With Valentine’s Day just behind us, and everyone being overdosed on chocolate and rich desserts, the last thing you may want to be reading about may be the decadence that is NY-style cheesecake.
Unless you are like me, that is, and have gone easy on the chocolate – or, unless you are like me, and the thought of proper, creamy, tender and oh-so-good real New York-style cheesecake makes all else not matter. I am (last I checked) myself, and therefore I believe that cheesecake is always in time, occasion and season. So if you are a fellow Cheesecake-worshipper, keep reading. On second thought, even if you are an infidel among us Cheesecake-believers, you should stay and hear the gospel as well.
So what about the eight-year deprivation, you ask? Well, as it happens, I adore cheesecake. In fact, I ate it on any occasion that called for dessert when it was available, back when I lived in the USA, the holy land of cheesecakes. You may not know it, but Americans actually have a restaurant chain called “The Cheesecake Factory”. I am not kidding! And as far as I am concerned, it has to be American cheesecake. No, I am not interested in the ricotta cakes, or the Swedish traditional ostkaka, give me the tall, creamy but definitively non-gloopy beauty that is NY-style cheesecake any, any day of the week.
Except that I have not lived in USA since 2004. That is… 8 years, people! And in that time, between Sweden and UK, I have not had any cheesecake, because I refuse to have any that is less than what cheesecake, in my mind, should be. And you know what? Eight years is simply too long to go without cheesecake!
So, having gotten thoroughly cheesecake-frustrated, I have decided that I’ve had it, and I think I’ve completely talked T’s head off about the real cheesecake that I so desired, and in the end I ended up promising him to make the real thing myself. Because, if you want something done right, you bloody well should.
There is a lot of talk, both in word-of-mouth and on the net and even in cookbooks about how difficult it is to make a cheesecake. Some people say you have to cook it wrapped in foil on a water bath (really, wtf people, haven’t you heard of the invention of the this thing called an oven thermostat?! It’s been around for several decades!*), and nearly all preach about how hard it is to mix, and how it will get air bubbles and oh god oh god crack and burn and explode and collapse and… guess what? After reading a bunch of different sources and then making the actual cheesecake (I write this in a cheesecake-satiated glow after eight years of deprivation!), I came to the conclusion that it is all a bunch of over-hyped hoopla. Similar, in some ways, to the way people describe sourdough bread-baking – anything to preserve the elitism and scare newbie bakers away from their holy grail. So, pfft at them! Making a cheesecake is really really easy. You need to think about it, and there are some instructions you really ought to follow and not try to improvise, and you need to chill it overnight – but that’s really that!
And if the top cracks a tiny bit – who cares? If you are serving it to guests, it should get topped with something anyway (melted, chocolate, caramel sauce, good tangy preserves or fresh berries – whatever takes your fancy!), and if you are just cutting a greedy slice to share over the morning coffee, then you can cut along the cracks. Or simply ignore them.
So, if I have managed to impress upon you that to prepare this dessert royalty you really do not need much effort, what do you need? Well… first of all, you need time. Cheesecake must be allowed to set overnight in the refrigerator. Which means you need to bake it the day before you are going to serve it (or several days – it keeps easily over a week in the fridge if wrapped properly!).
What else do you need? Ok, here we go:
- An oven. One of those modern ones with a thermostat knob.
- A mixing bowl.
- A mixer or a whisk and a really strong arm. I use a small, handheld mixer and it works just fine.
- A springform pan, with bottom inserted upside-down (yes, I mean that!) – meaning, lipped side down, flat side up. The upside-down bottom ensures there is no “lip” on it once the cake is ready, and it can be easily sliced, or transferred off the flat surface onto a plate.
Recipe is adapted fairly heavily from a saved recipe card that I got mailed as a promotion back when living in USA. Adaptations include not being able to get my hands on brick cream cheese, not using egg whites, and removing flour from batter (because I like my cheesecake better without).
Ingredients: (This will make one standard 9-inch form)
Shortbread crust: Yes, I like that, but if you prefer crumb crust, it’s just some digestive biscuits crushed with a bit of melted butter. In my personal and highly biased view (as in, it’s going to go into my mouth-biased), lightly spiced shortbread crust is far superior!
- 200g plain all-purpose flour (1.5 to 1.75 US cups)
- Small pinch of salt (1/5 tsp)
- 2 tsp ground ginger (optional, can be replaced with nutmeg or omitted)
- 1 tsp vanilla sugar
- 1/4 tsp baking powder
- 1.5 dl confectioner’s sugar
- 2 egg yolks
- 150g butter, cut into small pieces and slightly softened
- 1kg full-fat cream cheese. In Europe that translates to 5 little tubs.
- 200g 10% (full-fat) quark cheese (Kesella or other brand – can be substituted with 10% Greek or Turkish strained yogurt)
- 1 dl full fat creme fraiche (I believe that is 34% fat here in Sweden). This can be substituted with full-fat sour cream.
- 300ml caster sugar (I used golden caster).
- 2 teaspoons vanilla sugar or 1 teaspoon real vanilla extract. I used sugar this time, as my vanilla extract isn’t ready yet (I make my own, it’s easy).
- Zest of 1 lemon+1 orange. If you like your cake less citrusy, you can use either orange or lemon or half of each.
- 1 tablespoon (15ml) lemon juice from aforementioned lemon (try to avoid bottled lemon juice here, it does not taste nearly as good as fresh).
- 3 egg yolks
- OPTIONAL! 3 tablespoons of flour – I did not use those, but they can help the cake set and lessen the chance of cracks. (Or so I am told.)
Make and bake the shortbread crust.
- Preheat oven to 175C. Cut a circle of baking parchment to match the bottom of springform pan.
