Recently, a well-intentioned person offered me a piece of “vegan cheesecake.” I politely declined, but the experience rankled. I’m not opposed to vegan food by any means; however, I don’t care to eat any food that is passed off as something that it is not. What the hell is a “vegan cheesecake?” Isn’t it more rightly “tofu cake?” “Tofutti cake”? “Cheese Substitute Cake?” What? I was disturbed the inaccuracy of it all, but then I realized that I was being a purist for a cake that is itself a bit of a cipher.
Broadly speaking, cheesecake is a cake made with soft, unripened cheese. Usually, it has some kind of crust, typically made with cookies or a thin layer of cake. Versions of cheesecake are found in cultures throughout world, including, unexpectedly, Asia, a fact that might challenge my aversion to the tofu cake that began this whole odyssey. In the West, humans have eaten cheesecake since around the time that Hippocrates was thinking about humors and formulating oaths. The Romans were fond of them, too, but then they stole everything from the Greeks. Of course, Italians nearly always improve what they steal, so Italian cheesecake is completely wonderful. In contemporary Italy, cheesecakes are usually made with either ricotta or mascarpone cheese, which makes them less sweet than other versions.
In the US, modern cheesecakes are usually made with cream cheese, often Philadelphia brand, a product that half-heartedly tries to pass itself off as Neufchâtel cheese, something it patently is not (hmmm… see paragraph #1). Specious connections aside, Philly cream cheese is highly adaptable. In fact, the malleability of this type of cheese means that a cheesecake can take a dizzying number of forms. They can be baked or not; contain eggs or not; be flavored or not. Sometimes, they are topped with fruit or jam. Less often, they are savory. I’ve had cheesecakes that were mostly whipped cream and some that were mostly Cream Whip. A beloved St. Louis version even includes butter and yeast.
In short, the cheesecake is a highly variable platform. And, I mostly don’t care for them. So it was a bit of a surprise to me that I became obsessed with the idea of cheesecake after the tofu offer and decided to make my own just as soon as I possibly could.
Given the many and varied reasons I have for not making desserts very often, I had plenty of opportunity to research the history the cheesecake and to seek out a good recipe for one. I was finally able to make my move on Monday, which is how I wound up with this gorgeous thing in my refrigerator.
In spite of my general dislike of cheesecake, I can’t say enough about this one. If you’re thinking of some kind of rubbery Cheesecake Factory version, think again. If you’re imaging a creamy confection that cannot easily be cut into slices, think again. This stellar version is made with a combination of mascarpone cheese and ordinary old Philadelphia brand. It has a graham cracker crust and a thin sour cream topping. It is beautiful and delicious. The filling was just tart enough to play well against the sweet, almost caramelized crust and the texture was creamy without being insubstantial. And, the cake was really fun to make: a bit of serious, but pressure-free baking on a sunny Monday morning. Mimi was an excellent assistant, as these photos will demonstrate. The recipe was minimally adapted from one at epicurious.com.
1 1/4 cup of graham cracker crumbs
1/2 cup sugar
8 tbs. butter, melted
8 oz. mascarpone cheese, room temperature
2 1/2, 8 oz. containers of cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
3 large eggs, room temperature
1 tsp. vanilla
2 tsp. fresh lemon juice
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp. lemon juice
First make the crust. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 9 inch springform pan. Combine 1 cup of graham cracker crumbs and sugar large bowl. Reserve the remaining cracker crumbs to sprinkle over the top of the finished cake. Add the butter and stir until crumbs are coated. Press crumbs into the pan, pushing the mixture up the sides of the pan by about 1 1/2 inches. Bake for about 7 minutes, until the crust sets and slightly browned. Remove from oven and cool on a baking rack for about 25 minutes.
Next, get on with the filling. Reduce the temperature of the oven to 350 degrees. In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the cheeses and the sugar. Blend on medium until combined and slightly whipped, about 4 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well into the cheese after each addition. Add the vanilla and lemon juice and beat until just blended. Pour the filling into the cooled crust and bake for 30-35 minutes. Remove the cake from the oven and cool for 25 minutes. When you remove the cake from the oven, don’t be alarmed if the filling wiggles a bit. It will continue to set as it cools. Leave the oven on.
Now, make the topping. In a small bowl, combine the sour cream, sugar and lemon juice. Pour onto the cooled cake and spread evenly, leaving 1/4 inch of a gap all around the edges of the cake. Bake for 10 minutes, until the topping is just set.
Remove the cake from the oven and allow to cool to room temperature. Refrigerate for 8 hours. This sounds like a long time; indeed it is, but it is in the cooling process that the cake achieves it full potential. Before serving, sprinkle the remaining crumbs over the top of the cake. Sit back, smile, and — you know — say, “Cheese!”