"No matter what happens in the kitchen, never apologize." - Julia Child

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Cheesecake, or, What a difference a bath makes

Ah, cheesecake! That cheesiest of desserts! I have always loved cheesecake, because it combines two of my favorite foods (cheese and cake) and because there are so many variations on it. One of my favorites is the banana caramel fried cheesecake that comes and goes (and I boo when it goes) from the menu at the Great American Diner in BucksCo. (Note: As of this writing, it's back on the menu. Phew! The giant chocolate tostada sundae, which Brie and I once nearly demolished all of, is sadly no longer on the menu.)

It's easy to find places offering cheesecake, but hard to find places offering exceptional cheesecake. The Cheesecake Factory, for instance, despite its name, offers what I think are mediocre cheesecakes; I had one once and found the cheese filling to be a little gummy. And herein lies the downfall of the cheesecake: the texture of the filling. No matter how delightful the flavor combinations might be, if the filling isn't melt-in-your-mouth creamy-soft, it's just not a perfect cheesecake.

I have attempted cheesecakes before, in bygone years. One that particularly stands out is one I made with a pecan pumpkin butter that was mixed into the filling, which was good, but not exceptional. And I must ashamedly admit that once or twice I was guilty of the buy the Philadelphia Cream Cheese cheesecake filling in a tub and fill a pre-made graham cracker crust. I hang my head in shame still. Seeing as how this is one of my favorite desserts, I thought it was high time that I attempt it again, but the right way this time. It is good to know how to make a delectable homemade version of your favorite dessert. And as Jeremy and I had been invited over to Derrick's for dinner with him and Chris and I was asked to bring dessert, the opportunity presented itself.

I'd originally thought of perhaps attempting a stone fruit cobbler or crisp or pie or tart, but nixed the idea after some thought. Dinner on Friday only a couple of hours after getting home from a day in the office didn't afford me the time to make something day-of, so I needed to make something that would keep overnight, but I am also cursed with a kitchen devoid in counter space, so I couldn't really roll out a respectable crust. While flipping through my basic kitchen primer bible (Bitty's How to Cook Everything), I found a recipe for a lemon cheesecake. It required 3 blocks of cream cheese, 4 eggs, a topping made of sour cream, and a bath. I was intrigued. And determined. This was the first homemade dinner at Derrick's new(ish) place, and by god if I wasn't determined to impress.

Thursday afternoon, Jeremy got out of work early and bought the ingredients we needed and I found a lovely Rubbermaid cake holder at Tags during my lunch hour, so we were ready to go. Almost. It took me FOREVER to get home due to a series of disasters with the bus, so it was nearly 7 pm when we began baking--a full hour after I'd imagined we'd be underway. Bah!

We got the crust underway, doubling Bitty's recipe as instructed (thank the baby Jesus for pre-crumbled graham cracker crumbs, an innovation that saved us lots of time) and popping the crust into the oven. It's rather fun to press a crumb crust into a buttery springform pan, which sort of confirms my suspicion that people like to cook and bake as much as they do because it's an adult-sanctified form of making a mess (and also the end results are deliciously edible). Jeremy was immensely helpful, zesting and juicing the lemon (using my enamelled lemon press, which is fab!) and helping me to measure and dole out ingredients. I separated the 4 eggs (I cheated and used an egg separator), and despite the cream cheese being a little too soft, as it had been sitting out and waiting for me to use it and I was delayed in getting to it because of my bus woes, the batter making went relatively smoothly.

Once the filling was poured into the lovely, browned, crumbly crust, the real challenge began. Bitty instructs us to bake the cheesecake for an hour in a warm water bath, meaning that one puts the springform pan into a large roasting pan of warm water. The springform pan is heavy, even heavier when full of dense cake batter, and the whole thing is made heavier still when placed in a pan full of water. We don't own a metal roasting pan, so we used one of those foil ones you can buy in the market, which is much lighter, but which is still rather cumbersome when full of water and cake. Let's just say I'm grateful for Jeremy and his work-developed guns, which safely got the whole thing into and then out of the oven.

When the cake and accoutrements came out of the oven, I ladeled the hot water out of the pan into a bowl to make it easier to remove the cake and we set to cool briefly while I whipped up the topping: a container of sour cream with vanilla and a little sugar. Sounds odd but it's delicious! After topping the cake with a layer of it, it goes back in the oven for a bit, then you turn off the oven, let it sit there for a half hour, then take it out to cool more before plastic-wrapping the top and putting it in the fridge. The entire thing took us till about 10:30, and I was pooped and MOST ready for bed by then.

We hit a slight snafu Friday before the party, as I had planned to artfully embed some fresh raspberries in the cream topping (my idea, but I think Bitty would find it a nice touch), but it was no longer creamy (having sat in the fridge overnight), but thankfully my Cuban ingenuity kicked in (thanks, Mom!) and I remembered that we had a container with some leftover sour cream topping in it. I spread a thin layer over the top of the cake and was able to add my raspberries. We kept the cake in the springform to protect it during transport to Derrick's and were on our way.

Dinner at Derrick's was fab. We had some yummy crusty bread with manchego cheese and serrano ham, there was foie gras (I'm not a fan; I'd rather get my fat from my ham), and a tasty simple salad with beans, tomatoes, and super salami. Then we stuffed ourselves with my cheesecake.

I have to say, it was rather astounding. The filling was just vaguely hinted with lemon, not overly sweet nor sour, the texture was firm yet silky, like a good custard, and the sour cream topping was a perfect complement. The crust had set nicely and was buttery delicious. And the raspberries on top went really well with it. It was an awesome ending to the meal. (And considering that dinner had been pleasantly light, though filling, it didn't make anyone feel that bloated over-fullness that comes from having a heavy meal with a dense, rich dessert.) I really think that what made this cake so special was following Mark Bittman's advice and baking the cheesecake in the pan, no matter how odious or hard it may have seemed to do so. It cooked evenly and kept the texture just right.

So. My first serious attempt at cheesecake was a success, and I am excited to try the recipe again for other friends. And to go eat the leftovers in my fridge. There is something so gratifying about making something with time and care. You really can taste the difference, and it makes you feel proud about the effort you put into it.

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