Welcome to the May Baking Challenge!
Last month, I found myself completely stuck on the May Baking Challenge recipe. I felt pressured to top croissants, the April Baking Challenge, and was about to settle on French macarons but my brain quickly vetoed that notion. I figured we could all use something a little more approachable in May, so I swapped light-as-air cookies for heavier-than-bricks cheesecake. You're welcome, pants!
(PS: here's my original French macaron tutorial if you're interested. And this cheesecake isn't heavier than a brick, I promise!)
NOT PLAIN CHEESECAKE
As much as I love cheesecake, I've never published a classic cheesecake recipe. There's always been peanut butter, sprinkles, blueberry swirls, Snickers, pumpkin, lemon, red velvet, or Nutella. That's a lot of cheesecake without a single nod to where it all originates: classic cheesecake.
To me, classic cheesecake is creamy, silky, and smooth. My recipe is not quite as dense as New York cheesecake, but boasts equal richness and is just as special. It's thick, it's velvety, and there's no denying its decadence. When I imagine what Chandler and Rachel's stolen cheesecake tastes like, it's this!
While there's a glaring absence of chunks, swirls, and sprinkles in this ivory crowned jewel, there's nothing plain about her.
Preparing cheesecake is rather simple, it's baking cheesecake that could result in a flop. Many factors are at play like the springform pan leaking, the surface of the cheesecake cracking, under-baking, over-baking, etc. I have plenty of tricks that will help guarantee classic cheesecake perfection, including determining when the cheesecake is done and everything you need to know about a cheesecake water bath.
You only need a few basic staple ingredients for cheesecake.
- Block cream cheese: Four 8-ounce blocks of full-fat cream cheese are the base of this cheesecake. That's 2 pounds. Make sure you're buying the blocks of cream cheese and not cream cheese spread. There's no diets allowed in cheesecake, so don't pick up the reduced fat variety!
- Sugar: 1 cup. Not that much considering how many mouths you can feed with this dessert. Over-sweetened cheesecake is hardly cheesecake anymore. Using only 1 cup of sugar gives this cheesecake the opportunity to balance tangy and sweet, just as classic cheesecake should taste.
- Sour cream: 1 cup. I recently tested cheesecake with 1 cup of heavy cream instead, but ended up sticking with my original (which can be found here with blueberry swirls!). I was curious about the heavy cream addition and figured it would yield a softer cheesecake bite. The cheesecake was soft, but lacked the stability and richness I wanted. It was almost too creamy. Sour cream is most definitely the right choice.
- A little flavor: 1 teaspoon of pure vanilla extract and 2 of lemon juice. The lemon juice brightens up the cheesecake's overall flavor and vanilla is always a good idea.
- Eggs: 3 eggs are the final ingredient. You'll beat the eggs in last, one at a time, until they are *just* incorporated. Do not overmix the batter once the eggs are added. This will whip air into the cheesecake batter, resulting in cheesecake cracking and deflating.
And as always, make sure all of the cheesecake batter ingredients are at room temperature so the batter remains smooth, even, and combines quickly. Beating cold ingredients together will result in a chunky over-beaten cheesecake batter, hardly the way we want to start!
GRAHAM CRACKER CRUST
Since classic is the keyword of the day, we're sticking with cheesecake's main squeeze: a graham cracker crust. I reduced the butter and granulated sugar from my original recipe by 1 Tablespoon each. I find this crust remains a little more crunchy. Make sure you pack the crust in very tight and pre-bake it to help prevent any sogginess.
I like to use the bottom of a small measuring cup to pack the crust tightly into the springform pan. Speaking of, you'll need a 9 or 10-inch springform pan. A springform pan has removable sides so you can safely release the cheesecake without having to flip the pan over or struggle to cut the cheesecake inside the pan. Springform pans can leak if you're baking the cheesecake in a water bath (more on that below!), but this particular pan is reliable. I haven't had any leaking issues.
THE WATER BATH
I promise a water bath is nothing complicated. All you're doing is placing the springform pan in a roasting pan, filling it with hot water, and baking. What's the point, you ask? I actually wrote an entire post about a cheesecake water bath years ago. I figured it's time for an update and a video tutorial, so here goes nothing!
