What is a Cheesecake? In the most simple terms, it is a custard comprised of one, two or three components: a crust (optional), a filling (custard) , and possibly a topping. If all three components are used, they are then layered into a special spring-form pan and baked with or without a water bath. After baking, cheesecakes are sometimes chilled a few hours to overnight in order to “set” properly. Later you will learn about savory cheesecakes (appetizers) that do not require the chilling to set.
Cheesecake fillings begin with a soft or blended cheese – usually cream cheese, but it can contain mascarpone, cottage, farmer, Neufchatel, ricotta, goat, cottage, homemade cheese, or for a savory cheesecake bleu, asiago, cheddar, or even swiss cheeses! For this discussion, we will focus primarily on dessert cheesecakes. Keep in mind though, no matter the type of cheesecake you decide to create the principles are the same.
A classic cheesecake custard is made by creaming the cheese and mixing it with a sweetener, eggs, and a flavor extract (such as vanilla, peppermint, lemon, etc.) Add-ins, such as chocolate chips, dried fruit, and chopped candy can be folded into the batter before baking. A perfect example is a Snickers™ Bar Cheesecake.
Cheesecakes can further be broken down into two simple categories: dense and light. Dense cheesecakes tend to use cornstarch or flour in the custard which creates the traditional New York-style cheesecake you see most often in restaurants and stores. Light cheesecakes rely solely on the eggs to maintain a silky, creamy, and smooth texture.
A cheesecake may or may not have a crust and the crust doesn’t have to be limited to just a simple graham cracker crust. Crusts can be a light dusting of cookie crumbs, a combination of chopped nuts and caramel, sponge cake, pound cake, banana bread, zucchini cake, corn meal, bread crumbs, salted crackers, you name it, the possibilities are endless! If using a cookie or a cracker, it is usually mixed with melted butter and pressed into the bottom of the pan. If using a cake or quick bread, that is baked directly into the bottom of the pan prior to adding the cheesecake filling.
Once the crust is ready, it’s time to add the cheesecake filling. You will know the cheesecake is done when it is lightly puffed around the edges, yet the center should be slightly glossy and will jiggle just a bit. Look around the edges, you should see tiny cracks that look dry. When it cools, those tiny cracks will seal together. Cheesecakes become firmer as they cool. To get a dessert cheesecake to set completely, it must be refrigerated (check your recipe).
Depending on the recipe being used, toppings can be added right after baking or after being chilled for the required time. As with the different types of crust, the topping choices are endless: sour cream, fruit, fruit sauces, nuts, praline, streusel, whipped cream, chocolate sauce, frosting, ganache, and on and on and on! Cheesecakes can be topped and decorated just like you would a traditional cake!
The main thing to remember about cheesecake is that it is not a quick project. It takes time and patience. If you try to move too fast, the results could be disastrous!