- Grease the pan and line the bottom with parchment. Flour the sides thoroughly.
- Mix together all dry ingredients of crust except sugar. Whisk to combine.
- In another bowl, mix sugar with butter until completely combined and light in color.
- Add egg yolks and mix until incorporated. You may need to scrape down the sides of bowl at some point here.
- Add all the dry ingredients and mix on low speed until mixture resembles crumbs. Remove mixer and squish with hands until dough comes together (should be very easy and quick).
- Place clumps of dough into the prepared springform pan, and push at it with your fingers till it is sort of uniform thickness on the bottom and up the sides. Fork the bottom thoroughly to help avoid puffing up in the oven. IF the bottom begins to puff up, open the oven, and fork it carefully at the edge of puffed up area. That should deflate it. Continue to bake as normal.
- Bake in preheated oven for 15-20 minutes (watch it) until the top edge is just beginning to color and the crust is entirely baked through and opaque.
- Cool on rack without removing from the pan, until completely cool (this may take an hour).
In meantime, bring out the cheesecake batter ingredients out of the fridge and allow them to come to room temperature or close to it (don’t go nuts if it is a bit cool to the touch after sitting on the counter for that long, really).
A useful note on mixing the batter, which comes next – use low speed of mixer. On low speed, you have far, far less chance of introducing excess air bubbles into it, and it is more than powerful enough to mix softened cream cheese, etc.
- Preheat oven to 250C (475F). Yes you want it that hot!
- When the crust is completely cool, make the batter:
- Place all the cream cheese into a bowl. I shook each little tub over the sink a bit to get rid of excess water that is sometimes found in the tubs. Mix the cream cheese on low speed until it is smooth or close to.
- Add sugar, lemon and orange zest, and quark. Mix to incorporate.
- Add egg yolks and mix in. Add lemon juice and creme fraiche and mix until the batter is homogenous.
- Pour the batter into the cooled crust. Some people suggest banging the cheesecake or such, but I did not bother as the batter mixed on low speed is not very bubbly at all. It should more or less come up to the top (or over, which is fine) of your crust.
- Put your cheesecake on an oven pan to catch any drips, and slide that into the oven so that the cheesecake is roughly in the middle of it vertically.
- Sit and watch cheesecake for 12 minutes on 250C. It may start to puff on sides a little bit towards the end of this period. To reduce the chance of surface singing during this step, I turned the oven setting to only use the bottom element after preheating on top+bottom setting. If the surface starts to brown at any point during this step, go to next step immediately. Otherwise, proceed to next step at end of 12 minutes.
- Without opening the oven door, turn oven to use top+bottom elements (no fan setting if possible), and turn the thermostat to 95-100C. Bake cheesecake at this setting for an hour and a half to an hour and a quarter, until the surface is set, but the center of the cake wobbles under the surface a little when it is jiggled gently back and forth.
- Turn oven off and use a piece of cookware (loaf pan? Rolling pin?) to prop the oven door ajar, or take the cake out of oven and set it on a rack to cool. I used the oven method as it is supposed to reduce cracking. I suppose I can use the take out onto rack method another time and see if that cracks more, but either is supposed to be fine.
- If using the oven to initially cool the cake, take cake out after another 15-20 minutes and continue to cool on the rack. When pan is cool to the touch, carefully run a thin spatula or spreading knife around the crust to loosen it from the sides.
- Allow to cool until just warm to the touch before wrapping the springform pan in plastic wrap and placing in refrigerator.
- Refrigerate overnight or for at least 6 hours to set the cake completely.
- The next morning, check that the sides of the crust are not attached to the springform pan sides, carefully unlock and remove the sides. Now you can either keep the cake on the bottom of the pan, or slide a thin spatula between the parchment paper and the pan bottom to loosen it and use the parchment to grab the cake and slide it over onto a serving plate.
The cake will keep for days in the refrigerator, but please do replace the pan sides (to prevent it from mashing and cover/wrap with plastic wrap to prevent it absorbing odors you and I would rather it didn’t – like garlic for example.
Now, I imagine this would have gone amazingly well with a topping, but after trying just one bite, my boyfriend decided he just liked it plain, and that the lemon-tinged lushness of this did not require any additional dressing. So, I didn’t. Does not mean you should not, you know.
The batter for this is very accommodating to added flavoring. I think next time, I will get my hands on some pumpkin puree (or make it if I must), and make proper pumpkin-pie-spiced pumpkin cheesecake. Or else go crazy and try a pineapple or mango flavored one, or plain with caramel and chocolate shavings… who knows? The point is, because it is not baked on water bath, it sets much, much easier and less problematically. If you are adding fruit or vegetable puree, I would suggest using the optional 3 tablespoons flour with the batter to help set the cake with lower cheese to batter ratio. Or you know, you can always wait for me to test it first. I promise you, I will.
Cheesecake baked in this manner, is both, easy, and incredibly forgiving, and yes, it tastes, looks and feels exactly like the really good luxury American cheesecakes that I had missed so much all those eight years. The moral of the story is that if you want something done right, do it yourself. I should have. Years ago.
* As I understand it, the incredible necessity of the foil-wrapping cheesecake and cooking it in a tray of water in your oven harkens back to the times when you baked your cheesecake just outside your cave in the fire on that lightning-struck tree stump. Yes, back then you’d have certainly needed a water bath to ensure it did not suffer from heat spikes when you tossed another log into the fire. Or you know, if another tree branch got tossed in by the wind. But really, with an oven that has 10-degree increments on a thermostat, saying water bath (and consequent mess, boiling water splashing, possible leaks and ruined soggy cheesecake) is necessary is just so much of you know what.