Everybody Loves CheesecakeJennifer Farmer
Cheesecake holds a very special place in my life. As a matter of fact, the first culinary creation I ever made was a cheesecake. My father loved cheesecake so when I was a little girl, my mom taught me to make one just for my father. To this day he still requests cheesecake from me for special occasions, and even for not so special occasions.
The primary ingredient in cheesecake is cream cheese. There is evidence that cream cheese was made as far back as the Renaissance. When Marco Polo returned from his travels, he reported that the Mongols simply left skimmed milk out in the sun to dry or that buttermilk or skimmed milk was reduced by boiling and made into a cheese, a procedure still in use today.
Both cream cheese and aged cheese were widely used by pastry cooks throughout the classic period, particularly when made from full cream milk or milk where very little of the cream had been skimmed off. There are many recipes of this kind: Russian pashka, English and American cheesecake, Corsican cacavellu, fidone and chechiole, and the true cassata of Sicily. A drained cream cheese called turos was used by the Ancient Greeks nearly 3000 years ago and was considered fit for athletes in the Olympics; this cheese is called tiri by their modern descendants. The Romans also ate cream cheese prepared in the Greek fashion.
I'll begin with a very basic cheesecake. Cheesecake is versatile and can be topped with virtually any fruit, chocolate, berry or other dairy or cheese topping. A very classic topping is a sour cream topping. Since I can never make up my mind as to which topping I like best, I try to let the seasons decide for me, choosing whatever berry or fruit is at its perfection at that time. Chocolate, of course, is perfect all the time creating a never-ending dilemma for me.
Most American cheesecake has a graham cracker crust. I personally do not like graham crackers all that much, so I either make a crust without any graham crackers or only partially made of graham crackers. Here are two versions, one with and one without:
Basic Crust for Cheesecake (with Graham Crackers)
Basic Crust for Cheesecake (without Graham Crackers)
Another option is to chill the crust in the refrigerator while you prepare the cheesecake. Always let you ingredients come to room temperature before beginning. My first culinary creation was a cheesecake.
Pour the mixture into the crust-lined pan. Place the pan on a very large piece of aluminum foil, and fold the foil up around the pan to create a watertight barrier around the cheesecake. Then place the barrier pan in an even larger pan and fill the larger pan halfway with water. This is called a water bath. It is a gentler way to cook the cheesecake.
Place the entire water bath containing the cheesecake in a 300-degree preheated oven. Cook for 1 hour and reduce heat to 200 degrees for 1 more hour. Turn oven off and leave cheesecake in until the oven is completely cool. The cheesecake can even be left overnight at this point. Your cheesecake should be slightly golden across the top. Cracks can also occur when a cheesecake cools too quickly.
It may be beneficial to run a knife around the edge of the cheesecake, separating it from the sides of the pan. After removing the cheesecake from the oven, run a dull knife (a butter knife works well) around the edge to separate the crust from the pan, if you did not do so earlier.
Ideally, cheesecake should be served on the pan in which it was cooked. A nice garnish will hide the bottom of the spring form pan and it can be placed on top of a very nice serving dish. If your goal is to serve the cheesecake on a different dish without the bottom of the spring form pan, then the pan can be lined with parchment paper before the crust is pressed in. This will make for easy removal of the cheesecake later. It works best if the cheesecake has been refrigerated fully before trying to remove it from the bottom pan.
After the cheesecake has been chilled thoroughly, it is ready to be topped and served. The range of possibilities for toppings is so great that I couldnt begin to list them all. I will keep it simple by suggesting a sour cream topping, a berry topping or chocolate. Canned pie filling works quite nicely, too.
Sour Cream Topping
Chocolate Ganache Topping
For fruit toppings, always use what is in season for the best flavor. Frozen berries do not always look as pretty, but they taste good. The canned Fruits seem to taste fine and look nice as well. You can leave the berries whole, but if the strawberries, for instance, are large, that may present a problem when cutting the cheesecake. Thinly sliced kiwi is a nice touch, as well as raspberries, cherries or blueberries.
Most berries and fruits can also be cooked on top of the stove with a half-cup or so of sugar until they turn into a nice glaze.
Variations on cheesecake might include substituting brown sugar for the granulated sugar and adding some chopped pecans and 1/2 cup Dark Karo syrup. I call this a Caramel Pecan cheesecake. You can add a package of melted chocolate chips (as always, for best results use a higher-quality chocolate). Or try white chocolate for a unique twist.
Experiment by adding a few teaspoons of mint extract and creme de menthe to a chocolate cheesecake, and instead of graham crackers for the crust, use a finely chopped mint chocolate cookie.
For a mocha cheesecake, add 1 to 2 teaspoons of instant coffee and 1/2 cup melted chocolate, while also adding 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder to the crust.
One of my favorite combinations is chocolate and peanut butter.
Peanut Butter and Chocolate CheesecakeFor the crust:
For the filling:
Peanut Butter Swirl Topping
Remember: Your cheesecake will be done when the center looks firm. If the surface has a wet or shiny look to it, leave it in a little longer. Longer, slower cooking is always best. Always be sure the cheesecake has reached room temperature before refrigerating, and refrigerate before adding any topping.
Making your cheesecake a day ahead of time will allow the flavors to ripen and improve taste. Cheesecakes freeze beautifully, so don't be afraid to freeze yours.
Great GarnishesBring out the crunchy goodness of nuts by toasting them for 8 to 10 minutes at 350 degrees F. Grate fresh coconut or chocolate. If you have a pastry bag, you can pipe sweetened whipped cream around the sides of the cheesecake, and press nuts, coconut or chocolate into the sides of the cake.
Being a Texan, one of my favorite combinations is 4 shredded carrots, 1 tablespoon cornstarch, and 2 seeded and shredded jalapeños, added to the basic cheesecake. It may sound strange but it is good. The bottom line is don't be afraid to experiment while keeping in mind the basic rules. Inventing your own recipes and masterpieces can be very rewarding and fun.
Jennifer Farmer is a pastry chef living in Austin, Texas.
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