When I first started cooking, and wanted to branch out into something that I had always assumed was complicated and required an overabundance of finesse, I chose cheesecake; the baked kind, not the refrigerator kind. Growing up, cheesecake was something for cafeteria dessert selections, and was usually just a slice of cheesecake with some brilliant red cherries and sauce on top and running over the sides. Little did I realize what an infinitesimally small part of the world of cheesecake that was. I didn’t beat around the bush, and a baklava cheesecake was my first. The primary takeaway from that adventure was the realization that cheesecake is one of the most fantastic culinary blank canvases there is. For that reason alone, I’ll devote this post (actually a re-hash of one of my much earlier posts) to my basic cheesecake recipe, sharing with you in future postings and musings some of the fun variations I’ve come up with (see TIPS below).
INGREDIENTS (all ingredients should be at room temperature)
For the crust you’ll need
1/4 cup sugar,
1-1/2 cups walnuts ( or you can use pecans, pistachios, almonds, graham crackers), and
2 Tbsp of butter, melted.
For the cheesecake you’ll need
3 – 8oz packages of cream cheese (I use American Neufchatel – it contains 30% less fat and I’ve suffered no consequences using it),
1 – 8oz package mascarpone (or you can use another 8oz package of cream cheese),
3/4 cup sugar,
three large eggs (eggs from chickens that are pastured tend to have, at least in my experience, larger yolks and add some richness to the batter),
1 tsp vanilla or almond extract, and
1/4 tsp salt.
Prepare a 9-inch springform pan with cooking spray, preferably one that contains flour.
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
Combine the 1/4 cup sugar and the nuts or graham crackers in a food processor and pulse to the consistency of sand. Drizzle in the melted butter, processing to thoroughly incorporate the butter into the dry mixture. Press the mixture firmly and evenly into the bottom of the pan (coming up the sides is a matter of preference, but not required). Bake it for 15 minutes, then remove it to a cooling rack.
Reduce the oven temperature to 300 degrees and put a roasting pan with about 1″ of very hot water in it on the bottom shelf of your oven.
Blend the cream cheeses and 3/4 cup sugar on low to medium speed until blended, smooth, and creamy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating until just blended after each addition. Add the flavoring and salt and continue beating until blended and very smooth.
Pour the batter into the pan and shake slightly to ensure even distribution. Bake at 300 degrees for 1 hr and 20 mins, or until the center is almost set.
Turn the oven off and prop the door slightly open with a wooden spoon; allow the cheesecake to cool in the oven for 45 mins to an hour.
Remove the cheesecake from the oven. Gently run a warm, sharp knife around the edge of the cake to loosen. Allow the cake to cool for a couple more hours, then cover and chill for 8 hrs. Remove the sides of the pan, put the cheesecake on your cake plate and it’s ready to go. If planning to use later, return it to the refrigerator. If refrigerated, remove the cheesecake from the refrigerator about an hour before you plan to serve it.
A word of caution! If you make this with an all-nut crust, it is a gleten-free alternative. If a gluten intolerance is an essential accommodation, DO NOT use a non-stick spray with flour. Use a flourless alternative.
When cutting cheesecake, use a very sharp knife (I have my best luck with a sharp 10″ slicing knife). Hold it under the hottest water you can get from your tap before cutting. Cut three slices, re-heating the knife in water before each cut. Remove the center slice, and if it looks like you want it to, use it. If not, put it aside to eat when looks don’t matter (like while you’re cleaning up after your meal).Then start plating with the slice on either side of the one first removed; use the heated knife to cut down, then slide slightly left or right to separate from the balance of the cake. You’ll be pleased.
Early on, I decided that my preference when it comes to variations on a theme is to get the whole cheescake in on the act. It’s easiest to add a layer or layers of flavor by just piling more on the top of the entire cake, or just a slice. It’s more fun, and gives a richer result, to play with the flaror profile of the cake itself – like adding lemon or orange zest and/or juice, or other flavors. Worry not if you think your imagination is getting out of hand. Cheesecake is relatively forgiving. You’ll have fun, for sure.
Cheesecake keeps well in the refrigerator, and can also be frozen, but I’d suggest adding the finishing touches once it’s out of the fridge/freezer, especially if you’re garnishing with fresh fruit. Again, let your cheesecake come to room temperature before you serve it.
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