Some people, like me, are born with a dislike of bitter tasting vegetables and I suspect that’s also the secret of my cheesecake habit. While kale and cabbage I can live without, a good cheesecake is the cure for everything from the taste of bitter greens to bad days. So if it’s made really well, what kitchen hero Nigel Slater rightly calls “perfect” with “a really fudgy, creamy filling and a crisp base” then it has that a soothing effect that few desserts can equal.
Though very easy to make, it has a reputation for being a right pain. Overbaking is the common stumble, and going low-cal and lean with the cheese filling doesn’t help either. But if you keep it rich, bake it at a low temperature till it gently wobbles in the centre, you’ll soon hit your cheesecake groove and make it like a pro.
Good cheese for all
Full-fat cream cheese creates that rich comforting sensation when you eat it but can sometimes be overly “creamy” and lack that rougher, drier texture you get from a lower-fat cottage cheese or ricotta. Three-quarters full-fat cream cheese to one quarter cottage or ricotta, beaten together well with the sugar until smooth, is a good balance if you like the texture a little coarser. Be careful using extra low-fat cream cheese, as they’re made with edible gums that will turn the cheesecake texture too soft and smooth. Using more expensive artisan full-fat curd cheese adds a cost, that to my mind, outweighs the slight flavour benefit.
A little starch helps
Cooking a cheesecake is a little like cooking scrambled eggs, as the line between creamy and curdled is fine. A spoonful of cornflour (or flour) beaten in with the sugar helps as it will absorb excess moisture and thicken well before the filling is boiling. Don’t use too much, a scant tablespoon for every 450g/1lb cheese is enough, or leave it out for a more delicate texture if you’re careful when you bake it.
Stick to simple flavours
Vanilla, lemon and orange zest, a little brandy or rum: simple for the filling is usually best with more intense flavours either floating on the top or as I do with my cherry crumble cheesecake and lay it next to the crust. For a chocolate flavour replace one quarter of the cheese with melted dark chocolate and fold this through at the end, and replace the cornflour with cocoa.
To bake or not to bake, that is the question
Real baked cheesecake is unlike anything you find at the supermarket, no matter how promising it appears on the packet. Baking cheesecake brings out the “cake” texture of the filling: imagine a slightly overcooked “white brownie” made entirely from milk and curd cheese and you’re getting close. It flakes very finely when cut, yet each spoonful dissolves to softness in the mouth, and this texture is achieved through very gentle baking. Too much and it turns coarse and slightly tough, too little and it fails to set.
Unbaked cheesecake requires something slightly acidic, either just the natural acidity of the cream cheese or a little lemon juice, to achieve a set texture. The effect is much smoother than when baked, but they can be made very quickly and easily. Best made using full-fat soft cream cheese.
Gentle heat for an even bake
I bake my cheesecakes straight in the oven at 150C/300F/Gas 2. If your oven can reliably go that low then you should get an even bake without the edges overcooking or the top cracking. The other preferred way, so long as the seal on your baking tin is nice and tight, is to bake it in a water-bath. Line the inside of your baking tin with a single sheet of unbroken foil that goes up the sides neatly, add the base and fill it as usual, then place it inside a roasting tin and pour boiling water around it to halfway. This ensures the filling will heat very slowly and hardly rise above boiling.
Plan ahead for the best result
Leaving a cheesecake to cool and chill thoroughly, preferably overnight, improves the flavour and texture enormously. As the fat from the cheese firms on chilling it holds the aeration steady in the cake, so that on slicing it appears lighter and more delicate. And you, as the cook, gain as you regain your appetite and forget any stress making it.
What are your tips for a perfect cheesecake: bake and traditional, or unbaked and relaxed?
Dan Lepard is a food writer for the Guardian and a baking expert.