Making Cheesecake for the Holidays

If you are considering making a cheesecake for the Holidays but have never tackled this daunting task, I will let you in on a little secret. Making cheesecake, while time consuming and details oriented, is extremely easy!

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I first encountered this revelation a few years ago when my father decided to have a benefit auction to help a friend diagnosed with cancer. Looking around my house, I realized that we had neither valuable items worth donating nor sufficient funds to throw into the kitty. Like many housewives faced with this type of dilemma, I baked. A novice with no idea what I was doing, I managed to  produce four massive cheesecakes and three rhubarb pies, and to my surprise, they sold like hotcakes (pardon the pun)!

Back to you (yes, YOU) making an actual cheesecake.  If you really want to do this, FIRST READ THIS ENTIRE POST.  It will take time to read this, but before you start mixing ingredients you have to be 100% committed to this project!  It takes at least two hours but it’s worth it because this is the best cheesecake you will ever make.

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Citrus is what makes a cheesecake really tasty!

I can’t take credit for this recipe because it came from The Fannie Farmer Baking Book, copyright 1984.  However, I have adapted the recipe to make it well, better.  While the Fannie Farmer version calls for a sweeter cheesecake, I prefer more complex spices, citrus, and berry notes.  The ingredient list that I use is annotated below, with the Fannie Farmer version in parenthesis and Italics.  These measurements will produce a cheesecake in an approximately 12 inch  springform pan.

INGREDIENTS

For Graham Cracker Crust

  • 12 to 16 whole graham crackers (makes about 1 1/2 Cups of crumbs)
  • 1/4 C granulated sugar
  • 8 T (1 stick or 1/2 C) melted butter (Fannie Farmer also suggests margarine) *dairy free butter substitutes can be used if they have the same properties as dairy butter*
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon (optional)  *I only use cinnamon if making a cheesecake incorporating cinnamon or other savory ingredients*

For Cheesecake

  • 1 pound (2 packages/2 Cups) cream cheese (*use Philadelphia, not an off-brand)
  • 3/4 C granulated sugar (Fannie Farmer suggests 1 Cup)
  • 1 T grated lemon zest (Fannie suggests 1/2 T)
  • 2 T all purpose flour (bleached or unbleached)
  • 1 tsp fine grain sea salt (Fannie suggests 1/2 tsp regular salt)
  • 1 T Mexican vanilla extract (Fannie suggests 1/2 T vanilla extract)
  • 6 eggs, separated & at room temperature
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 2-3 T freshly squeezed lemon juice (Fannie suggests 2 T)

Fun Little Extras

Depending on the type of cheesecake, you can get really creative with fun extras.  If you want to make a plain cheesecake as your prototype, the ingredients listed above are all you need.  If you want to be adventurous, here is another list of just a few ideas to try.

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  • High quality chocolate disks
  • Lemon curd
  • Dried cranberries, cherries, blueberries, etc.
  • Espresso powder
  • Nutmeg
  • Citrus fruits
  • Toasted nuts
  • Drambuie liqueur (for drizzling scantily over the graham cracker crust — trust me…)

*If you are adding any of these fun extras, you will naturally end up experimenting a bit.  I like to add nuts, dried fruits, and fruit spreads directly to the crust before adding the cheesecake mixture, but you may find a technique that works better for you.  If using a powder such as the espresso powder, mix that directly into the cheesecake mixture or the chocolate when you melt it. Speaking of the chocolate, you didn’t think I forgot about that, did you?  See Step 5-A for the chocolate marble variation.

Before beginning, place all ingredients on a work surface.  You will also need the following tools within easy reach:

  • 2-3 large mixing bowls
  • An electric stand mixer (preferable)
  • An electric hand held mixer (for making meringue)
  • 2-3 spatulas
  • Measuring cups
  • An egg separator (unless you can hand separate)
  • Waxed paper
  • An enamel coated (or otherwise nonstick) saucepan for melting chocolate
  • A lemon juicer (or you can hand squeeze, but beware of seeds)
  • A lemon zester, or very fine cheese grater
  • Rolling pin and gallon sized plastic zipper bag
  • Colander
  • Springform pan (this recipe will make a large cheesecake in a 12 inch pan, but if you have a slightly smaller pan, that is fine)
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Make sure you have the right gadgets before you begin!

If you are still interested in tackling this project, remember that it is easy and keep reading through the steps before you begin baking.

STEP 1:  Make sure all dairy products and eggs are at room temperature.  Trace the bottom of the springform pan onto wax paper and cut out the circle, then put the paper into the pan.  It will settle and stick once the crust is formed into the pan.

