There are some dishes that most people, even those who do not consider themselves particularly gifted in the kitchen, are happy to make. Things like pasta; a stir fry; sausages and mash; or a grilled cheese sandwich. Then there are those dishes that people feel slightly nervous about cooking – often unfairly so – because they perceive them to be tricky. In this category I would place things like omelettes; poached eggs; yeast breads, pickles and jams; shortcrust pastry; artichokes; risotto; and whole fish. And then there are the things that most home cooks would classify as “best left to the experts” – sauces that split (hollandaise, bearnaise); home-made croissants (or puff pastry); soufflés; galantines (de-boned meat that’s stuffed, poached, coated with savoury jelly and served cold); macarons; croquembouche; and cassoulet (mainly for its long ingredient list and lengthy prep). Do you have any cooking phobias – and if so, what are they?
I would guess that cheesecake falls squarely in the middle category. There is nothing technically difficult about it, but somehow it is perceived to be more difficult to make than it really is,. and certainly more difficult than any old ordinary cake. If you doubt me, put down two home-made cakes in front of your friend and point out that one is a New-York style baked cheesecake and watch their reactions! I guess that part of the problem with cheesecakes is that they do not work like traditional cakes – instead of batter and and icing they consist of a crushed biscuit base and then a batter than contains no flour or leavening, and behaves totally differently to any other cake when baked. But in reality, the cheesecake is no harder than other cakes to get right, provided you have the right equipment and pay attention to some simple rules. It’s also, in some ways, a very forgiving cake in terms of ingredients – almost any soft cheese can be used, from ricotta to Philadelphia cream cheese, to mascarpone, to Neufchatel cheese; and sour cream can easily be substituted for yoghurt for added creaminess. It’s also great for those eating gluten-free – provided you use gluten-free cookies for the base, no flour is necessary for the rest of the cake.
To those of you who have not yet popped your cheesecake cherry, I say this: why not?? It’s really not that difficult and your friends will love you forever. Trust me. And to help you along, here are my top 5 tips for the perfect baked cheesecake:
1. Bake in a springform pan. It may well be possible to bake cheesecakes in something else, but I wouldn’t bother trying. It also helps if your springform pan is leak- proof as the batter is pretty runny and invariably seeps through any cracks in the initial stages of cooking. Mine isn’t actually leak-proof, but I remedy that by placing the springform on a baking sheet to catch any leaks as I bake.
2. Grease for peace. Even though my springform pan is allegedly of the non-stick variety, I still enthusiastically grease the sides of the pan before pouring in the batter. The issue is that the cake will shrink as it cools and if your sides are not properly greased you will find that as the cheesecake cools, it will stick to the sides and pull apart in the middle, forming deep crevasses. Not pretty. It also helps, as soon as the cake comes out of the oven, to run a palette knife between the sides of the cake and the pan to loosen it.
3. Beat it, just beat it. I adore cheesecake, but when something goes wrong with the texture and it turns out to be grainy or lumpy rather than thick and smooth, my stomach churns a little. The way to get around this is to beat very thoroughly BEFORE you add the eggs, so as to make sure that there are absolutely no lumps in the cream cheese. Once you add the eggs, beat just enough to fully mix in each egg. Do not overbeat at this stage as this will trap air in the batter which will manifest itself as cracks in the cake.
4. Never mind the cracks. Fact: most cheesecakes will show some cracks on top as they bake. It’s no big deal and as the cake cools and the surface sinks a little, most small cracks will disappear of their own accord. Also, if you decorate your cake as in my recipe below, the top of the cake is decorated and nobody will ever know what lies beneath. But if you are paranoid about cracks, you can try a recipe with a little flour or cornstarch in it as this prevents cracking; or bake your cheesecake in a waterbath which will ensure that the cake cooks more evenly throughout.
5. Be patient. The biggest mistake you can make with a cheesecake is to be in a rush – I was for my first cheesecake and ended up serving a cake that was warm and runny in the centre… Firstly, the only way to bake them is low and slow – an hour at 150C in the case of the recipe below. When you turn the oven off, there will still be a wobbly bit in the middle of your cheesecake – this is normal as the cake continues to set as it cools. When the recipe says “switch off oven and allow to cool for another hour in the oven” they are not kidding. Do not be tempted to take shortcuts! Also, I find that even after leaving the oven the cake really does need 6 hours (preferable overnight) to cool and set properly.
