A Perfect Cheescake….Finally!

There are those recipes you dare to try, going in with great gusto and leaving all inhibitions aside. Cheesecake may safely be said to be one of those such recipes. (At least for me.) I’ve lived in New York City long enough to consider myself a New Yorker and, thus, a fan of cheesecake. Those of you inhabiting the East Coast of the U.S. may likely be familiar with Junior’s cheesecake, originating in Brooklyn; decadently rich and smooth. But, honestly, I don’t know too many people, regardless where they originate or currently find themselves geographically, who don’t enjoy a thick slice of gateaux du fromage.

I’ve attempted my hand at creating a cheesecake worthy of praise a few times in my life. I’ve had some near successes, but certainly nothing I could sell at a corner bakery. Until now…

I recently began reading a book titled, “CookWise,” by Shirley O. Corriher. I haven’t completed reading it cover to cover, so I can’t give a final review at this time, but I can tell you how exciting it is to read sections and chapters at random and get new insights about various recipes I’ve tried without a lot of success, simply due to my lack of food science knowledge. I find this book to be most like a hand guide for those of us home cooks who have always had an inkling to — but never found the time — to attend cooking school.

I tweaked the following recipe — it originally called for sour cream, and I replaced it with Greek thick yogurt, with much success. I added pure almond extract, but you could instead add an almond-flavored  liquor, such as amaretto, or simply omit the almond flavoring and opt for lemon juice and zest. The original recipe calls for chocolate wafers in the graham crust, however I used some tea biscuits and loved the outcome. It’s totally up to you and your preference.

Because this recipe doesn’t contain any starch in the batter, it must be baked in a water bath. The cake pan should be placed in a casserole dish large enough to leave a good inch of space around the entire cake pan. I was a little apprehensive the first time I attempted this recipe, but placing a thick, terry cloth towel underneath the cake pan provides extra protection from heat on the bottom of the pan, and allows the cheesecake to bake nicely without overcooking. The towel will certainly not burn, so not to worry!

Cheesecake will appear to be undercooked when you need to stop the baking process. So if the cake looks a bit jiggly in the center, don’t fret. It will set nicely in the fridge overnight. Most cheesecakes I have made in the past came out cracked in the center, which I later found meant I had overcooked the cake. I made a simple preserve syrup out of frozen strawberries, blueberry/cranberry juice, almond extract, and sugar, but it’s certainly not necessary. This cheesecake is divine on its own, topping or no.

Crust:
14 wafers, or tea biscuits (chocolate or plain)
3 Tbsp. sugar
3 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted

Filling:
2 packages (8 oz. each) cream cheese, room temperature
1 c. sugar
3 large eggs
2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. salt
4 tsp. pure almond extract, or 1/4 c. amaretto
3 c. thick Greek yogurt, such as FAGE brand

Crush the wafers or biscuits in a plastic zipper bag or in a food processor. In a small bowl, stir together the crushed wafers, sugar, and melted butter until a coarse crumb is achieved. Line the bottom of an 8 x 3″ round, straight-edged cake pan with parchment paper, cut to fit. (Despite what you see in the photo below, I do not recommend using a spring form pan, as a little bit of water will leak through the pan during the baking process, making the crumb crust soggy.) Grease the sides of the pan, then press the crumb crust into the bottom of the pan.

Preheat the oven to 350º F. Meanwhile, in a food processor or standing mixer, blend the cream cheese and sugar well, removing all lumps. Add the eggs, one at a time, blending well after each addition. Add the vanilla, salt, and almond extract (or amaretto). Blend well. Add the yogurt. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.

Prepare a water bath by folding a thick, terry cloth towel into the bottom of a roasting pan. Place the cake pan on top of the towel. Pull out the oven shelf you intend to use to bake the cake, and place the roasting pan onto the oven shelf. Carefully fill the roasting pan with nearly boiling water until the water reaches about an inch up the sides of the cake pan. Carefully slide the oven shelf back into place. Close the oven door and do not open it for 45 minutes, despite any temptation to do so. After 45 minutes, shut off the oven heat and allow the cake to sit inside the oven for another hour. The cheesecake batter may look undercooked to you, but trust me, it’s going to be fine! Remove the cake from the oven and place it in the refrigerator overnight.

The next day, you will need to remove the cake from the pan. It will need to be inverted twice, so cover a baking sheet with plastic wrap and set aside. Turn a burner on low and place the cheesecake pan on the burner for a few seconds. This will allow you to remove the cake from the pan easily. Place the plastic-coated baking baking sheet over the cake pan and invert the cake onto the sheet. Peel the parchment paper from the bottom of the cake and then re-invert the cake onto a pedestal cake dish, or cake plate. Refrigerate until you are ready to serve. Believe me, you (and all your guests) will be blown away by this cheesecake. In fact, I think I am going to have another slice from the fridge as soon as I finish writing this post!

