Japanese cheesecake is an unassuming sort of dessert—a tall, single-layer cake usually finished with a dusting of powdered sugar. My first taste was a true surprise. First thing’s first: It isn’t really a cheesecake, and won’t remind you of one. But it's definitely a cake.
Let me explain: True cheesecake isn’t a cake at all, but a custard that is baked until set. Japanese cheesecake is a cake made with the addition of cream cheese. It has elements of both a rich custard and a light, airy sponge cake. The result is a remarkably moist sponge cake, considering sponge cakes are traditionally soaked with syrup to moisten them, and that's not the case here. It’s also simple, and rather pretty.
Want to give it a go? Of course you do. Here’s what you need to know:
What Flavors Are Those?!
With a few simple ingredient substitutions, I was able to develop a recipe not only for the classic vanilla Japanese cheesecake (flavored lightly with lemon), but also a rich chocolate version, and a tart cherry version, too. The methods are the same, save a few ingredient swaps (included in the recipe, below).
Preparing the Pan
Even though this cake isn’t a true cheesecake, it does contain cream cheese and a high proportion of eggs, similar to cheesecake. Remember how I said it has the properties of both custard and sponge cake? The pan preparation reflects this combo. It’s best to use a springform pan, but then prepare it like you would for some sponge cakes. The pan gets lightly greased, then lined with parchment paper (but don’t grease the surface of the parchment once it’s inside the pan). Also, it’s best to treat the cake a bit like cheesecake by baking in a water bath. Place the parchment-lined springform into a deep casserole dish (or any pan it will comfortably fit in). Put a kettle or pot of water on to boil while you prep, so you’ll be ready with hot water when it’s time to bake. It’s very important that all these components are ready before you make the cake batter; since it is lightened with meringue, it's a bit time sensitive!
Preparing the Base
The base of the cheesecake batter is unusual, quite unlike a cheesecake or a sponge cake. To start, place a medium pot of water on the stove and bring to a simmer. Then, place your cream cheese, butter, and milk in a medium bowl and place over the pot of water. Heat this mixture until melted, liquid, and smooth. The reason it’s best to use a double boiler is it can be difficult to heat cream cheese in the microwave. It doesn’t melt well on its own, which is why it’s best to combine with the other ingredients. Once the mixture is liquid and smooth, remove the bowl from the heat. It should not be too hot to continue at this point, but you can let it cool for about 5 minutes before proceeding. Next, the vanilla and egg yolks are added to the base: whisk well to combine, especially if the mixture is still on the warmer side. Next, the flour, cornstarch, and salt are sifted into the base and gently folded in to combine. Finally, some lemon zest and juice are added for flavor. The base can hold at this point while you prepare the last component of the batter: the meringue (you got this!).
Making + Adding the Meringue
Place the egg whites and cream of tartar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whip attachment. Whip on medium speed until the mixture just becomes white, then stream in the sugar gradually and continue to whip on high speed to stiff peaks. When the meringue has reached stiff peaks, add about 1/4 of it to the cream cheese mixture (batter). At this point, it’s ok to mix slightly more vigorously because it helps “temper” the base, making it easier to fold the remaining meringue in. Once you’ve tempered the batter, add the remaining meringue in 2-3 additions, folding gently until just combined. Mix well enough that there are little to no pockets of meringue, (to achieve the lightest, fluffiest results).
Baking + Cooling
Once you’ve made the batter, gently pour it into your prepared springform pan, which should be sitting inside a casserole dish (or other pan). Transfer the casserole to a 325° F oven, and pour the water you heated earlier into the casserole, ideally coming about 1/2 way up the side of the springform pan. Close the oven door and bake until the cake is tall and the surface is evenly golden, 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes.
The cake is properly baked when it springs back lightly when touched—the cake tester trick isn’t really a good guide here. Remove the springform pan from the water bath and let the cake cool completely. Run a small paring knife around the outside of the cake before unmolding and unwrapping the parchment paper.
Serve Japanese cheesecake at room temperature (no need to chill it!), with a sprinkling of powdered sugar and/or a dollop of whipped cream. It’s easy to slice the cake, but be sure to wrap any leftovers tightly in plastic wrap, as it is prone to drying out over time.
- 8 ounces (227 g) cream cheese
- 4 tablespoons (57 g) unsalted butter
- 1/3 cup (76 g) whole milk
- 6 large eggs, separated (213 g large egg whites and 128 g large egg yolks)
- 1/2 cup (60 g) cake flour
- 1/4 cup (28 g) cornstarch
- 1/2 teaspoon (2 g) fine sea salt
- zest and juice of 1 lemon
- 1/4 teaspoon (1 g) cream of tartar
- 1 cup (198 g) granulated sugar
- powdered sugar and/or whipped cream, for finishing