Perfect cheesecake is not easy to create in a home kitchen. Today I am excited to welcome guest blogger Alisa Huntsman, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, who has been baking professionally for over 30 years. She is the author of Sky High Irresistible Triple Layer Cakes and Desserts from the Famous Loveless Cafe. Besides baking, Alisa is also a Master Gardener, Beekeeper and a Chicken Herder. Please follow her blog, Will Garden For Cake and @janeofmanytrades on Instagram.
Years ago when my husband and I owned a bakery, we sold quite a few cheesecakes to our wholesale accounts. The cakes needed to be every bit as pretty as they were tasty. Cracks in the surface of the cheesecake just would not do. Trial and error in our kitchen led me to develop a foolproof method for baking cheesecakes that would not crack. Although we call them cakes, cheesecakes really are thick, rich custards baked in a crust and the ingredients require special handling to achieve the perfect consistency. We expect them to be creamy and smooth, and depending on the style of cheesecake, perhaps firm and a little dry in the sense that they are not like a mousse but more like cream cheese in texture.
The first thing to consider is the cream cheese you will use to bake the cake. Always choose a full fat, non whipped cream cheese because you want less additives and stabilizers in the ingredient list. While most people instinctively reach for the name brand, I generally prefer the store brand and suggest you try it as well. Just about every recipe you read will call for the use of a springform pan; don’t do it! While I think springform pans are a useful tool in the kitchen, they are the worst choice for cheesecakes. The very nature of the pan, the fact that it is two separate pieces that are clasped together should be a warning. No matter what you do, that seal will never be tight enough to prevent leaking and if you are not paying attention, you could have quite a smoky mess in your oven if the grease from the crust begins to seep out. The other factor at play here is the pan itself. Springform pans are almost always made from a thin gauge metal that gives little to no insulation in the oven, and most are made from stainless steel which is not the best metal to bake a cake in, since it tends to reflect heat.
Whenever a new baker asks me what type of pan to use, I always suggest that they purchase a heavy gauge aluminum cake pan, the type of pan used to bake cake layers. Aluminum is very good at conducting heat evenly and that is why most standard cake pans are made with it, and another plus is the fact that they do not rust like springform pans often do. A good quality aluminum pan will be made out of a heavy gauge metal and the heavier it is, the better it will bake cakes because it helps to insulate the cake itself. Before you panic about getting the cake out of the pan, there is a method for that too, but the cake must be chilled for about 4-6 hours to set completely.
Whether you are new to baking or a seasoned pro, it helps to approach cheesecakes as you would custards such as a crème caramel. Recipes for cake layers will instruct you to whip and cream the ingredients to incorporate lots of air to aid in the leavening process. However, when you make the batter for a crème caramel, the instructions are quite the opposite; stirring, not whipping is the norm. Put simply, never whip the ingredients because whipping adds air to the mixture and in the oven, air shows itself as bubbles. When you taste custard that is full of air bubbles, the texture can seem grainy rather than silky and when it comes to the perfect custard, you want a silky, smooth texture that melts in your mouth.
Perfect Cheesecake Instructions:
What is the best way to mix up a cheesecake? How can you make the batter without creaming or whipping? Easy, you use a food processor. Food processors are the darlings of the kitchen. They can slice, dice, puree and emulsify just about anything but it is the last method listed, emulsify, that is what we need to do here. If handled properly, the ingredients will emulsify in the food processor, meaning that they are perfectly combined with all of the ingredients suspended together so that they will not separate. More importantly, the mixture is prepared without a lot of air being whipped into the ingredients leaving it to bake without bubbles of air expanding in the oven to create a rough texture.
To use the food processor, have all of your ingredients at room temperature and ready to go. For ingredients such as cream cheese, eggs, sour cream, this means that they should be out on the counter for about 2 hours to soften and warm up to approximately 70F. Other components like chocolate or purees should also be about that temperature so melt the chocolate and let it sit for a while, as long as it stays liquid, it will emulsify but the warmer it is, the thinner it will be and ultimately, it will blend in easier.
Once you have all of your ingredients prepped, place the cream cheese into the food processor with the sugar, flour and flavorings (think extracts, vanilla bean or citrus zests) and pulse the machine a few times to combine everything. Give the bowl a good scraping so that the mixture clinging to the sides of the bowl are blended in as well. Add the sour cream and again, just a few pulses to incorporate it into the mixture. Next to add to the batter should be the main flavoring component such as chocolate or puree and after pulsing it in, scrape the bowl so that it can be blended completely. Finally, the eggs need to be added and this is where the method changes a bit. To add the eggs, crack them into a measuring cup large enough to hold all of them at once and with the machine running, drop the eggs in-one at a time and allow the mixture to blend for about 30-45 seconds. Stop the machine, scrape the sides of the bowl and pulse it to combine. Voila, perfectly blended cheesecake batter!
Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and get ready to bake your cheesecake. The last source of controversy is the often called for waterbath. Skip it, that’s right, just skip it! If you have handled the mixture correctly, the only issue that can cause it to puff up and crack is excessive heat either from a high oven temperature or just over baking. A water bath will not prevent the problem in either case. Custards need to bake at low temperatures because it prevents the liquids in them from gassing out. Keeping the temperature at a maximum of 300F will do more to prevent cracking than a water bath will, and it is far less dangerous. Remember what I said about springform pans leaking? Keep in mind that the same crack that lets grease out also lets water in. By using a cake pan, you will not be wrapping your pan in foil to keep out the water.
Have your oven preheated to 300F and place the cake onto a rack in the center of the oven. Bake it for about 40-45 minutes and this next step is the most important part of a crack free cake. Remove the cake from the oven and place it on a flat surface. Using a blunt edged tool such as a mini palette knife or a butter knife, run the blade around the edge of the cake to release it from the pan. You should insert the blade about ½ to ¾ of an inch down the side and carefully run it around the edge. Do not use a sharp knife for this because aluminum is soft in comparison to a knife and you will scrape filings off the pan and deposit them onto the cake. Considering that the cake is actually custard, releasing the side of it from the pan will prevent the cake from cracking. When custards cool, they contract or shrink a bit. If the cake is stuck to the side of the pan, the only way it can contract is to crack right down the middle of the cake. Keep in mind, this will only work if the cake has not been over baked or over mixed.
The cake should not be ready at this point but it will be close. Return it to the oven, turn the oven off and allow it to finish baking in the remaining heat, about 15 minutes more. Your fingertips are the best tool for testing the doneness of a cake. Using a knife cuts a slit into the cake that can actually cause the cake to crack badly as it cools, even if you release it from the side of the pan. When it is baked, the surface will rise slightly, it will have a little bit of color around the edge and when pressed very gently, near the center, it will feel almost firm. How do I define firm? Envision a balloon that is nearly blown up to capacity; when you press it, the surface yields but it still holds its shape. Once the cake is baked, let it cool on the counter for a while then place it in the fridge to get really cold, about 4-6 hours minimum, but overnight is best. When you are ready to remove the cake from the pan, take a large plate or a cake circle and wrap it in plastic, spray the surface with grease and set it aside. Have your serving plate nearby as well. Place the cold cake in the pan directly on the burner of the stove and heat the bottom and sides gently. You should be able to handle it without gloves so do not get it too hot. When it is evenly warmed, gently shake it from side to side-the cake should move, place the greased plate over the top of the cake and invert it. If the cake does not slide out immediately, give it a few gentle shakes to help it along and if it really isn’t cooperating, heat it again. Lift off the pan, invert the serving plate over the crust and turn it all over again.