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
Pat down the crumbs with your fingers and then use a straight-sided glass to press and push the crumbs up the walls.
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.