Sublime Cheesecakes

Cheesecake is a dessert that can be dressed up or down in a multitude of ways. Recipes range in complexity from the simplest three-ingredient filling poured into a store-bought graham cracker crust, to the most painstaking triple-layer chocolate-amaretto-espresso cheesecake with homemade fudge brownie crust. But no matter how you dress it, cheesecake is one of the most luxurious desserts around, and is well worth a word or two of advice.

Baking Cheesecake
Cheesecakes tend to get overcooked. A cheesecake is done when the center is still wobbly. It looks undercooked at this stage but it isn't. At this time simply leave the door of the oven closed, turn off the heat and let the cheesecake cool for at least one hour. This helps prevent the cheesecake from sinking in the center. After chilling the once wobbly center should firm up just fine and without the unattractive cracks that overcooking causes.

Putting the cheese in cheesecake
There is one ingredient that all cheesecakes have: cream cheese. As obvious as this may be, the way you treat the cream cheese has a serious impact on your final product. When buying cream cheese for your cheesecake, make sure you buy the kind in a solid block, not the whipped cream cheese that comes in a tub. Whipped cream cheese has already had a great deal of air whipped into it, and will not give your cheesecake the texture you are looking for. It is also imperative that your cream
cheese be at room temperature before you begin mixing it. Cold cream cheese is sure to result in lumpy cheesecake. Using cold cream cheese will also lead to overbeating, since you will have to whip it for a long, long time to make it smooth, and in the process, you will whip too much air into the cream cheese. Also, unless the recipe instructions specifically note otherwise, you should beat the cream cheese by itself until it's smooth and light before you add any of the other ingredients.

It's all about the texture
Eating cheesecake is a very sensual experience; texture is everything. Some recipes contain a small amount of starch, such as flour or cornstarch. These recipes will result in a cheesecake whose texture is slightly more firm and cakelike. These flour-containing cheesecakes can be baked directly on the oven rack at moderate temperatures. Cheesecake recipes that do not contain flour are intended to be delightfully smooth and silky. To achieve the proper texture, these cheesecakes must be baked in a water bath at a lower temperature.

I have to give my cheesecake a bath?
Cheesecake can be a delicate thing; you want to bake it slowly and evenly without browning the top. The most effective way to do this is to bake it in a water bath. This means that your cheese cake pan is surrounded by water as it bakes, receiving the more gentle, even heat of the water rather than the direct and uneven heat of the oven coils. To make a water bath, you set the cheese cake pan inside a roasting pan on the oven rack, then pour boiling water into the roasting pan until the water is at least halfway up the sides of the cheesecake pan (but NOT spilling over the top!).

Water bath pointers:
You should use a roasting pan that allows at least 2 inches of space between the edge of the cheesecake pan and the edge of the roasting pan. For example, if your cheesecake pan is 9 inches in diameter, use a roasting pan that's at least 13 inches across. Place a heavy dishtowel in the bottom of the roasting pan before you set the cheesecake in it. This will protect the bottom of the cheesecake from receiving any direct heat from the oven coils. Finally, be sure you fill the bath with water that is already boiling (heat a pot-full on the stovetop). If you don't start with boiling water, it will take a very long time for the water to get hot in the oven, and will throw off your baking time.

Spring ahead
Most cheesecake recipes will call for a springform pan. A springform is a round, straight-sided pan with a removable bottom. You detach the sides from the base by pulling a lever on the side of the pan. Before you pour the filling into your springform pan, check to be absolutely sure that the base is attached tightly and evenly to the sides; we don't want you to experience the heartbreak of opening the oven to see your cheesecake oozing out the bottom of its pan. If you're baking your
cheesecake in a water bath, you should also take the precaution of tightly wrapping the bottom and sides of the springform pan with aluminum foil, to be absolutely sure that water will not leak in through the bottom of the pan.

Is it done yet?
Overbaking a cheesecake is one of the deadly sins of the kitchen. But it's also one of the most difficult things to gauge correctly. Cheesecake is very coy and deceptive; when it's done, it never LOOKS done. A properly cooked cheesecake will still have a wobbly 2 or 3 inch circle in the center. Removing the cheesecake at this point, then chilling it overnight, will help you achieve the perfect silky texture you're looking for. For this reason, it's essential to bake your cheesecake at least one day before you plan to serve it. When a cheesecake forms cracks in the top of it's because the cheesecake has been overbaked. However, once you remove the cheesecake from the oven,
you can still try to thwart cracking by running a thin knife blade carefully around the inside rim of the pan to loosen the cake from the sides of the pan. To keep the sides of your cheesecake intact, you should do this one more time before you un-clamp the springform pan, too.

Sweet Success
After you've completely cooled it in the refrigerator, you're ready to serve your masterpiece! To keep the sides of the cheesecake intact, you'll need to gently run a paring knife between the side of the cake and the pan, being careful not to cut into the cake. Unlatch the clasp and remove the sides of the pan. Then run a knife between the pan and the bottom of the cake, once more being careful not to cut into the cake. If you want to transfer your cheesecake to a serving dish, slide
the knife straight in and lift the cake up about two inches. Quickly slide your hand under the cake with your fingers spread, and transfer it to your dish. This trick can occasionally end in disaster, so you may prefer to serve your cake on the pan bottom instead. Even if you leave your creamy creation on the pan, you can still place it on a beautiful plate or platter, and, if you like, dress it up with a few sprigs of mint and perhaps some fresh berries or chocolate curls. Now your cheesecake looks as good as it tastes; serve it with pride.