Yes, I know that cheesecake is the ultimate rich and sensuous dessert. Yes, I know there's nothing "cheesy" about a good cheesecake. Still, I've never liked it -- not even the Lindy's famous New York cheesecake of my childhood.
But for years my husband has been regaling me with tales of his grandmother's cheesecake, the best in the world, according to his taste memory. So I finally decided to see if I could reproduce it from his description.
In the process I learned a lot about the genre. Cheesecakes vary from dense to airy, from tart to sweet and from smooth to textured. Soft cheeses -- cottage cheese, farmer's cheese, pot cheese or ricotta cheese -- yield a light, airy product. Beaten egg whites contribute a chiffon-like texture. And cream-cheese cakes are creamiest and richest of all.
There are even ways to tame calorie and fat content. A few VTC tablespoons of cream cheese will give richness to substitute ingredients such as non-fat yogurt or yogurt cheese, low-fat cottage cheese or part-skim-milk ricotta cheese. In place of heavy cream, evaporated milk or sweetened condensed milk, use low-fat evaporated skim milk or fresh skim milk. Omit butter or substitute margarine. Cut back on eggs or replace whole eggs with egg whites.
To bake or not to bake -- that is the next question. Some cheesecakes need heating for the filling to set solid. Others include gelatin and set in the refrigerator with a somewhat lighter texture. Lighter still -- and softer -- are unbaked cheesecakes made without gelatin that also set in the refrigerator.
For crunchy texture, add nuts, raisins, currants, candied fruit peel, chocolate bits, brownie or cookie chunks. Flavor enhancers include rum, liqueurs, vanilla or almond extract, orange, lemon or lime juice and peel, honey, maple syrup, coffee, white or brown chocolate, pumpkin or carrot puree.
Although dense cheesecakes taste good without a base, most people like the toothy contrast of a crust. Crust possibilities -- practically endless -- range from traditional pie and graham cracker to cookie crumbs, bread crumbs, dry cereals, nuts, spongecake, ladyfingers or puff pastry.
Though the cheesecake purist may prefer a naked cheesecake, many people like theirs with toppings: seasonal fresh fruits and berries; stewed dried apricots or prunes; crushed pineapple; glazed citrus fruit slices; jam and marmalade; toasted coconut; chopped nuts; flavored whipped cream; sweetened sour cream or yogurt; meringue peaks; powdered sugar.
As for my version of Grandma's cheesecake, it almost lived up to memory.
GRANDMA'S NEW YORK-STYLE CHEESECAKE
2 pounds cream cheese, at room temperature
1 stick sweet butter, at room temperature
1 pint sour cream, at room temperature
5 large eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups superfine sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon lemon zest
In a large bowl beat cream cheese until completely smooth, scraping down sides of bowl occasionally. Beat in butter until mixture is smooth and creamy. Beat in sour cream. Add eggs, one at a time, scraping bowl and beating well after each addition. Add sugar, cornstarch, vanilla, lemon juice and zest and beat until mixture is smooth.
Butter sides and bottom of a 10-inch springform pan. Completely wrap outside of pan with a double layer of heavy-duty aluminum foil to make springform watertight. Pour batter into pan. Place in a baking pan that is wider but not deeper than the springform. Add enough boiling water to reach halfway up sides of springform. Bake in a 300-degree oven until top is lightly browned and a knife inserted in center comes out clean, about 2-2 1/2 hours. Remove springform from water bath and unwrap aluminum foil. Place pan on a rack to cool completely. Cover pan with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight before removing sides of springform.