At one end of the dessert spectrum is the cleansing, frosty sorbet—sharp and refreshing and crisp. At the other is the cheesecake, which, like a velvet turtleneck, is cushy and luxurious and really only appealing once the temperature drops below 60 degrees.
Cheesecakes are beloved and legendary and I have to be honest: While wooed by my love of dairy products, I tend to find cheesecakes exhausting. Not making them—that part is fun—but eating them. It’s a heavy end to what’s often, come the cooler months, a heavy meal, and the cake itself is regularly too sweet and served in wedges so large they seem to float on the dinner table like cruise ships.
But! I’m looking to the parts of the cheesecake I find wholly loveable: richness, velvety-ness, tanginess. And by making a cheesecake yourself, you can make it all the things you really want it to be (and serve it in tiny slices, should you like).
There are three major components to a cheesecake, which means there are three big opportunities to noodle around. They are:
1. The crust
3. The optional swirl
The supporting role, yes, but one that can add a real sense of intrigue to the whole shebang. Graham crackers are classic and for good reason—but you could also use Oreos, gingersnaps, tea biscuits (I love Carr’s whole wheat crackers), Goya Maria cookies, saltines, Ritz crackers, breadcrumbs, speculoos cookies, shortbread… Whatever it is, you’ll need enough to make 2 cups of crumbs (about 7 ounces). You could also use all or part nuts!
You’ll also need 4 tablespoons of liquid fat to bind the crumbs together into a crust: melted butter, melted brown butter (!), melted coconut oil, olive oil—just choose something with good flavor.
If you’re using cookies like Oreos or gingersnaps, I personally find that sweet enough—but if you’re using something more subtle or savory, like tea biscuits or saltines, you might want to add a bit of sugar (white or brown or otherwise). Two tablespoons is a good place to start.
And you can fiddle, too! As you blend, add a pinch of cayenne to a gingersnap crust or orange zest to a speculoos one—or slightly decrease the amount of cookies you’re using and add a handful of coconut or pistachios to a shortbread crust. A tablespoon or so of cocoa powder will make a vanilla crust into a chocolate one.
It’s what makes cheesecake a cheesecake, and it’s what makes any cheesecake interesting. Here’s a basic formula:
All of this probably seems self-explanatory except for that “dairy or liquid” bit, and it’s here where the sparks can fly, where you really give your cheesecake character. Where to begin?! I’m glad you asked.
The dairy could be sour cream or ricotta, buttermilk or crème fraîche, mascarpone or goat cheese. The “liquid”? Try citrus juice, fruit purée, molasses (decrease the sugar!), canned puréed pumpkin, a few ounces of chocolate melted into heavy cream, espresso powder or matcha blended into heavy cream, tahini, peanut or other nut butters, apple or squash butter, dulce de leche, chestnut cream…
If you don’t want a purely dairy-flavored cheesecake, I’d recommend going part-dairy and part-other thing (for example, 1 cup sour cream and 1/2 cup lemon juice, or 3/4 cup buttermilk and 3/4 cup pumpkin purée). This will help the mixture stay light in texture and keep the “other thing” from being overpowering—especially true for something like goat cheese (try equal parts sour cream and goat cheese) or molasses (1 cup dairy and 1/4 cup molasses—then taste and add more if you want).
And don’t forget about dry seasonings. Citrus zest, spices, the scraped seeds of a vanilla bean. Grind them in the food processor with the sugar before adding anything else to infuse the sugar with the scent.
Okay, fancypants, yes, you can swirl—jam (loosened with a splash of water)! A strongly-flavored honey! Pomegranate molasses (especially good with goat cheese)! Ganache! Caramel! Condensed milk (maybe in a coffee cheesecake?)! Before your cheesecake goes into the oven, drizzle whatever you’re going to swirl over the surface, then use a chopstick or the tip of a paring knife to marble it into the cheesecake filling. Messy looks great here, so just go for it.
Perhaps you’d prefer a smoother topping—say, lemon curd or a sheen of jam, or a cool, pure ice-skating rink of crème fraîche. Should that be the case, pour it on in the last 10 minutes of the cheesecake’s bake so that it has a chance to firm up and really attach to the cake.
Now that you’ve gotten all the hard stuff figured out, you can focus on the process, which is the easy part.
First, make sure the ingredients that will go into your cheesecake’s filling are at room temperature. I really mean it! This isn’t one of those situations where you “cream the butter at room temperature,” but really, it’s so cold outside, you kind of have to mash it with your hands before you can even get your mixer’s beaters into the bowl.
Why room temperature? For two reasons. The first is that cream cheese that isn’t at room temp will have stubborn lumps even when you beat it well. The second reason is that if you’ve made cheesecake before (or eaten a homemade cheesecake before), you probably know that they’re prone to cracking—deep, angry fault lines that appear in its surface either while baking or once removed from the oven, signaling that it’s overbaked. (No one will notice, by the way.) Part of the reason these appear is because of how sensitive cheesecake is to changes in temperature: The steadier and least disturbed its temperature is (which means start with room temperature ingredients, baking the cheesecake at a low temperature or in a water bath or both, accounting for carryover cooking, and cooling the cheesecake slowly), the more likely it is you’ll have an unmarred cheesecake.
Preheat the oven to 350° F. You’ll start by making the crust: Pulse whatever you’re making your crust from in the food processor until finely ground, then pour in the melted fat and the sugar and pulse again until moist and crumbly. Dump these crumbs into a 9- or 10-inch springform pan and use your hands or the base of a measuring cup to pack them in evenly and firmly. Set the springform on a baking sheet (for ease of lifting and moving later, when you add the filling) and bake for 10 minutes, until just turning golden around the edges. Reduce the oven’s heat to 250° F.
Meanwhile, wash out the food processor, then add your room temperature cream cheese and the sugar and pinch of salt. Pulse until the cream cheese is totally smooth and light. Add your 1 1/2 cups of additional “stuff” and blend again, until completely combined. Add the eggs one at a time, blending completely between additions. This mixture should be totally smooth.
Pour this creamy, dreamy mixture into the baked crust—don’t worry if the crust isn’t totally cool yet. If you’re adding a swirl, do so now.
I admire the method of baking in a water bath, and it’s definitely a way to ensure the the cake cooks gently. But I don’t have a roasting pan, or any pan that I can fit my springform pan inside. Therefore, I like this method, slightly adapted from America’s Test Kitchen: Tightly cover the cheesecake with a sheet of aluminum foil and bake the cheesecake for an hour, then remove the foil and bake 20 minutes more. (If you are adding a topping, bake for 10 minutes, then smooth on the topping, then bake another 10 minutes.) The cheesecake should still be set at the edges but very wobbly at its center. If, when you check after 20 minutes and the whole thing seems so wiggly you can’t imagine it ever setting, pop it back in for 10 to 20 minutes, checking periodically.
Remove the cheesecake from the oven and let it cool completely (!) at room temperature. Be forewarned: This could take all afternoon or evening. Patience is key. Speaking of which, once the cheesecake has cooled, wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for at least 6 hours but ideally overnight. Patience, patience.
If your cheesecake comes out of the oven doing its best Grand Canyon imitation—and despite your best intentions, it still might—don’t worry. Cheesecakes seem to have a mind of their own when it comes to this, and in the end, it’s only cheesecake, and it will still taste really, really good.
How would you crust, top, and fill your cheesecake? Let us know in the comments!