STEP 2:  Put graham crackers into a gallon sized plastic zipper bag and use a rolling pin to crush them into fine crumbs.  You may need to sift out the finer crumbs through a colander into a mixing bowl.

STEP 3:  Combine the crumbs and sugar with a fork in a medium mixing bowl, then add the melted butter and continue to mix.  The mixture will become moistened and slightly sticky.  Using a large spoon or spatula, press crumbs into the bottom of the pan and about 1 & 1/2 inches up the sides to form the crust.  Pour about one half shot of Drambuie into a shot glass and sprinkle sparingly over the crust (optional).  Set pan in the freezer while you prepare the remaining ingredients.

Graham cracker crumbs mixed with melted butter and granulated sugar.

Graham cracker crumbs mixed with melted butter and granulated sugar.

Sprinkle the crumbs by spoonfuls into the Springform pan and pat until firm.

Sprinkle the crumbs by spoonfuls into the pan and press until firm.

A bit of Drambuie sprinkled over the crust gives it a unique and unforgettable flavor!  I also added large granulated sugar sprinkles.

A bit of Drambuie sprinkled over the crust gives it a unique and unforgettable flavor! I also added large granulated sugar sprinkles.

If adding festive ingredients to your cheesecake, a layer directly on the crust is a must!  I added dried cranberries and cherries as well as lemon zest.

If adding festive ingredients to your cheesecake, a layer directly on the crust is a must! I added dried cranberries and cherries as well as lemon zest.

STEP 4:  Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

In the stand mixer, beat cream cheese on high speed until it is fluffy.  Add 1/2 C of the sugar (if following Fannie, add 3/4 C), hold back remaining 1/4 Cup.  Beat until cream cheese and sugar are well mixed. Add lemon zest, salt, flour and vanilla, according to which recipe instructions you are following.  Beat until ingredients are well incorporated.  Beat in egg yolks (no egg whites) at medium speed, then add sour cream and lemon juice and beat at low speed until the batter is smooth.

STEP 5:  In a separate large mixing bowl, combine the egg whites with the remaining 1/4 C granulated sugar using a hand mixer.  Beat on the low setting for about one minute.  The mixture will begin to appear thicker and will slosh from side to side in the bowl.  Increase the mixer speed to medium for another minute or two.  The mixture will begin to go from extremely bubbly to frothy.  Once the mixture has is rippling, increase the speed to high until soft peaks form on the beaters when they are lifted out of the mixture (turn off before lifting out).  Fold the meringue gently into the prepared batter and mix until incorporated.

Mixing the meringue with the cheesecake batter, creating an amazing texture!

Mixing the meringue with the cheesecake batter, creating an amazing texture!

One cheesecake ready to go into the oven...

One cheesecake ready to go into the oven…

STEP 5-A: Chocolate Marble Variation: Omit lemon juice and zest.  Melt 2-3 ounces of unsweetened chocolate disks or squares over very low heat, stirring frequently.  Remove promptly from heat as soon as the chocolate is melted.  After the meringue has been folded into the cheesecake mixture, hold back about 1/3 of the batter in a medium sized bowl and gently stir in the melted chocolate until blended.  Drizzle the chocolate batter over the original batter, which you have poured into the springform pan, and use a spoon or spatula to create swirls, or marble effects in the batter.

STEP 6:  Remove the crust from the freezer and pour the batter over the crust until the pan is full.  Carefully put the pan into the oven and bake for about one hour, but keep an eye on the cheesecake to make sure that it does not over brown.  The cake may crack, which is inevitable but will not hinder the flavor.  If the temperature needs to be turned down, you can adjust it as needed and continue to check the cheesecake.  It is done baking when a sharp knife (because it leaves no evidence of insertion) comes out clean.

A finished product.  Remember, cracks add character and depth to the cheesecake!

A finished product. Remember, cracks add character and depth of flavor!

STEP 7:  Allow cheesecake to cool completely.  You can leave it in the oven to cool completely after turning the oven off if it has not browned significantly.  A cheesecake needs to wait a full 24 hours before it should be cut and served.  Allowing it to rest creates more complex flavor and texture.  It is well worth the wait!  The cheesecake can even be frozen for up to two weeks, after being wrapped well in foil.

To cut and serve, loosen the clasp and gently wiggle the ring loose around the cheesecake.  A spatula may come in handy to free the sides of the cake from the inside of the ring. The cheesecake will remain on the bottom of the spring form pan, with the wax paper between the crust and the pan.  When slicing, use a very sharp knife to avoid sloppy edges.  The cheesecake will need to defrost for at least two hours if it has been frozen.  Enjoy!

—G

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