How I Made a Perfect Cheesecake

May 31, 2010 § 5 Comments

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Well, maybe this doesn’t look quite perfect (I forgot to butter the pan, among other things), and the elderberry-syrup topping was definitely on the runny side, but the elderberry flavor paired perfectly with the cheese and the chocolate, and the texture was, in my opinion, superb. This here is the second cheesecake in my life, and is already dramatically better than the first one. For that reason, I would not like to pose as any kind of cheesecake authority – just show you how I arrived at this.

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See this? This. This is homemade. You can tell just by looking at it.

The crust. Let me begin by saying that I really find the more traditional cheesecake crusts made with anything from a factory beyond unsatisfactory – I didn’t grow up with processed food, and the artificiality of it is something I simply cannot get past. I also find cracker (and oreos and such) crusts simply too dry and crumbly, where sharp, crunchy crumbs do nothing for me but torture my palate. And while I am comfortable making a traditional pastry crust, I don’t like to pair it with cheesecake. So after a couple of attempts, I made a decision that I am going to look for something radically different.

The perfect crust came to me, serendipitously, from a place most unexpected. I made a batch of brownies that turned out especially terrible – dry and way, way, WAY too skinny (if you consider making that recipe, know that the caramel topping is horrible, too). This is the first time that The Pioneer Woman recipe fails me. But, as my father-in-law puts it, problems are opportunities. Rather than dumping the whole pan, I looked at it and said to myself “this is a homemade cheesecake crust waiting to happen.” So I passed them through a food processor until I got a fairly fine crumb, and then simply pressed the already moist crumbs into the bottom of a springform pan – naturally, brownies were already full of butter and chocolate and needed no extra butter, so the crust came together seamlessly. Just what I was looking for. It needed no baking to set – I just stuck it in the freezer briefly (for 10 min or so), and then refrigerated it until ready to use. Was this step even necessary? Probably not.

“But is it worth making brownies just so you would turn them into a cheesecake crust?” you might ask. Well, it’s the matter of priorities. Values even. Is it worth freezing off your butt and your toes to bag a deer? Is it worth raising your own chickens, strawberries, and tomatoes? Is it worth getting into the mud up to your ankles to catch a wild trout? Yes. Yes, it is worth it. The need to eat real food calls for nothing less.

If you do want to take this road, note that these brownies were baked past their point of tender-below, crusty-above perfection (or, as my friend Rebecca once brilliantly put it, “the consistency of horse manure that just had the chance to crust over in the sun”). These were also considerably thinner than regular brownies, which allowed for all that extra crispiness. In fact, these here were a lot more like cookies.

Now that you know all about my cheesecake-crust plight, let’s move on to the filling!

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This here is homemade neuchatel cheese, which I love to make from scratch with the help of some mesophlic starter, some vegetable rennet, and a recipe from this wonderful book. Neuchatel is a cream-cheese-like fresh cheese which, unlike cream cheese proper, made, as the name suggests, out of cream, is made of cream AND milk, where 2 C of heavy cream are used to enrich 1 gallon of milk.  In addition to the wonderful feeling of moral superiority, doing so rewards you with fresh and additive-free product, which, in our world, is no small thing. For cheesecake, I don’t even bother salting the cheese (which I would do if the cheese was destined for bagel-topping), which you really can’t tell in a cake anyway.

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These cheesecake uses almond extract for flavoring,

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And a whole tablespoon of vanilla!

Now beat the cheese and the extracts together in a mixer at medium speed (4-6 on a Kitchen Aid) until smooth. I didn’t snap a picture of this step for some reason, my apologies!

Cheesecakes seem to always call for either lemon juice or zest or both, but I found that, to me, this extra lemony flavor is unwelcome, so there’s none in this one. Plus, though I am not 100% sure, I have a suspicion that lemon juice does bad things for the texture, at least when mixed with pure homemade cheese, as opposed to firmer, stabilizer-enriched storebotten variety – I added some to my first one, and I think there was a slight curdling of the filling as a result. I don’t know if this makes sense, because cheese is nothing other than milk that was already curdled once. But since I also didn’t enjoy the taste, I simply left it out the second time, and a good riddance it was!

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Now add some sugar – 2/3 C for 24 oz of neuchatel – and 1 T of all-purpose white flour (the picture of that didn’t come out so good). I feel like adding flour really stabilizes the texture, making it that much more smooth (my first one didn’t have any flour).

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Beat everything again on medium until smooth.

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Now beat in 2 egg yolks, one at a time, mixing after each addition.

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Now do the same with the whole eggs (add them one at a time, mixing each one in before adding the next).

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Beat everything together, again on medium, until lovely and smooth like this. Note that I didn’t bother letting my cheese soften at room temperature before doing this, but because my cheese was homemade, and already not as firm as the storebotten, this was perfectly OK. I cannot guarantee the same results with storebotten cheese, so yes, soften it first to be on a safe side. Consider buying the Organic Valley brand, that’s what I would buy if I didn’t want to make it myself.

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Now pour everything into a greased springform pan (this one is somewhere around 8 1/2″).

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Smooth everything out.

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Now isn’t this beautiful?

Now place this pan into another pan to catch the liquid which will inevitably seep out during baking, making a holy mess on the bottom of your oven as it burns. And by mess I also mean smoke. How do you think I know that?

