First, I want to begin by saying that CHEESECAKE IS NOT HARD TO MAKE. It is really no more or less difficult than baking a regular butter cake but, as with any confection, it has it rules that must be followed for success. It’s no big deal—you’ll see just how easy it all is!
This cake is tailor-made for Thanksgiving or Christmas. I don’t think it’s any surprise that Thanksgiving is probably my favorite holiday, because it’s all about food (I know it’s about more than just food, but—c’mon!). I only say it’s “probably” my favorite because I love Halloween (candy), Christmas (ham), and New Year’s Eve (more food + champagne on tap), too. But there is no other time of year I get so eager to spend endless hours food-focused than Thanksgiving. Thinking, planning, scheduling (oh, I love the scheduling) as I go about my daily routines. Testing, and eventually prepping and cooking for endless hours. I set up camp in the kitchen—even more so than normal—so I’m armed with everything I need; it’s a laughable scenario and survival guide, but it’s as close to camping as I get.
I obsess over the turkey, planning what treatment it’s going to get, be it a brine or marinade, whole or butterflied or broken down, roasted or fried. I’m haunted, pleasantly and pleasurably, by sides dishes and ways to improve or tweak or twist them a little (except for mashed potatoes—I’m a purist). Once Thanksgiving has passed we’re on the fast track to Christmas, so I’m thinking about ham and glazes. But the demons that I am haunted by, though less of a menacing poltergeist and more of a friendly ghost, are desserts. In my family there is a divide among us with regards to holiday desserts. The votes are usually pretty evenly split among pumpkin pie, and pecan pie. I lean more towards pumpkin, although, truth be told I’d rather have a cheesecake—there’s no holiday, occasion, feast, or celebration that I can think of that doesn’t call for a cheesecake. That’s when it hit me. I don’t have to decide. I can have it all.
Pumpkin pie is fine as it is, and you probably only eat it once a year, but it can feel a little ho-hum. Homemade ones are much better than store-bought by a long shot, but even they can get a little mundane. To me, they’re more of a requirement because of nostalgia than taste—to not see one on our Thanksgiving table would make me think we were missing something (kind of like the cranberry sauce I mentioned in Ginger-Orange Cranberry Sangria). On the other hand, my issue with pecan pie is the same that anyone has with it; it’s just too sweet. I’m not one to turn my nose up to overly sweet things, often looked down upon as being all too pedestrian and infantile, but this is one of my exceptions. Essentially, the pie is nothing more than pecans suspended in sugar syrup that is just thick enough to hold a shape thanks to the architecture of a few eggs. Sure, it’s rich, as it should be for a holiday celebration, but its richness is superseded by the overbearing, and often slightly grainy, prowess of sugar. Store bought ones are even sweeter. They just taste like a cavity. And then came cheesecake. Combining the two traditional pies into a cheesecake makes so much sense it’s insane. It adds interest and a fabulously velvety texture to the pumpkin pie, and helps to balance out the intense sweetness off the pecan pie. It’s the textbook definition of balance, but still keeps stays true to the rich gluttony of the season. And for this, I am thankful.
Cheesecake can be a little scary, but it shouldn’t be. There are rules that have to be followed, and things that must be done to achieve perfect results. It’s not that they’re hard or anything, but they have to be done.
The first rule is that the cream cheese MUST be at room temperature. This means leaving it out on the counter for at least four hours, if not more. If you want to get technical you could stick a digital thermometer in the center of the cream cheese—it should read about 65° or so. Usually when I’m going to make a cheesecake I take the cream cheese and eggs out the night before, and start the cheesecake shortly after waking up early the next morning. This is a crucial step and it cannot be skipped. Cold cream cheese, or anything slightly less than room temperature, yields an overly dense, and flat cake that lacks the voluminous mousse-like texture you’d expect. And before it even crosses your mind; no, you cannot microwave the cream cheese to soften it. Don’t even be tempted. When you microwave something—without getting all sciencey, mostly because I can’t—the cells in the food to start moving, causing friction, which causes heat and the proteins to breakdown or tighten. Doing this threatens the structure and texture of the cheesecake. Just take the cream cheese out of the boxes they come in, but keep them in the foil packaging, and leave them out on the counter. I’ve made a lot of cheesecakes over the years and this is what I’ve always done, with very happy results. The eggs should be room temperature, too; you can either leave them out on the counter, too, or put them in a bowl of warm water for an hour (changing the water out every 15 minutes or so).
You also have to wrap the spring form pan in heavy-duty aluminum foil. It’s extremely important that it’s not only heavy-duty, but also should be 18” wide—no standard sized rolls. I cut two sheets of foil, 22” in length, and lay one on top of the other absolutely evenly. Flip the empty springform upside down on the counter (making sure the base is secure and snug in the ring), and place the foil centered on top of the pan. Press it down along the sides of the pan all the way down to the counter. Flip it over and crimp it along the outer edge of the pan so it stays in place. The reason for this is that you want the entire spring form to be covered, the entire bottom and all the way up the sides, in one single layer of foil. If you were to use two sheets to cover the bottom then the water from the water bath that you put the cake in (we’ll get there) could leak through the seam and make your crust soggy. If you don’t have extra wide foil it is really worth the purchase if you’re going to make a cheesecake—again, I’ve made a lot of cheesecakes and this is the best way to prevent a soggy crust.
