I love cheesecake. It has everything I enjoy in a dessert: rich, sweet, and decadent (if you do it right). Therein lies the beauty of cheesecake – you don’t need much to be satisfed.
Cheesecakes can be sweet or savory. Chocolate, Vanilla, Citrus, or Nut. Blue Cheese, Crab, Sun-Dried Tomato, Chipotle.
They can be baked or no-bake. With or without a crust. Serve it with a sauce, fruit, or by itself.
As I have said of a few other foods (chicken, pasta), cheesecake is one of the great blank cavasses of the culinary world.
Here’s a very good brief history (paraphrased) of cheesecake that I came across from http://www.cheesecake.com/History-of-Cheesecake.asp
The first “cheese cake” may have been created on the Greek island of Samos. Physical anthropologists excavated cheese molds from circa 2,000 BCE. In Greece, cheesecake was considered to be a good source of energy, and there is evidence that it was served to athletes during the first Olympic games in 776 BCE. Greek brides and grooms were also known to use cheesecake as a wedding cake. The simple ingredients of flour, wheat, honey and cheese were formed into a cake and baked.
The writer Athenaeus is credited for writing the first Greek cheesecake recipe in 230 A.D. (Greeks had been serving cheesecake for over 2,000 years but this is the oldest known surviving recipe.) It was also pretty basic mix the pounded cheese in a brass pan with honey and spring wheat flour – heat the cheese cake “in one mass” – allow to cool then serve.
When the Romans conquered Greece, the cheesecake recipe was one of the spoils of war. They modified it by adding crushed cheese and eggs. These ingredients were baked under a hot brick and it was served warm. Occasionally, the Romans would put the cheese filling in a pastry. The Romans called their cheese cake “libuma” and they served it on special occasions. Marcus Cato, a Roman politician in the first century BCE, is credited as recording the oldest known Roman cheesecake recipe.
As the Romans expanded their empire further into Europe, their cheesecake recipes came with them. Later, Great Britain and Eastern Europe began experimenting with ways to put their own unique spin on cheesecake. In each country of Europe, the recipes started taking on different cultural shapes, using ingredients native to each region. In 1545, the first English cookbook was printed. It described the cheesecake as a flour-based sweet food. Even Henry VIII’s chef did his part to shape the cheesecake recipe. His chef cut up cheese into very small pieces and soaked those pieces in milk for three hours. Then, he strained the mixture and added eggs, butter and sugar.
It was not until the 18th century, however, that cheesecake would start to look like something we recognize in the United States today. Around this time, Europeans began to use beaten eggs instead of yeast to make their breads and cakes rise. Removing the overpowering yeast flavor made cheesecake taste more like a dessert. When Europeans immigrated to America, some brought their cheesecake recipes along.
Cream cheese was an American addition to the cake, and it has since become a staple ingredient in the United States. In 1872, a New York dairy farmer was attempting to replicate the French cheese Neufchatel. Instead, he accidentally discovered a process which resulted in the creation of cream cheese. Three years later, cream cheese was packaged in foil and distributed to local stores under the Philadelphia Cream Cheese brand. The Philadelphia Cream Cheese brand was purchased in 1903 by the Phoenix Cheese Company, and then it was purchased in 1928 by the Kraft Cheese Company. Kraft continues to make the same Philadelphia Cream Cheese that we are familiar with today.
Of course, no story of cheesecake is complete without delving into the origins of the New York style cheesecake. The Classic New York style cheesecake is served with just the cake – no fruit, chocolate or caramel is served on the top or on the side. This famously smooth-tasting cake gets its signature flavor from extra egg yolks in the cream cheese cake mix.
By the 1900s, New Yorkers were in love with this dessert. Virtually every restaurant had its own version of cheesecake on their menu. New Yorkers have vied for bragging rights for having the original recipe ever since. Even though he is best known for his signature sandwiches, Arnold Reuben (1883-1970) is generally credited for creating the New York Style cheesecake. Reuben was born in Germany and he came to America when he was young. The story goes that Reuben was invited to a dinner party where the hostess served a cheese pie. Allegedly, he was so intrigued by this dish that he experimented with the recipe until he came up with the beloved NY Style cheesecake.
New York is not the only place in America that puts its own spin on cheesecakes. In Chicago, sour cream is added to the recipe to keep it creamy. Meanwhile, Philadelphia cheesecake is known for being lighter and creamier than New York style cheesecake and it can be served with fruit or chocolate toppings. In St. Louis, they enjoy a gooey butter cake, which has an additional layer of cake topping on the cheesecake filling.
Each region of the world also has its own take on the best way to make the dessert. Italians use ricotta cheese, while the Greeks use mizithra or feta. Germans prefer cottage cheese, while the Japanese use a combination of cornstarch and egg whites. There are specialty cheesecakes that include blue cheese, seafood, spicy chilies and even tofu! In spite of all the variations, the popular dessert’s main ingredients – cheese, wheat and a sweetener –remain the same.