Cheesecake loves a humid environment. The steam from the hot water will lift the cheesecake up slowly and evenly, reducing the risk of cracks on the surface. Additionally, this slow and even baking method helps prevent the cheesecake from sinking back down as it cools. Taking a few extra minutes to prepare a water bath for your cheesecake is well worth it. I can't say enough how valuable it is!
The cheesecake will take about an hour in the oven. Don't be tempted to constantly check on it. Opening and closing the oven door interrupts the temperature-- and cheesecake is very sensitive to temperature. The cheesecake is done after about 1 hour when the sides appear set and the center slightly wobbles.
Even though the cheesecake is finished baking, the work here is not done. Another way to help prevent the cheesecake from deflating and cracking is to initially cool it inside the oven. You can see me do this in the video above. When the cheesecake is done, turn the oven off, crack open the oven door, and leave the cheesecake inside for 1 hour. A drastic and sudden change of temperature isn't ideal for cheesecake-- from hot oven to cool counter-- so do your best to control the environment by leaving the cheesecake inside. Does this make sense?
After 1 hour inside the cooling oven, the cheesecake will still be a little warm. Now it's safe to set it on the counter to cool. Once cool, transfer to your refrigerator. Remove the aluminum foil from around the pan, set the pan on a plate (since the bottom may be a little wet), and chill for at least 4 hours. Have you ever tasted room temperature cheesecake? Don't. Chilling in the refrigerator is a must!
There's no greater test to your willpower than those several hours you're forced to wait as the cheesecake cools down and then chills in the refrigerator. But every minute is completely worth it when you take that first luscious bite.
TIPS FOR PERFECT CHEESECAKE
To summarize, here are some tricks I discussed:
- Do not over-mix the cheesecake batter
- Bake in a water bath
- Leave cheesecake in the cooling oven for 1 hour
- Cool completely at room temperature
Enjoy your velvet-rich cheesecake as is or get a little fancy with a selection of toppings. I love cheesecake best with fruit, so I made a simple raspberry sauce. You can also top with homemade lemon curd, salted caramel, strawberry compote, or fresh whipped cream. Get creative or keep it simple. Either way, it's going to impress. (And you'd totally eat it off the floor... Chandler and Rachel style.)
JOIN THE BAKING CHALLENGE!
Always classic and never out of style, cheesecake is May's Baking Challenge. If an entire cheesecake is too much, I'm sharing a scaled down recipe for 9 mini cheesecakes on my blog later this week. There's also this small-batch cheesecake recipe from my dear friend Christina's cookbook, too! You can make cheesecake in any proportion or any flavor for the May Baking Challenge. I'm excited to see how you bake and serve it!
If you’re not into this recipe, here is the alternate May Baking Challenge:
After you make the baking challenge recipe or alternative, share your photos throughout this month using #sallysbakingchallenge on Instagram or Twitter, or upload a photo of your recipe to my Facebook page or Facebook group. Or email it to me! (You can also message me your photo on Instagram if your account is private.) By doing so, you’re automatically entered in the $250 giveaway!!
Graham Cracker Crust
- 1 and 1/2 cups (150g) graham cracker crumbs (about 10 full sheet graham crackers)
- 5 Tablespoons (70g) unsalted butter, melted
- 1/4 cup (50g) granulated sugar
- four 8-ounce blocks (904g) full-fat cream cheese, softened to room temperature
- 1 cup (200g) granulated sugar
- 1 cup (240g) full-fat sour cream, at room temperature
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice (optional, but recommended)
- 3 large eggs, at room temperature
- topping suggestions: salted caramel, lemon curd, strawberry compote, chocolate ganache, red wine chocolate ganache, fresh fruit, whipped cream, or raspberry sauce (recipe in notes)
- Adjust the oven rack to the lower-middle position and preheat oven to 350°F (177°C).
