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
3 large eggs
4 8-ounce packages cream cheese
Sure, cheesecake crust is yummy. But to keep both the preparation and calories streamlined, it can be left out. For me, it’s the cheesecake I love most of all, so if I can make it and eat it more often, I am more than happy to sacrifice the crust. Without the crust, it is that much easier to get perfect slices, too. It’s a more elegant cheesecake, and you can dress it up or down with favorite sauces, fresh summer fruits, or a drizzle of melted jam or chocolate sauce.
Enlightened 1-2-3-4 Cheesecake
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 8-ounce packages 1/3-less fat cream cheese, softened
3 large eggs
Preheat oven to 300F. Line the outside of a 9-inch springform pan with heavy foil. Spray the bottom and sides inside the pan with nonstick cooking spray; set aside.
In a large mixing bowl beat the sugar, vanilla and cream cheese with and electric mixer set at medium-high speed for 8 minutes (for stand mixer; 10 minutes for handheld) 10 minutes, stopping to scrape, until mixture is smooth and sugar dissolved.
Beat in the eggs at medium speed, 1 at a time, just until combined. Pour batter into prepared pan. Place in a shallow roasting pan. Place pan on the oven rack. Add 1 inch of boiling water to the roasting pan.
Bake 55-60 minutes or until center jiggles slightly when gently shaken. Carefully remove springform pan from water bath. Cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes. Run a thin metal knife around the edge of the cheesecake to loosen sides of pan. Cool completely. Cover and chill overnight. To serve, remove sides of the pan. Makes 16 servings.
Nutrition per serving (1/16 of the cheesecake):
Calories 202; Fat 12.9g (poly 0.5g, mono 3.7g, sat 8.3g); Protein 7.2g; Cholesterol 79.7mg; Carbohydrate 13.6g; Sodium 253.1mg)
(Note: I did the nutrition analysis using Diet Analysis Plus 7.0.1)
Some of my favorite quick toppings:
Concentric Circles of Glazed Fruits: Arrange berries and/or sliced fruits (mangoes, kiwis, peaches, apricots, canned mandarin oranges, etc), in concetric circles atop uncut cake. If desired, brush with melted apple or red currant jelly. Stunning and easy! Everyone will think you're a pastry chef.
Berries & Balsamic Vinegar: Toss berries with a drizzle of good balsamic vinegar and a sprinkle of sugar to taste.
Honey and Toasted Nuts: Hazelnuts and pistachios are my favorites, but any nut will do. Warm the honey for a few seconds in the microwave to make it easier to drizzle.
Melted Jam: Any good-quality jam makes a delicious match for cheesecake. Heat the jam in the microwave for a few seconds to make it easier to drizzle. To brighten the flavor, add a squeeze of lemon or lime juice, or make a spiked sauce with a splash of liqueur.
Tipsy Topping: Heat some reduced fat chocolate or caramel ice cream topping and add a splash of your favorite spirit. Caramel-Rum (with a touch of lime juice) and Chocolate-Kahlua are two of my standards.