This cake was baked without a water bath, and, still, was practically crack-free. Barely any cracks at all, as you will see in a moment. I baked it at two different temperatures – 325 for the first 10 or so min (or until just before it wants to start browning around the edges), and then at 200 until mostly set but still wobbly in the center (I got the idea to bake it this low, as well as to add flour and swap an egg for 2 egg yolks, from a recipe over at the Smitten Kitchen (which, for a long time, I thought was “Smitten Kitten,” and couldn’t understand what it had to do with kittens). I found that this low temperature is just perfect for allowing it to set without browning the top, since, at least in my oven, browning can happen really, really fast.

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Somewhere around 40-min mark (or 30 min, even, if you are impatient, or not as sure of your oven), start testing it, like custard, by inserting a knife half-way towards the center (a tip I got from my mother-in-law, Dawn). Just like with custard (which is what this is), you want your knife to come out clean except for the buttery film (and, perhaps, tiny fragments).

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Look, practically no cracks! Just the slits where I stabbed the cake to test it for doneness. I realize, I did this 7 (sic!) times before it was done. What does this say about me?

Next thing to do is to remove the cake from the oven, and to set the springform on a rack to cool. When the cake is pretty much cool, either 1)refrigerate for several hours or 2)be like a Russian and stick it in the freezer for 20 min, and then refrigerate for an hour or two. That’s all it needed to set. Which is what I did. (Back in the Old Country, we used the freezer to chill vodka all the time.) Run a knife along the sides before removing the springform.

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I had forgotten to butter the pan, so some of the crust was left behind, as you can see in this picture.

Once the cake was chilled, I topped it with my elderberry syrup, which proved to be incredibly delicious, if runny. Other than that, I thought the results were perfect – smooth, dense, cheesy filling; rich, not too thick, tender, chocolaty crust, and the elderberry flavor was a perfect accompaniment to the whole thing, although, next time, I will consider the method that smitten Deb used to make her cherry topping. In fact, I am planning on making it with tart cherries sometime, too, since they grow here. I am like that – I like to use what we grow first before buying something from a store.

Perfect, Crack-Free Cheesecake

Based on Salted Caramel Brownies from The Pioneer Woman, a cheesecake recipe from In The Dough: A Kate Hundt Recipe Collection, and “New York Cheesecake” by Smitten Kitchen.

  • about 1/2 Salted Caramel Brownie recipe from The Pioneer Woman, (just brownies, not the caramel topping).
  • 24 oz neuchatel cheese (cream cheese should work too?)
  • 1 t almond extract
  • 1 T vanilla extract
  • 2/3 C sugar
  • 1 T flour
  • 3 whole eggs
  • 2 egg yolks

To make the crust, process the completely cooled brownies in a food processor (better if they were made the day before) until you get fine crumbs, and press them into the bottom of a greased springform pan. Refrigerate until needed.

To make the filling, place cheese into a bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, add the extracts, and beat on medium until smooth. Add flour and sugar, and beat until smooth again. Mix in egg yolks and eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition, and, once more, beat until the filling is smooth. Pour into the prepared crust and bake for about 10 min (or just until before the filling starts to brown around the edges) at 325 F. Reduce the heat to 200 F, and continue baking until set, for about 40 min to 1 hour longer. Test the cake for doneness by inserting a knife half-way between the edge and the center – the knife should come out mostly clean except for a buttery film. Be sure to remove your cake from the oven while the center is still wobbly, as it will continue to cook as it cools. Cool in the pan, and refrigerate until firm, for several hours, or pop it in the freezer for 20 min and then the fridge for 1-2 hours. To remove from the pan, run a knife around the sides before opening the springform. Note that I don’t bother removing the cake from the bottom of the pan, personally – you are on your own here.

UPDATE: I have since tried making it with 1/3 homemade neuchatel and 2/3 storebotten Organic Valley cream cheese, and I found that the one made with the OV cream cheese was nearly perfectly smooth, which I preferred. Must be all the extra stuff they add to it for consistency. I still don’t like to eat it as much as homemade, but I will definitely use it for cheesecake.

UPDATE 2: DITCH THE CRUST, BAKE CHEESECAKE ON TOP OF A BROWNIE

I baked my third, and so far the best cheesecake on top of a layer of brownie – I made a chocolate-based brownie batter, poured it on the bottom of my springform pan, and baked it until set (but not fully done). Here it is:

In retrospect, I wish I’d made the brownie layer thinner, and the cheesecake layer thicker (a full brownie recipe, formulated for a 10″ square pan, proved a bit too high for my 8 1/2″ springform). I also wished I hadn’t pre-baked the brownie for quite so long (you can tell that its outer edges are on a dry side). However, note that the brownie recipe I used incorporated eggs whipped with sugar and folded in, giving me a higher brownie than your regular brownie. If you have your favorite brownie recipe, play with it, by all means. Mine came from Baking with Julia.

Anyhow, once I decided the brownie was set, I poured cheesecake batter on top of the hot brownie, and baked it (without water bath once more, at the temperatures given above), until the center was somewhat wobbly, the outside was set, and a knife plunged into the cake closer to the edge came out clean safe a buttery film and a few fragments (the knife was still covered with the batter if you tested the cake in the middle).

I found that brownie and cheesecake was a perfect combination – normally, the liquid that inevitably seeps out of the cake as it sits makes the crust soggier and soggier with time, but if you have a brownie sitting on the bottom, it just absorbs all the liquid, becoming only moister, smoother, and overall more luscious every day. As a result, the whole thing was still perfect on the 4th day. I will make it for you again sometime soon.

Once again, I am opposed to graham cracker crust on principle, since I am very much ill at ease with foods from a box, so I encourage you to ditch it as well and trade up for this upscale version.

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