- Make the crust: Using a food processor, pulse the graham crackers into crumbs. Pour into a medium bowl and stir in sugar and melted butter until combined. (You can also pulse it all together in the food processor.) Mixture will be sandy. Press firmly into the bottom and slightly up the sides of a 9-inch or 10-inch springform pan. No need to grease the pan first. I use the bottom of a measuring cup to pack the crust down tightly. Pre-bake for 8 minutes. Remove from the oven and place the hot pan on a large piece of aluminum foil. The foil will wrap around the pan for the water bath in step 4. Allow crust to slightly cool as you prepare the filling.
- Make the filling: Using a handheld or stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese and granulated sugar together on medium-high speed in a large bowl until the mixture is smooth and creamy, about 2 minutes. Add the sour cream, vanilla extract, and lemon juice then beat until fully combined. On medium speed, add the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition until just blended. After the final egg is incorporated into the batter, stop mixing. To help prevent the cheesecake from deflating and cracking as it cools, avoid over-mixing the batter as best you can.
- Prepare the simple water bath (see note): Watch my video tutorial above; the visual guide will assist you in this step! Boil a pot of water. You need 1 inch of water in your roasting pan for the water bath, so make sure you boil enough. I use an entire kettle of hot water. As the water is heating up, wrap the aluminum foil around the springform pan. Pour the cheesecake batter on top of the crust. Use a rubber spatula or spoon to smooth it into an even layer. Place the pan inside of a large roasting pan. Carefully pour the hot water inside of the pan and place in the oven. (Or you can place the roasting pan in the oven first, then pour the hot water in. Whichever is easier for you.)
- (Note: if you notice the cheesecake browning too quickly on top, tent it with aluminum foil halfway through baking.) Bake cheesecake for 55-70 minutes or until the center is almost set. When it's done, the center of the cheesecake will slightly wobble if you gently shake the pan. Turn the oven off and open the oven door slightly. Let the cheesecake sit in the oven as it cools down for 1 hour. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely at room temperature. Then refrigerate the cheesecake for at least 4 hours or overnight.
- Use a knife to loosen the chilled cheesecake from the rim of the springform pan, then remove the rim. Using a clean sharp knife, cut into slices for serving. For neat slices, wipe the knife clean and dip into warm water between each slice.
- Serve cheesecake with desired toppings. Cover and store leftover cheesecake in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
Make ahead tip: This cheesecake can be made the day before. It has to chill for quite some time before serving. See step 5. Another way to make this cheesecake ahead of time is to freeze it. Cheesecake can be frozen up to 2 or 3 months. I find this tutorial for freezing cheesecakes helpful. When ready to eat, thaw overnight in the refrigerator before serving.
- For the fresh raspberry sauce: Combine 2 cups fresh or frozen raspberries (do not thaw if using frozen), 3 Tablespoons granulated sugar, and 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir the mixture as it begins to cook, breaking up some of the raspberries as you stir. Once simmering, continue to stir and allow to simmer for 5 minutes. Remove the pan from heat and press through a fine mesh strainer to remove the seeds. Allow the thin raspberry sauce to cool completely before using. Store for 1-2 weeks in the refrigerator.
- A note on the water bath: Some readers have baked cheesecakes with a large pan of hot water on the rack beneath the baking cheesecake. In this manner, the cheesecake does not bake directly in a roasting pan of water. I have never tried this method, but many report back with great reviews! This is a wonderful alternative if you do not own a large roasting pan or are nervous about your springform pan leaking. Simply place a large baking pan filled with 1 inch of hot water on the bottom rack of the oven.
- Why is everything at room temperature? Bring all cold ingredients to room temperature before beginning. Room temperature ingredients combine quickly and evenly, so you won't risk over-mixing. Also, beating cold ingredients together will result in a chunky cheesecake batter, hardly the way you want to begin!
- Non-US readers: With the help of other non-US readers who do not have access to graham crackers, here is a basic crust recipe you can follow for a 9-inch springform pan. 250g digestive biscuits + 100g butter + no sugar. Grind the digestive biscuits into crumbs, melt the butter, and mix with the crumbs. Press into pan and pre-bake as directed in step 2. And from what I understand, spreadable cream cheese sold in a tub in countries outside of the US is a little different from the spreadable cream cheese in the US. It's thicker, sturdier, and more solid and should be OK to make cheesecake. I have no experience with it, but this is what I've heard from other non-US readers.
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