It’s that time of the year when we begin to think about holiday desserts and often that leads us to cheesecake. It’s one of the most popular desserts in the United States and is high on the list of the finest comfort foods in the world.
Cheesecake has a long history of being a popular dish. It first became popular in Greece when the Romans conquered it in about 100 A.D using a recipe that called for “two pounds of rye flour, four pounds of wheat flour, 14 pounds of sheep’s cheese, and four and a half pounds of good honey.” (The Joy of Cheesecake by Dana Bovbjerg and Jeremy Iggers). Cheesecake eventually spread to Europe via the Roman conquests and was eventually adopted as an Easter tradition by the Russian Orthodox Church. Recipes began to appear in English cookbooks as early as 1747.
Our modern cheesecakes came by accident in 1872 when American dairymen were attempting to duplicate French Neufchatel cheese. The recipe they stumbled on to was richer and creamier. Soon the new cheese found its way into cheesecakes and the rest is history. There are hundreds of recipes for cheesecake with common ingredients of cheese, cream, and a sweetener. The type of each can vary.
Here are the most commonly used cheeses and the results you might expect:
Cream cheese. The supreme ingredient found in most recipes is made from milk, contains at least 33 percent butterfat, and has 100 calories per ounce. The water content is 50 percent yielding a texture that is smooth and soft with a delicate flavor.
Neufchatel. Similar to cream cheese, it is made from whole or skim milk or a combination of milk and cream. It is about 23 percent butterfat with about 70 calories per ounce. A water content of 60 percent gives a slightly milder flavor and lighter texture than cream cheese. When substituting Neufchatel for cream cheese, the higher water content may require a slight increase in one of the moisture holding ingredients (i.e. flour, cornstarch, gelatin, or egg whites).
Cottage Cheese. There is a wide variety of cottage cheeses to choose from ranging in a butterfat content of 0.5 percent to 4 percent and 20 to 30 calories per ounce. Cottage cheese starts with curds made from skim milk. Richer cottage cheeses are made by adding whole milk and cream to the curds. A food processor or blender will make the cheese smoother but will still yield a grainier texture.
Ricotta. In the United States, ricotta is almost always made from whole milk or a combination of milk and whey. The fat content ranges from 4 to 10 percent with about 50 calories per ounce. Water content is about 70 percent with a slight grainy texture. Ricotta offers a lighter texture and can be used as a partial replacement for cream cheese in cheesecake.
In addition to cheese, cream is also often used in cheesecake recipes to lighten the cake or provide a richer flavor. Common creams used include heavy sweet cream, half and half, and sour cream. Even yogurt can be found in some recipes. Each adds calories depending upon the fat content of the product.
Lastly, every cheesecake requires a sweetening of some sort and most recipes use sugar. If honey is used, the cheesecake will be darker; it is also important to incorporate well and to reduce the volume of other liquids in the recipe because it has a higher moisture content. Sugar substitutes are also possible but may yield less volume, less taste, tunneling, crumbling or lighter color.
Now for some tips to make the perfect cheesecake:
Start with a tested recipe from a reliable source. There are as many recipes and ways to make cheesecake as there are people who make them. Use a recipe that you trust.
Be hurry free. Cheesecake takes at least 12 hours to make (including chilling), so allow plenty of time; making a day ahead of serving is recommended.
Use all room-temperature ingredients. Give all the refrigerated ingredients at least two hours of counter time before using. This is really important when it comes to cheesecake.
Use an electric mixer, food processor, or blender to mix the wet ingredients. Be gentle with the electric appliances as you don’t want to incorporate too much air. Even though hand mixing may be gentle, it does not yield a perfectly emulsified filling. If you find lumps in the filling, press it through a sieve.
Use a spring-form pan. A spring-form pan makes it easy to get delicate cakes out of the pan without damaging them. A spring-form pan is a type of cake pan that’s made in two parts: a base and a removable ring that serves as the side of the pan. When the sides are removed after baking, the cake is easy to serve. If you only have a 10-inch pan and the recipe is for a 9-inch pan, it’s fine to use the pan you have. Changing the pan size when making cheesecake will affect the height of the cheesecake and its cooking time (thinner cheesecakes will cook a bit more quickly), but not its flavor or texture.
Eliminate bubbles. After pouring filling into crust, let set for 10 minutes to allow air bubbles to rise to top. Gently draw the tines of a fork across surface of cake to pop air bubbles that have risen to the surface.
Resist the urge to overbake. The center of a cheesecake should jiggle as a whole and the center two inches look softer when removed from the oven; it will continue to cook as it cools on the counter. Leaving the cake in the oven until it’s completely firm will result in an overbaked (and usually cracked) cheesecake. The filling should be pale, not golden brown, with edges just barely puffed. If you want a little brown color, place under the broiler for a minute or two. The target internal temperature, of cheesecake is 150 to 155 degrees. A temperature probe can be used to determine the temperature but may increase the chance of creating a crack.
Be patient. Allow plenty of time for the cheesecake to cool on the counter before refrigerating, 2 ½ to 3 hours. After 10 minutes out of the oven, run a thin-bladed knife between the cake and the pan to free any sticking spots. If you let the cheesecake cool for any longer than ten minutes, the sugar will set up and tend to stick to the pan. As the cheesecake cools, it will contract slightly. If it sticks to the pan, it may cause cracks. When cool, wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate until cold and firmly set, at least 6 hours (overnight is best). This allows for easier cutting and time for flavors to develop.
Serve it perfectly. To unmold cheesecake, remove the sides of the pan. Slide a thin metal spatula or cake lifter between the crust and pan bottom to loosen, then slide the cheesecake onto a serving plate. (Cheesecake can be left on the pan bottom, too.) Let the cheesecake stand at room temperature for about 30 minutes. To avoid gummy, messy pieces, dip a sharp knife in very hot water and wipe dry between cuts. Should there be leftovers, refrigerate for up to 4 days in a tightly covered container.
Now that you know a thing or two about cheesecake making, a blissful, sweet and creamy cheesecake can be a sure thing for your holiday dessert.