I think the part that really freaks people out about making a cheesecake is the water bath (bain marie). Once you have the spring form perfectly wrapped in foil, though, this is the simplest part of the whole recipe. The spring form, with its baked crust and custard poured overtop, gets placed into a roasting pan (mine is about 16” x 13” x 2.5”), and then hot water is poured into the roasting pan, making sure none splashes into the cheesecake itself. The water can just be hot tap water (say, around 110° – 120°) and should about halfway up the sides of the spring form. I usually set the roasting tray on the oven wrack, put the cheesecake in it, and then pour in the water. It’s much easier than trying to carefully lift the pan from the stovetop to the oven with all that water sloshing around.
With this being a pumpkin cheesecake there is one more rule added to the list. Most recipes would have you just dump canned pumpkin straight into the cheesecake. I have issues with this. Pumpkin has a great deal of water in it and, though I know some of it is cooked out before it’s canned, there is still a tremendous amount left in the puree. And we’ve just gone through all that trouble (but not really) with the foil to keep water out of our cheesecake; putting that pumpkin in straight from the can is doing just that. If you don’t get rid of some of this water the cheesecake ends up too wet, and not set enough—sort of like a mousse—and you have pumpkin water-laced crust, too. You want the cheesecake to be set, custardy, and with a certain thick density to it, without being so dense that it’s like a cold cream cheese again.
So I did a few experiments. What I was most happy with was the method that I later found out Cook’s Illustrated instructed for their cheesecake—plunking the puree down on a few layers of paper towel, laying a few more sheets on top of it, and pressing firmly to get the water soaked up into the towel and out of the pumpkin. I tried cooking the pumpkin in a small saucepan, but it took a while, and the taste had changed. The paper towel method is perfect. Press the pumpkin, and you may need to repeat this set twice with new paper towel, and you’ll see just how much water was in there; you’re going to take 15-ounces of canned pumpkin and squeeze it down to around 7-ounces. HALF OF THAT CAN IS WATER!
So, once you’ve got your pumpkin ready and your spring form expertly wrapped, crust is baked (which is as easy as blitzing some graham crackers in a food processor and adding some sugar and melted butter, pressing into the bottom of the spring form and baking at 350° for about 15 minutes), load the cream cheese into the bowl of a stand up mixer. With the paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese just to combine it. Add the pumpkin, beat to combine quickly again, then add the sugar, cornstarch and some spices. Now, I know that cheesecake purists reject the idea of using cornstarch and flour in a cheesecake—and I agree. However, when you’re adding liquid to the recipe, or anything with any natural water like pumpkin, the cornstarch is an added insurance policy for getting a set cake and dry crust. So, beat this on medium for 2 minutes, until it’s all light and puffy. You have to be careful that you don’t over beat this because beating too much air into a cheesecake base can cause it to crack when baked, or rise too much when baking, and congruently falling too much upon cooling, making it claggy and chewy. For this reason, never use the whisk attachment. I also have to advise against hand mixers because those “beaters” do a better job of whipping than anything else—I’ll never understand why they sell hand mixers with separate whisk attachments when those beaters do the same thing.
Anyway, when the autumnal colored mix is fluffy, turn the mixer down to low, and add the eggs in one at a time, letting each one mostly incorporate before adding in the other. After three eggs are in, shut the mixer off and scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula to make sure it all combines well. I also think it’s helpful to have all the eggs cracked into a bowl or liquid measuring cup so you can add them fairly quickly so you don’t overbeat the custard.
Pour this into the spring form pan, set it in your roasting tray, pull out your oven wrack (placed in the middle of the oven) and set the tray on it. Pour enough hot tap water into the tray to come up about halfway up the spring form slide the wrack back in, and shut the door. Immediately turn the oven down to 325°, and bake for 45 minutes.
In the meantime, mix some melted butter, brown sugar, corn syrup, an egg, a little cream, vanilla, and salt together in a bowl. Once the cheesecake’s time is up, open the oven and pull the wrack out again. Quickly, but carefully, evenly scatter chopped pecans over the surface of the cheesecake and pour the dark, sugary-sweet mix onto the surface of the cheesecake as evenly as possible, and return to the oven for 30 minutes.
Once the time is up, give the pan a little tap or shake. It may be hard to tell with the pecan pie on top, but you should be able to see a slight wobble beneath the surface. This is perfect. Shut the oven off, and crack the door open to about 15° – 30°. Leave it open until it has cooled down. At this point, open the door all the way, but leave the cheesecake in the oven for 30 minutes. Then pull the wrack out, and leave the cheesecake there for another 30 minutes. Then pull it out of the oven and out of its water bath (which should be room temperature) and leave it on the counter or stove (provided you’re not turning the oven back on) until it’s totally cool—maybe another 30 minutes to an hour. It seems ridiculous but doing this gently reintroduces the cheesecake to a cooler climate than what it’s grown used to, and it rewards your kindness by not cracking or deflating. It’s as gracious as it is sensitive. Move it to the fridge, where it needs to chill for at least 6 hours before you unmold it and slice into pieces.
I promise, you will not be disappointed in this. A batch of this recently went to work with my better half. The pan came back with a lone half of a slice left. I can guarantee it will become a new tradition on your holiday table.
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