No matter how you slice it, cheesecake is truly a dessert that has stood the test of time. From its earliest recorded beginnings on Samos over 4,000 years ago to its current iconic status around the world this creamy cake remains a favorite for sweet tooths of all ages.
History lesson over, here are a few tips for making a successful cheesecake.
- Make sure you have read the recipe completely before starting. Have all the ingredeints prepped and measured.
- Make sure your dairy – eggs, cream cheese, etc. – are at room temperature. This will ensure there that the ingredients will mix evenly.
- Use the paddle attachment, not the whip, when mixing the ingredients. Be sure to scrape down the sides and bottom of the mixing bowl as you add ingredients. This will ensure even mixing.
- Beat the cream cheese until it is smooth. Make sure it doesn’t have any lumps.
- Add the eggs one at a time. Mix thoroughly after each one.
- Preheat your oven for at least 15 minutes at 350F. Be sure the rack is in the center of the oven.
- Take the cheesecake from the oven when it still has a slight jiggle in the center. If the center is hard when you take the cheesecake from the oven, it’s overcooked.
- To prevent cracking, be sure all the ingredients at room temperature. As stated above, add the eggs one at a time, mixing thoroughly after each one is added.
- To prevent a grainy texture, be sure the dairy products are at room temperature. Slowly add the sugar, mixing thoroughly and making sure the sugar is dissolved.
- Be sure to scrape the sids of the bowl to be sure there are no lumps. And, again, making sure the ingredients are thoroughly mixed.
Now to the recipe.
To begin with, in this example, I’m using bottled cajeta. If you want to use homemeade cajeta (and I have), my blog post from Jan. 29, 2012, will teach you how to do that. Also, just to let you know, the bottled cajeta will set up more quickly than the homemade when it’s spread over the cold cheesecake.
Also, instead of graham crackers, I’m using “Maria” (Goya ® ) cookies. I like to use them because they are less sweet and don’t compete with the cheesecake. (If you live in a town with a large Hispanic population, Maria cookies will be readily available at most groceries.) However, you can use graham crackers if you like.
4 pkg. cream cheese, room temperature
3 lg. eggs, room temperature
2 tsp. vanilla extract (preferably Mexican)
1 c. cajeta
1 tsp. canela (cinnamon, ground), optional
1 pkg. Maria cookies or graham crackers, ground
1/2 c. unsalted butter, melted
2 tbsp. brown sugar
1/2 c. cajeta
1/2 c. toasted chopped pecans
1. Make sure your rack is in the center of the oven and preheat to 350F. Wrap the outside of a 8- or 9-inch spingform pan in a double layer of heavy duty foil. Cut a piece of parchment paper to fit in the bottom of the pan.
2. In a small bowl, mix together the cookies or graham crackers, butter, and sugar. Press the mixture into the bottom and halfway up the sides. (Try to make the thickness of the crust as even as possible.)
3. Place the pan in a baking dish large enough for the pan to sit flat in the bottom. Fill the pan with enough water to come halfway up the sides of the springform. Set aside. (The foil prevents the water from seeping into the bottom of the pan and making the crust soggy.)
Add the eggs, one at a time, until well incorporated.
Add the vanilla and canela (if using). Mix well. Add the cajeta and, again, mix well. Be sure to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl so the batter is evenly mixed.
5. Pour the batter into the prepared springform pan.
Bake for 45 – 60 minutes. If you have a hotspot in your oven, rotate the baking dish about halfway through the cooking time.
6. After the initial 45 minute cooking time, check the doneness of the cheesecake. Gently shake the pan. The center of the cake should have a slight wobble. If the center seems almost liquid, let the cheesecake continue to cook. At 1 hour, check again. If the center is still too liquid, continue baking, checking every 5 minutes. Take care not to overbake. If the center of the cheesecake is solid when you take it out, then the cake is overcooked.
Take the cheesecake out of the waterbath and allow to cool on a rack.
Once it is cooled, remove the foil and discard or toss in the recycling bin. Wrap the cheesecake (still in the springform) thoroughly in plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours to set.
7. When you are ready to serve, run the blunt edge of a knife (a butter knife is ideal) between the crust and sleeve of the springform. Carefully unlatch the springform sleeve and release the cake.
At this point you can leave the cake on the base of the springform, or, if you’re feeling confident, slide the knife between the cake and the base to help release it. (I prefer to leave it on the base and put it in a cake holder. I’m too afraid I’d drop it otherise.)
After you’ve released the cake, spread the reamaining 1/2 cup cajeta over the top and sprinkle over the toasted pecans.
Of course, be sure to remove the parchement paper from the piece of cheesecake before you serve.
Be sure to carefully wrap or cover any leftover cheesecake and refrigerate.
I almost forgot… Cheesecake can be frozen. Just be sure to wrap it (completely cooled) tightly in plastic wrap and again in foil. It will keep for 3 months in the freezer (be sure to date it). Let it defrost in the refrigerator for 24 hours before serving.