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Pear Cake

My fruit bowl always seems to have a few pieces of unloved, uneaten fruit that begin to show signs of expiration. On occasion, I have been known to eat them anyways because there’s nothing more I hate than throwing away a lovely piece of fruit. Fortunately, I have a wonderful cake recipe, which utilizes unloved fruit perfectly. In my home, it’s usually the pears which are unloved the most, and thus, I titled this post, “Pear Cake.” However, you can use plums, strawberries, or even apples–just make sure to slice hard fruit very finely, or else it won’t cook thoroughly while baking. This cake is just as delicious served at room temperature as it is warm. It’s really up to you. I highly recommend serving it with a dollop of vanilla ice cream. There’s just something special about taking a bite of the silky ice cream, followed by the crustiness of the cake, and finished with the smoothness of the fruit.  A true delight for the palate!

*All ingredients are at room temperature.
1 stick unsalted butter
3/4 c. sugar
2 eggs
1 c. flour (alternatively, you could substitute 1/4-1/2 c. ground almond flour or other flour of your choice)
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. cinnamon, plus more for dusting over top of cake
pinch of salt
1 pear, skinned, cored, and sliced thinly

Preheat your oven to 350°F. Combine flour, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon together in a small bowl. Whisk the dry ingredients together. In a large bowl, or in the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the butter and sugar. Begin mixing; add eggs one at a time. Slowly incorporate the dry ingredients. Combine until batter comes together. Pour batter into an 8″ springform tart pan. (If you don’t have a springform pan, any 8″ tart pan or cake pan will do.) Carefully place and press the fruit slices, decoratively, into the batter. Lightly dust the top of the cake with cinnamon.

Bake for about 40 minutes, or until the top has browned nicely. Remove from oven and allow to cool. After about 10 minutes, remove the cake from the pan and place it onto a serving plate or cake stand. (By the way, I don’t bother to remove the base of the springform pan since this cake is literally gone within a few hours of my husband’s return home from work. But if you prefer, you could attempt to remove the base, prying it gently off with a large, thin spatula, once the cake has cooled.)

Cinnamon Yogurt Coffee Cake

It’s always a good idea to have 4-5 dessert recipes floating around in your head, and the ingredients available in your pantry, just in case you need to pull something together quickly for last-minute guests. What I love about the following recipe is that it is easy and fairly quick to make, plus it looks and tastes impressive. One of my favorite seasonings is cinnamon. I add it to cookies, sauces, and even the occasional meatball. I immediately think of yummy-ness when I smell cinnamon, and I even admit to having taken whiffs from a jar of the ground stuff when I need a quick pick-me-up!

This recipe originally calls for sour cream, but since I regularly have thick Greek yogurt on hand in the fridge, I always substitute the sour cream with it. Not only is yogurt nutritionally superior to sour cream, I find it provides the finished product with a better taste and moistness, as well. I highly recommend purchasing the FAGE brand of Greek yogurt if it is available to you. Be aware of certain brands, like Trader Joe’s, which claims their product is Greek yogurt. It isn’t. And it certainly does not taste the way it’s supposed to……trust me.

1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature (keep the wrapper and use it to butter the pan before baking)
1 c. sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
1 c. Greek yogurt, preferably full fat
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 c. flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt

Topping:
1/2 c. chopped nuts (almonds, pecans, walnuts)
1/4 c. sugar
1/4 c. cinnamon

1 springform tube pan, greased (if you don’t have a springform pan, you could use a regular tube pan, however the springform pan makes the cake’s removal much easier after it’s finished baking).

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Prepare the topping first, placing the nuts, sugar, and cinnamon into a food processor. Process until the nuts are ground into fairly small pieces and incorporated with the cinnamon and sugar. Set aside.

In a small bowl, add the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda and stir together with a whisk. Set aside. In a medium-sized mixing bowl, cream together the butter and sugar. Add the eggs, one at a time, then the vanilla. Alternating between the yogurt and dry ingredients, add to the wet mixture until all the ingredients are incorporated together.

Take your buttered pan and sprinkle the bottom with the nut mixture, adding about 1/4″ evenly around the tube pan. Add half the cake batter. (Don’t worry if it’s not completely even. It will even out while baking. I drop spoonfuls around the tube pan, attempting to cover the circle evenly, but it is ok if there are some small spaces.) Add another layer of nut mixture, using the remaining portion. The finished cake looks nice with a substantial line of cinnamon and nuts throughout the middle, so don’t feel like you’re adding “too much.” Add the remaining portion of cake batter around the tube pan.

Place the pan into the oven and bake anywhere from 30-40 minutes. Set your timer for 30 minutes and keep an eye on it. You don’t want it to dry out too much. Test with a cake tester, or a good old-fashioned tooth pick, into the middle of the cake. If it comes out clean, your cake is ready.  Place on a cooling rack and allow to cool for about 10 minutes before attempting to remove it from the pan. If you are not using a springform pan, do not be tempted to remove the cake from the pan for a good 20-30 minutes, or else the cake could come out in pieces.

I like to place this cake on a nice display cake dome, but if you don’t have one, don’t worry. I do recommend covering it, which allows it to retain more moisture. This cake lends itself to a nice vanilla ice cream pairing, or perhaps even some fresh berries during the summer months. Honestly, I think this cake is better the following day, and it certainly lasts a good four days before it’s too dry. But if your house is anything like mine, I don’t think this cake will last four days…….