This recipe is a slightly adapted version of a raspberry & white chocolate cheesecake that I made years ago and is interesting in that there is fruit baked into the cake itself, not only on top as is usually the case. The rhubarb, sadly, was not our own (ours will only be ready to harvest next summer) but was once again part of the bounty from the surplus table at the allotments – an unexpected bonus of allotment ownership! This was a particularly gorgeous batch – not only red on the outside but red all the way through. Calling all rhubarb experts – is this because it was forced, or is it a function of the variety of rhubarb? I would LOVE to plant some like this! But even if your rhubarb is red, cooking it tends to discolour it to a greenish mush, so I poached mine for the topping in brightly coloured cranberry juice, which worked perfectly. The verdict? It’s a show-stopper of a dessert – make it while you can still find rhubarb!
Can’t get enough of cheesecakes? Here are some more blogger cheesecake recipes to try:
- Ginger cheesecake from Spittoon Extra
- No-bake lemon & speculoos quark cheesecake in a glass from Maison Cupcake
- Blueberry & chocolate crumb cheesecake from Coffee & Vanilla
- Lime & raspberry cheesecake from Greedy Gourmet
- FOR THE BASE:
- 50g butter
- 225g ginger snap biscuits, very finely crushed
- FOR THE FILLING:
- 275g mascarpone
- 175g fromage frais (or substitute half-half Philadelphia cream cheese and Greek yoghurt)
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 45ml caster sugar
- 250g white chocolate
- 200g fresh rhubarb stems, chopped into 1cm thick lengths
- 1 Tablespoon (heaped) caster sugar
- FOR THE TOPPING
- 30g fresh rhubarb stems, chopped into 1cm thick lengths
- 2 Tbsp sweetened cranberry juice drink
- 115g mascarpone
- 75g fromage frais (or half-half Philadelphia cream cheese and Greek yoghurt)
- white chocolate curls
- Preheat the oven to 150C. Melt the butter in the microwave until liquid, then stir in the crushed biscuits. Mix well and press the mixture evenly and firmly into the base of a 23cm springform cake tin. Grease the sides of the tin with butter and refrigerate until needed.
- For the filling, beat together the mascarpone and fromage frais (or cream cheese-yoghurt mix), then beat in caster sugar until the mizture is completely smooth. Add the eggs one by one, mixing just enough to fully incorporate each egg.
- Break the white chocolate into small pieces and place in a heatproof bowl set over a pot of simmering water (or melt in a glass measuring jug in the microwave). Stir occasionally to check for lumps and remove from the heat when chocolate has melted completely.
- While the chocolate melts, toss the chopped rhubarb in the caster sugar.
- Stir the melted chocolate into the mascarpone mixture, then carefully fold in the chopped rhubarb.
- Pour the filling into the springform cake tin and spread it evenly. Place the springform on a baking sheet with raised edges to catch any filling seepage.
- Bake for about 1 hour or until just set - there should still be a wobbly bit in the middle if you gently shake the pan - this is normal.
- Switch off oven, but leave the cheesecake where it is and allow to cool for at least another 45 minutes to an hour.
- In the meanwhile, make the rhubarb topping. In a small saucepan, heat the remaining rhubarb together with the cranberry juice drink. Simmer until the rhubarb is just beginning to soften but can still hold its shape. Remove the rhubarb pieces gently with a slotted spoon and chill until needed. Discard the liquid.
- When the cake has cooled a little in the oven, run a palette knife around the edges, then transfer to a cool, draught free area to cool completely. I usually refrigerate mine overnight as well.
- When ready to serve, release the springform tin and lift the cheesecake onto a plate. Mix the remaining mascarpone and fromage frais (or cream cheese/yoghurt mix) in a bowl and spread carefully over the top of the cheesecake. Decorate with the poached rhubarb and extra white chocolate curls (which you can easily make with a vegetable peeler) and serve.