If there could be only one type of cake in the world, let it be cheesecake. Of course, some people would argue that cheesecake, with its smooth, creamy texture, isn’t really a cake at all except in shape. Indeed, my favorite style of cheesecake is more custard than cake, set by eggs rather than by starch. That’s the key to its satiny texture. As long as I treat cheesecake like a custard, coddling it in a water bath and baking it until set at the edges but still wobbly in the center, I never fail to get the supremely smooth texture that I adore.
Cheesecake is the easiest cake to make. It can be mixed in minutes with an electric mixer or in less than a minute in a food processor. My basic cheesecake is dense, creamy, and tangy. It consists simply of cream cheese, sour cream, fresh lemon juice, sugar, eggs, salt, and pure vanilla extract. Some cheesecake recipes include flour or cornstarch to help firm them up, but I prefer to let the eggs do all the thickening rather than add a starch, which would produce a slightly denser texture (see Cheesecake 101 for a discussion of cheesecakes with starch and without). For the cream cheese, I like Philadelphia brand. Natural and lowfat cream cheeses don’t seem to work as well. Bring the cream cheese to room temperature so it softens and blends completely with the other ingredients. To prevent aeration, which can cause the cheesecake to rise unevenly, be careful not to overmix the batter.
I like to dress up cheesecakes with a crust and a topping. I might use cookie crumbs or a thin layer of tender sponge cake for a crust. For a stunning special-occasion cheesecake, I might line the sides of the pan with ladyfingers. My pumpkin cheesecake is heavenly when garnished with swirls of caramel sauce. Fruit glazes thickened with cornstarch (not gelatin, which would dissolve from acidity in the batter) make wonderful toppings; try sour cherry, blueberry, cranberry, or even a lemon curd.
Choose the right size pan
The ideal pan for cheesecake is a springform. A deep cake pan will also work, but you’ll have to invert the cheesecake twice to unmold it. My classic cheesecake needs an 8-inch pan; the pumpkin one needs a 9-inch pan. Be safe: measure with a ruler, inside rim to inside rim. Pan size is important because it affects cooking time (in too small a pan, the filling will rise higher and take longer to cook; vice versa for too big a pan).
Crushed cookie crusts provide contrasting texture and flavor. Sometimes I press the cookie crumbs into the pan so they become a shell for the filling. I like a thin crust that goes almost all the way up the sides of the cake (see the photos below). Another option is to bake the cheesecake without a crust and then pat the cookie crumbs on the sides after chilling. To do this, crush about 3/4 cup of crumbs. Scoop up some crumbs in one hand, hold the cake on its base in the palm of the other hand, and then, tilting the cake a bit, press the crumbs gently onto the sides.
A water bath prevents curdling
Cheesecakes without added starch are vulnerable to curdling if baked at too high a temperature, so I protect them with a water bath, just as I do with any baked custard. By buffering the cooking, a water bath lets me use a higher temperature without the risk of scrambling the eggs. Cheesecakes baked in cookie crusts are less likely to meet this fate (the crust acts as an insulator), but since they’re not invincible, I use a water bath even for them.
Before setting the springform pan in the water bath, wrap it in a double layer of heavy-duty foil to prevent water from seeping into the springform—you’ll need extra-wide foil for a 9-inch cake. (If you’re using a solid cake pan, skip this step.) The pan holding the water should be a few inches wider than the cheesecake pan and about the same height; if it’s too high, it will retard baking. An extra-large cake pan or a roasting pan is perfect for the job. Here’s a tip: if the water-bath pan is made of aluminum, dissolve a large pinch of cream of tartar in the water to keep the pan from discoloring.
For the smoothest, creamiest cheesecake, give the oven plenty of time to heat up and use an oven thermometer. You’ll notice that my cheesecake recipes don’t have doneness tests. That’s because the oven door must remain closed for a full hour after the heat is turned off. The cheesecake continues baking very gently in the oven’s residual heat—opening the door at this point could result in underbaking. Because these recipes depend so heavily on time and temperature rather than visual or tactile doneness cues, it’s critical that the oven is completely up to temperature before the cheesecake goes in.
When you do finally remove the cake from the oven, the center will still be jiggly. Don’t panic; that’s the way it should be. After several hours in the refrigerator, it will firm up and be ready to unmold. Both cheesecakes keep nicely for up to one week in the refrigerator. Freezing, however, would ruin the cheesecake’s smooth texture.
How to unmold a cheesecake without wrecking it
If you’ve used a springform pan, unmolding can be as easy as removing the ring. To remove the ring cleanly, follow the photos below.
If you want to remove the bottom as well, you’ll need to invert the cheesecake twice (if you’ve used a cake pan instead of a springform, you’ll have no choice but to do this). If this is your plan, it’s a good idea to line the bottom of the greased pan with a circle of greased kitchen parchment before baking.
Before unmolding the sides and bottom, be sure the cheesecake is thoroughly chilled (at least six hours in the refrigerator). Have ready a serving plate and another flat plate that’s at least as wide as the springform and covered with plastic wrap. Remove the ring following the photos below. Set the plate with plastic wrap on top of the cheesecake and carefully invert the pan. Heat the base of the springform with a hot, damp cloth or a hair dryer, and lift it off. Peel away the parchment, if used. Set the serving plate lightly on the bottom of the cheesecake (which is now facing up), and reinvert the cake. Lift off the plastic-wrapped plate. If the cheesecake was baked without a crust, you may need to smooth the sides with a metal spatula.