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It's Time to Change the Way You Feel About Cheesecake

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Would you like a piece of cake right now? For Goodness Cake is here for you.

Today: The story of a person who rejected birthday cake for his birthday—and the cheesecake he got in its stead.

It's hard to make a birthday cake for someone (especially someone you care about) who doesn't like cake.

I tried to fight it—to offer a pistachio cake or a chocolate-chocolate cake or even the Neopolitan refrigerator cake his grandmother used to make every year for his birthday (with cake mix and Jello-mix and instant pudding mix)—but nothing would bait the birthday boy.

So I turned to the least cakey cake I knew, the one that would rise proud like a layer cake and support a candle or two but would not resemble cake in any other way: cheesecake. 

A lot of people have a lot of feelings about cheesecake (see chart below): Some love it; some love it but are scared of it (the potential for a leaky water bath, the potential for cracks, the potential for the bricks of cream cheese to squash you); and some—under the guise that it is either too rich or too dry or too lumpy—hate it. Before I was coerced into making cheesecake for my loved one's birthday, I, too, was in the conflicted camp. Cheesecake was a four-bites-and-please-put-me-to-bed dessert—certainly not one that could stand in for birthday cake, which literally keeps track of the years of our lives in frosting and sprinkles.

But this cheesecake—basically just pudding wearing a girdle—made me think differently.

More: Alice Medrich's tips will stop cheesecake cracks in their tracks.

To the people who love cheesecake: Please try this recipe. It will solidify your passion. It has a Nilla Wafer crust. 

To the people who are scared of cheesecake: Please try this recipe. It will yield a silky-smooth cheesecake with neither a water bath nor sorcery. As long as you are careful not to overbeat the batter once the eggs are added, the surface will remain crevasse-free. 

And, to the people who hate cheesecake, I say this: You just haven't had a good one—yet! Here's the recipe that will change your mind. It's tall and silky and your fork will slip through it, frictionless. It's creamy and luxurious, but the top layer of lemon curd (I've used Elizabeth Falkner's recipe from Genius Recipes, as well as Tartine Bakery's version) cuts the richness with acidic brightness. It's got enough cream cheese in it to schmear two dozen bagels, but it will leave you feeling sprightly.

A tart, sunny topping hovers over several inches of a milky, tangy, and skimmable custard that is the texture of thick pudding, just barely bolstered by a couple tablespoons of flour. It's what you like about panna cotta or flan—how responsive it is to your fork's every move—with none of the weird gelatinous jigglyness. 

Cool it thoroughly and the cake will not be finicky: On the day of the birthday party, I made the cheesecake early in the morning, let it cool to room temperature, stuck it in the freezer for a couple of hours before applying the lemon curd, and then shuttled it across the city—forty-five minutes on the subway during rush hour. Nothing bad happened. (I know, I was shocked, too!)

The cake isn't haughty, either: Tweak the details as you see fit. You could use grapefruit or lime in place of the lemon; you could switch out the Nilla Wafers for graham crackers or even Cracklin' Oat Bran. Because the honoree loves Jelly Bellys, I covered the lemon curd in a jelly bean mosaic (juicy pear at the center and all black licorice disposed of).

The person who blew out the candles was thrilled—and no one made a peep about birthday cake.

Lemon Bar Cheesecake

From Fine Cooking

Serves 10 to 12, maybe more

For the crust:

ounces vanilla wafers, crushed (2 cups crumbs)

tablespoons granulated sugar

tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

For the filling:

8-ounce packages cream cheese, at room temperature

cup ricotta

Table salt

tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 1/4
 cups granulated sugar

tablespoons lemon zest

tablespoon pure vanilla extract

large eggs, at room temperature

cup lemon curd
 (like Tartine Bakery's)

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by James Ransom

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Tags: Cheesecake, Lemon, Dessert, Bake, Long Reads, Comfort Food