In search of confection perfection: cheesecake is the most complicated of desserts

August 18, 1993|By Joe Crea | Joe Crea,Orange County Register

Count your calories and check your cholesterol as you must -- then dig into one immutable fact: Cheesecake remains one of America's most-loved desserts.

OK, so it's an occasional indulgence. But when your fork breaks into that first velvety bite, crumbling into moist, savory-sweet morsels, you want your "sin" to be pristine: rich with dairy goodness, decadently sweet and tangy with a hint of sour cream.

The perfect cheesecake is an art form built upon a structure of physics, architecture and technology. Granted, your grace with a spatula and deft sense of flavorings can mean the difference between a run-of-the-mill cheesecake and an ethereally light monument to decadence. But first you need to master the basic skills -- proper ratios of ingredients, the role of a fine crust, the importance of the right pan, correct timing in the oven, proper cooling and all the rest.

Here are techniques from a variety of sources:

* Use the best ingredients: Cheesecake is, by nature, a rich and lavish dessert. It also is fairly time-consuming and on the expensive side. Resist the urge to cut corners: Use only ingredients you know and trust; experiment with other brands only when time permits and you can risk less-than-stellar desserts.

* Choose the right equipment: Here are some of the more important items:

Springform pans provide the best mold for cheesecake. The tender, sticky cake is less apt to remain adhered to the edges of this pan.

Paddle-type beaters are better for making cheesecakes because they tend to incorporate less air into the batter than a "balloon whisk" variety. (If you have conventional beaters, don't overbeat; see tip below.)

A jellyroll pan with a lip placed underneath the springform in the oven will help minimize the cleanup from an occasional leak, says Susan G. Purdy, in her book, "A Piece of Cake" (Atheneum, 1989).

A long, thin spatula (from a cake-baking store or kitchenware shop) is useful both for loosening the cake from the edges and removing the chilled cake from the base.

* Work with proper temperatures: Cream cheese should be at room temperature for more complete blending and silken results. Remove eggs from the refrigerator just long enough in advance to remove the chill. Let mixtures cool as directed (usually to room temperature if no other specific temperature is noted.)

Invest in an oven thermometer to double-check your range.

You can soften cream cheese in your microwave, according to Kraft/General Foods. Place a single unwrapped (8-ounce) package in a microwave-safe container. Then microwave on high about 15 seconds. You may need to give the container a quarter-turn, then microwave for another few seconds. Add 15 seconds for each additional package. (Timing will vary, depending upon the power of your machine.)

* Prepare the pan: You'll get nicer slices of finished (baked and chilled) cheesecake from the pan -- and leave less of the crust on the springform base -- if you follow this advice, from

Kraft/General Foods:

Turn the bottom section of the pan (the base) rim-side-down before inserting it into the springform pan (the side mold).

Secure the latch, making certain the base is securely inserted.

Grease and flour the pan (check the recipe to see if this is required).

After chilling the cheesecake, insert a long thin metal spatula or two large metal spatulas between the crust and pan bottom. Carefully lift the cake to a serving plate.

* Mix the cake carefully: Myra Chanin, whose "Mother Wonderful's Cheesecakes and Other Goodies" (Henry Holt, 1990) is something of a Bible among aficionados, says never overbeat the filling for cheesecake.

"When the mixture is set at high speed, too much air gets into the batter and produces an inferior consistency, along with a cheesecake that develops a depression in the middle," she writes.

Beat the mixture on low speed, adding eggs one at a time and beating just until each egg is blended.

Fold in any chunky ingredients (chocolate chips, nuts, candied fruit) at the very end, stirring just enough to fully incorporate.

* Add moisture to the oven: A humid environment helps keep a fine cheesecake from drying out during baking.

Position a small ovenproof pan on the lower rack of the oven, and fill it halfway with hot to boiling water. Bake the cake on a rack positioned above the panful of water.

If your recipe calls for a prebaked crust, do not place the panful of water in the oven until after you've baked the crust.

* Know when it's done: Curb the urge to keep opening the oven and peeking in. (This is even more important during the first half of baking, notes author Purdy.) Instead, follow a trusted recipe, then bake to the minimal amount of time recommended before testing.

Don't allow the edges to brown, Ms. Purdy writes.

Edges should be slightly puffed. The area near the center -- about the size of a silver dollar -- will still appear soft and moist. That area will continue cooking due to accumulated heat and will firm upon cooling.

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