I’m getting ready for tomorrow, Memorial Day. And I couldn’t have a better day to do so. It’s been raining for days – I don’t even want to count how many. Just as I got in bed with a book last night, the rain started falling much harder. It was a heavenly sound to which to sleep, and the air smelled downright sweet. Tomorrow the rain is forecast to taper off to occasional showers. But for this morning, I’m pretty content to be in a warm kitchen with a fresh pot of French press, with baking to do and look forward to.
Do you make cheesecake often? It’s not unusual for people to tell me that they’ve never made one because they’re reputed to be difficult, or that they’ve stopped making them because theirs always crack. In truth, cheesecake is not difficult to make. They do require some patience, and perhaps that is wherein lies the difficulty. The steps are not many; at the same time, there are no shortcuts. There a few points of no return beyond which lie not tigers, but worse: the dreaded cracked cheesecake.
As a solitary cook, let me tell you that I have no intention of eating the whole thing in one sitting, seductive as the idea may be. No, no, no. But a few years ago, I learned a neat trick from a friend. She and her husband both love cheesecake, but they as well had to ration it. Once it was completely cool (more on that later), she cut in in quarters, double-wrapped 3 of them in plastic, and froze them individually. At the time, my sole frame of reference was baking for my bakery-restaurant, so I made 6 at a time, froze them whole, and hoped they’d last a few days. I thought her idea was sheer genius. I’ll keep one quarter fresh (nothing like cheesecake for breakfast!), freeze one, and give the other two away. My friend Cathy gave me some of the most beautiful, big farm eggs I’ve ever seen, so I need to give her some of their fruit. I’m sure I can find a home for the other.
POINTS OF NO RETURN
- ALWAYS make a cheesecake at least 12 hours before you plan to serve it. 24 hours would be even better. They are extremely dense, so they take a long time to cool and finish setting all the way to the center. If you try to take a shortcut and rush cooling, depanning, and cutting, it’s going to be like cutting bubblegum. I plan to have this for dinner tomorrow evening, so it went into the oven around 10:00 this morning. I’ll cool it at room temperature, then set it in the refrigerator uncovered until around 5:00 tomorrow evening. Leaving it uncovered prevents plastic from sticking to it, because it will, and also lets it dry out a bit, which will enhance the flavor and also make it easier to cut.
- ALWAYS mix on the lowest speed. If you try to work with cold cream cheese figuring you can just mix it on a higher speed to beat out the lumps, you’ll be beating air into the mixture. Air is a gas. Gas in the presence of heat expands. Your cheesecake will crack because, basically, the air beaten into it causes it to overbake.
- ALWAYS stop after each mixing step (hey, there are only 3), drop the paddle, remove the bowl from the stand, and scrape all the way around the sides and all the way to the bottom of the bowl, especially around the dimple, then mix briefly to incorporate what you scraped free. If you don’t, you’ll have unincorporated ingredients that you won’t discover until you pour the batter out into the pan. #toolate
- ALWAYS bake a cheesecake in a water bath (see #9 below). Cheesecakes are dense, right? The water bath slows down baking at the perimeter so that the center and the edges get done at the same time. Baking a cheesecake without a water bath is like flying without a net. #badidea
Makes 1 9″ cake
1 1/4 cups graham cracker crumbs
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon fine sea or kosher salt
Pinch of nutmeg
1 1/4 pounds cream cheese, room temperature
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Puréed pulp from 2 peeled mangos
2 ounces heavy cream
- Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line a 9″ round cake pan with a piece of parchment cut to fit the bottom. If you don’t use pre-cut rounds (you can find them in the cake section of most craft stores), trace the outline of the pan onto a parchment sheet. Cut inside the line, and the circle will drop down into the inside of the pan.
- Begin heating a pot of a couple of quarts of water on the stove.
- Crack all 5 eggs into a liquid measuring cup so they can be coming to room temp. Do not whisk them together.
- Measure graham cracker crumbs into a mixing bowl. Add the sugar, salt, and nutmeg (I found a grinder full of nutmeg chunks, which I love). Stir to blend a bit. Add the melted butter and stir with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula until completely distributed. Pour the crust mixture into the cake pan and fan it around evenly with your hand, then press it evenly all over, including around the edges. Don’t ever press the crust mix up the sides of the pan! It’s impossible to do so evenly, and it’s way too much crust. Too, it creates a monumental mess when you cut the cake, and cheesecake slices want to look neat and clean. Besides, have you ever seen anyone actually finish all that crust? I rest my case.
- It’s important that the cream cheese be at room temperature. If not, it won’t smooth out easily when mixed with the sugar, nor will it emulsify well with the eggs. I leave mine out overnight, and you can, too. I hide it in a cupboard so the cats don’t think I’ve left them a midnight snack. What happens if you forget? Take each package of cream cheese out of its box, but leave the wrapper on. Place each one in a separate ziplock bag, and set them all in a big bowl of warm – not hot – water for about 30 minutes.
- Place the cream cheese in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle. Add the sugar. Mix on lowest speed until fully incorporated and fully smooth. Stop, scrape, and remix (see #3 under Points of No Return).
- With the mixer running on its lowest speed, begin adding the eggs one at a time by tipping them over the spout of the measuring cup. Allow each to be fully incorporated before adding the next. You are using the yolks to gradually emulsifying the whites and all their water into the cream cheese and sugar; this must be done slowly and with patience. After all the eggs have been added, add the vanilla extract, then stop, scrape, and remix.
- Pour about 3/4 of the batter into the cake pan. Eyeball it; close enough is close enough. Leave the remaining batter in the bowl. Add the mango purée and cream. Stir gently with a spatula. Pour the mango mixture into the center of the cake. Depending upon how yellow your yolks were (and Cathy’s – or rather her hens’ – were that fantastic farm-egg-yellow), you may or may not see a large color difference between the original batter and that with the mangos added. Grab a paring knife or a small spatula. Starting at the outside edge, begin drawing figure eights from the edge to the center, turning the pan as you go. Be careful not to drag up crust from the bottom. Go all the way around the pan twice.
- Set the pan in the center of a baking sheet with a rim around all 4 sides. Set it on the middle rack of your oven with about 1″ hanging off the front edge. Pour the hot water into a large measuring cup or pitcher, then pour the water into the baking sheet until it comes almost to the lip of the sheet. Gently push the sheet the rest of the way into the oven. Set a timer for 55 minutes. A cheesecake is done when it “jiggles like jello, does not wiggle like a wave,” to quote one of my chefs in culinary school. That is the perfect test of doneness. To test the cake, drape a kitchen towel over your fingers and gently bump the edge of the cake pan. If the mixture has any waviness to it, give it 5 or 7 minutes more. When you can bump the pan and see a jiggle, get it out of the oven. I can’t tell you how many people I know who didn’t trust their perceptions of the jiggle, and wound up overbaking, and therefore cracking, cheesecakes.
- To remove the cake from the oven, gently lift it out of the water bath with hot pads and set it on a rack to cool to room temp. The safest way to remove the baking sheet is to turn off the oven and leave the door ajar until the water is cool enough to safely transport it to the sink.
- Once the cake has cooled, set in in the refrigerator, pan and all, uncovered. Let it sit there at least overnight.