Every week, baking expert Alice Medrich will be going rogue on Food52—with shortcuts, hacks, and game-changing recipes.
Today: How to make a cheesecake that won't crack under pressure.
An uber-decadent cheesecake can make your reputation as a baker and host(ess). Cheesecakes are almost too easy to make. Unfortunately, they often crack—but not until the cake is long out of the oven and you think you're home free.
Fortunately the fix is easy. Cheesecakes are simply rich custards made with different ratios of eggs, cheese, and sugar: Over-baking is usually the primary reason for most problems. Observe a few simple rules, and cracks in cheesecake (or custards) will be a thing of the past.
Here are five tips (among which number 4 is probably the most important):
1. Check your oven. Excess heat causes cracking. If your oven runs hot, turn the dial down to compensate. With notable exceptions, cheesecakes do best when baked between 300 and 325° F—with or without a water bath.
More: Is your oven thermometer telling you lies? Here's how to keep it honest.
2. Avoid excess beating. Over-beating whips too much air into cheesecake batter and can cause the cake to puff up, then sink, shrink, and crack. It doesn’t improve the texture either. Stop beating as soon as the batter is smooth and creamy rather than fluffy (unless otherwise directed). If you use a stand mixer, opt for the paddle rather than the whisk. To avoid the need for excess beating, be sure to start with softened cream cheese.
3. Grease the sides of the pan. A greased pan will help the cake detach from the pan as it cools and shrinks so that it does not stretch and crack. If a pre-baked crust extends up the sides of the pan, re-grease the sides above the crust before filling (in case the filling exceeds the depth of the crust). To be extra sure that the filling lets go of the pan, slide a slim knife or spatula around the hot cake, pressing against the pan to avoid tearing the cake. Finish cooling as directed.
4. Never bake a cheesecake until “done.” Force yourself to take the cake out of the oven while the batter still jiggles and sways (but doesn’t slosh) when the pan is gently shaken. The retained heat in the batter will finish baking the cheesecake gently—and perfectly. The cake may not set completely until it is cool or even chilled.
5. Cool the cake slowly, away from drafts. Some cakes are cooled in turned-off ovens with the door ajar. You can also slow the cooling by putting a large bowl or pot over the cake on the rack to create a warm, moist cooling environment.
Now thare you're armed with these five tips, go forth and try your hand at a smooth-topped cheesecake:
Adapted From Chocolate Holidays (Artisan 2005)
Serves 10 to 12
For the crust:
cups chocolate wafer crumbs (190 grams) or graham cracker crumbs (140 grams)
6 tablespoons (85 grams) melted butter
1/4 cup (50 grams) sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons instant espresso powder
For the filling:
ounces (43 grams) milk chocolate, very finely chopped
3/4 teaspoon instant espresso or coffee powder
1 1/2 tablespoons boiling water
1 1/2 pounds (680 grams) cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 cup (100 grams) sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs, at room temperature
Pick up a copy of Alice's James Beard Award-winning book Flavor Flours, which includes nearly 125 recipes—from Double Oatmeal Cookies to Buckwheat Gingerbread—made with wheat flour alternatives like rice flour, oat flour, corn flour, sorghum flour, and teff (not only because they're gluten-free, but for an extra dimension of flavor, too).
Photos by James Ransom