Dessert matters. Recent research into food memory has confirmed something I’ve always suspected: people remember what they ate first and what they ate last. They have a much more difficult time recalling what came in between.
And while I have no science to quote on this next fact, trust me, it’s true: People love cheesecake beyond all reason. (In the 10 years that I was at Gourmet Magazine, cheesecake was our most requested recipe.)
Put these two facts together, and you come up with the inarguable truth that anyone who wants to throw a memorable dinner party ought to have a great cheesecake in reserve. Here’s the best part: This is the easiest fancy dessert you’ll ever encounter.
I’ve done dozens of different cheesecakes, mixing almost every imaginable ingredient into the mix. In the end I’ve come to believe that you can’t beat the elegance of the classic New York version. Its stark white simplicity belies the sinuous way it slinks into your mouth and overwhelms you with its richness. It is the perfect ending for any meal, but you can make it better. Here’s how.
1. Pre-bake the crumb crust. Most recipes skip this step, but it will give you a crisper crust, a better contrast between the tender center and crunchy exterior.
2. Freeze the crust for a few minutes before baking it; it will make it even crisper.
3. Use cream cheese that contains no gum; it will give you a much softer, creamier texture.
4. Let the cream cheese come to room temperature before you begin; it will make it easier to beat.
5. Beat the cream cheese really well, to avoid lumps, and then beat in the sugar very carefully, scraping down continually to make sure that everything is evenly mixed. When you think it’s well mixed, mix it some more. Smoothness is the secret to a great cake.
6. Turn the mixer to low as you add the eggs, so you don’t mix in too much air. This will keep the filling both dense and creamy.
7. Put your springform pan into a larger pan. Otherwise you’ll have butter leaking all over the bottom of your oven, which will create a smoky mess.
8. Bake at a low temperature, and don’t overbake. Give the pan a little tap before you remove it from the oven: if it wiggles just a bit, it’s done.
9. Chill at least 8 hours before serving, so that it sets up firmly.
10. If you want to make your cheesecake particularly beautiful, substitute chocolate wafers for graham crackers in the crust, to create a stark, elegant black and white beauty of a cake.
New York Cheesecake
For the crust
1½ cups chocolate wafer or graham cracker crumbs (about 6 ounces)
½ cup melted butter
¼ cup sugar
For the filling
1½ pounds cream cheese, preferably without gum, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract or vanilla paste
For the topping
2 cups sour cream
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or vanilla paste
Bake the crust: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix the cookie crumbs with the sugar and the melted butter and press into bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan. Put into the freezer for 15 minutes (it will keep here, covered, for a couple of months). Bake for 10 minutes, just to crisp the crust. Turn the oven down to 325 degrees, and set the springform pan in a larger pan to catch any drips.
Make and bake the filling: Beat the cream cheese, sugar, eggs, and vanilla until smooth. Pour into crust and bake 50 minutes, or until the cheese is set on the edges, but still a bit wobbly in the middle. (Depending on your oven, this can take up to an hour or more; just be patient and check every 5 minutes or so.) Remove from the oven (leave oven on) and cool for about 10 minutes on a wire rack.
Top and bake again: Stir together the sour cream, sugar and vanilla and spread over cooled cake. Return to oven for 12 minutes until glossy. Topping will set as the cake cools.
Chill: Cool completely, cover, and chill in the refrigerator at least 8 hours.