Challenge Accepted: Cheesecake

There are certain people I will always be happy to wake up text messages from.

My friend Kenji is a pretty rad guy. I can’t say much more without you actually encountering him, because it wouldn’t do his personality and talents justice.

“So….cheesecake. Do you know how to make such a thing?”

I hadn’t made cheesecake since a high school boyfriend made the same query during senior year, and it didn’t turn out well. But I also haven’t seen Kenji since we graduated from UCLA, so cheesecake seemed as good a reason as any for a reunion.

Challenge accepted. (By the way NPH….I hear your man is a caterer….)

In typical Curating My Cooking fashion, I started my cheesecake research notes. With things I’m ridiculously uncomfortable and nervous about (i.e. all things sweet),  I check with the trinity: Tyler Florence, Alton Brown, and Johnny Iuzzini. Tyler Florence is all about to-the-point, get-‘er-done, accessible “ultimate” versions of favorite recipes. (Hence why “Tyler’s Ultimate” still reruns on the Food Network, and hasn’t been weeded down to the Cooking Channel.) Alton Brown is food science: he’ll tell you exactly why his methodology will work on point every single time. And Johnny Iuzzini is….Johnny Iuzzini. Really? Do I have to justify his dessert wisdom at this point? Google his pedigree if you have any doubts.

I was already batting 0.67, because according to Twitter, Iuzzini was in Mexico doing chef things. Cool. Now the badass pastry chef is unavailable for me to contact with recipe anxiety.

Cut to me flouncing dramatically away.

Tyler Florence’s recipe was incredibly helpful, but the directions were vaguely worded. Then I found (thank you, YouTube pirates) the “Good Eats” cheesecake episode. And all was right with the world. This cheesecake turned out damn good – good enough to take the leftovers to work and have a sorrowful and tear-filled parting.

Challenge Accepted Cheesecake (based on Tyler Florence and Alton Brown’s recipes):

For the crust:

  • 30 graham cracker squares – finely ground – Do this with your hands and a Ziploc bag. Do not go the lazy person’s route. This is not only a great way to get out anger and tension….but also a great way to make sure your crust doesn’t turn into a uniform blob of yucky. (Also, bonus points if they’re cinnamon graham crackers.)
  • Cinnamon to taste
  • 1 stick unsalted butter – room temperature
  • 1 tablespoon sugar

For the Filling:

  • Two 8 oz. blocks of cream cheese, softened (as close to room temperature as you can get them)
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 pint sour cream
  • 1 lemon’s worth of zest
  • Vanilla extract to taste

Equipment Arsenal:

  • A small springform pan – I’m talking 6 to 8 inches. Any bigger, and you’ll want to double this recipe
  • A disposable foil roasting pan – big enough for the springform pan to fit inside. (Don’t stress, I’ll explain later.)
  • One quart of water

Turn your oven to 300 and start bringing the quart of water to a boil.

While the oven is preheating, coat the springform pan with nonstick spray.

Combine crust ingredients until crumbly, then press crumbs into the pan and as far up the sides as they’ll go once the bottom of the pan is covered. Toss in the oven for ten minutes ish (until it gets golden…or you can smell the deliciousness creeping out of the oven door), and let cool completely.

While the crust is baking/cooling, get the filling locked and loaded.

BEFORE YOU START: Let me emphasize that cheesecake is really straight-forward in terms of preparation. But it’s still easy to f**k it up by overworking the filling. The second the filling gets smooth, stop messing with it. Overstirring will break down the mixture too much, and you’ll have a hell of a time getting it to set.

Start by pouring the sour cream into the bowl and whipping it up a bit. This lubricates the bowl and whatever you’re using to mix the ingredients together so the cream cheese won’t stick and look/feel yucky. Get your jokes about lubrication out of the way now.

Done yet?

Stir in the cream cheese until it’s smooth and free of lumps. Add the eggs to the mixture one at a time and beat slowly until combined. Add the sugar in stages as well, and beat until creamy.

Sydney, it’s really annoying to add ingredients in parts. Why do we do it?
Great question. I’m really happy you asked.
With any form of dessert, adding ingredients in parts really affects the texture of whatever you’re making. A good dessert should be fork tender – luscious and delicious. It shouldn’t take work to eat. It shouldn’t be grainy. Doing things in parts is the key to getting great consistency, and therefore flavor and happy smiles.

Once the filling is creamy, stir in one lemon’s worth of zest and vanilla extract to taste.

Pour the filling into the springform pan and smooth the top with a spatula. Jiggle the pan a bit to loosen any air bubbles that may have formed.

Pay attention now, I’m going to tell you why you needed that big ass roasting pan.

Fold aluminum foil (enough to cover the bottom of the pan and go up around the sides) however it needs to be folded to surround the springform pan. Place the foil-wrapped pan in the roasting pan.

Carefully (!!!) pour the quart of water you’ve been boiling into the roasting pan. (The goal is to have enough boiling water to go halfway up the sides of the foil-wrapped springform pan.)

Open the oven door, lock and load your potholders, and CAREFULLY (please, please, please don’t scald yourself. I would never be able to forgive myself if you did.) place this entire contraption in the oven.

Bake for one hour, or until the sides are set and the inside is still a bit jiggly. (Yes, it’s supposed to be jiggly. If you let the inside cook all the way through in the oven, your cheesecake will crack and dry out.)

So why this boiling water/roasting pan contraption? What the hell is this?
Another great question, I’m so happy you asked. Cheesecake isn’t actually cake….it’s a custard pie. When making any form of custard, it’s always best to cook it in a water bath so the entire mixture cooks evenly. With any form of a cakepan, the most heat from your oven is coming from the top to the bottom. This is fine for regular cake, but with a custard mixture, it’s a really easy way to curdle the inside, since the outside will cook a LOT faster than the inside.

After taking the cheesecake out of the oven, let it cool in the pan for thirty minutes, then lift the pan from its foil home (careful of extra water spilling out), cover the pan (I used a miscellaneous glass pot lid), and chill in the refrigerator for at least four hours….maybe even six hours.

When it’s time to serve your masterpiece, run a knife under warm water and loosen the edges of the cheesecake from the springform pan before releasing it.

Not the edge of glory. Glorious.

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