Cheesecake is a classic
As autumn begins, pumpkins come to mind, and there are plenty of savory as well as sweet ways to use them, for example, pumpkin cheesecake. My writing partner, Georgeanne Brennan, makes this for her family at Thanksgiving. Cheesecake, however, has been on my mind since the summer, when I ate a slice in Philadelphia.
I confess I hadn’t tasted cheesecake for years. Perhaps the overabundance of its availability commercially dimmed my senses for it. But this summer, in downtown Philadelphia’s old, brick, iconic, gastronomic bazaar known as the Reading Terminal Market, I found myself drawn to the Termini Brothers Bakery for a slice of Philadelphia cheesecake. It did not disappoint.
So admiring was I of its creamy, yet cakey-light texture and the delicate flavor that I turned down a taste of Philadelphia’s other signature dessert – world famous Bassetts Ice Cream. This is a fifth generation family business established in 1861, about the same time as the Reading Terminal Market.
The sensory euphoria of this enclosed public market, with its one hundred vendors including antique cookbook stalls, Provencal tablecloth shops and Amish poultry providers, perhaps colors my memory of how great the cheesecake was. After all environment makes a difference to our enjoyment of eating. Since then, however my cheesecake radar has been activated, seemingly attracting more information and people who love to make it.
Cheesecake is a classic dessert that seemingly never goes out of fashion. The quiet, well appointed aunt at the festive occasion table. Dependable, not at all edgy, yet a hint of change can renew excitement as the seasons change. In fall with pumpkin or chestnut puree, in the spring with raspberries perched on top, a blueberry sauce draping over it lazily in summer, and a layer of kiwi clothing the top in winter. Cheesecake even goes to spring’s Passover table with a ground almond crust.
The origins of the first cheesecake recipe date back to Greece about 230 A.D. Predictably in our world of niche markets, there are actually books on cheesecake history and cheesecake around the world, and the inevitable Cheesecake Bible. The cheesecake of old no doubt differed greatly in taste and consistency from the cheesecake we love today in America.
Yet cheesecake continues to be interpreted differently around the world. But of course, as does cheese, providing cultural differences that reflect place. In Italy, ricotta or mascarpone cheese is used, Germany uses quark and France uses Neufchâtel, the cheese after which Philadelphia cream cheese is patterned.
I recently had goat cheese cheesecake that went over the line for my taste — the classics are classic for a reason — the recipe works. Whether cheesecake is really a cake at all, for it might be a torte, or even a custard pie. This is not a question that keeps me up at night.
For Americans, it’s hard to imagine cheesecake without its signature ingredient, Philadelphia Cream Cheese, which was developed by James Kraft in 1912 (he pasteurized what others had developed in America as early as 1872.) And though virtually all American cheesecakes use cream cheese, ok there are a few outliers using cottage cheese or goat cheese, there are different “styles” of cheesecake.
Philadelphia style is lighter and creamier than New York cheesecake. It is rich and has a dense, smooth and creamy consistency, created through using sour cream, or heavy cream and sometimes extra egg yolks. Chicago style is a baked cream-cheese version that is firm outside and creamy inside. California style is light, usually with a crumb crust of some sort – commonly graham crackers.
My neighbor, 18-year-old Mia Stombler-Levine, has made five of her classic cheesecake so far this year. She started first made one for her dad Steve’s birthday several years ago. She continued to perfect it, eventually developing a gluten-free walnut crust for her sister Sophie. I tasted it and loved it. Perhaps this classic dessert will bring pleasure to someone special at your table, as it has for Mia and her family.
Mia’s Cheesecake Recipe
Mia says the cheesecake is easy to make. It takes her 30 minutes to make, however it must cool for 30 minutes and be refrigerated for four hours. She makes it the night before she serves it. (Serves 10-12)
1 pound cream cheese, 2 (8-ounce) blocks, softened (low fat works)
1 cup sugar
2 cups sour cream (1 pint)
1 Meyer lemon, zested (about 2 teaspoons)
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 cups walnut pieces
1/2 cup sugar
8 tablespoons (one stick) unsalted butter, melted
- To make the crust, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Prepare an 11-inch springform pan by spraying edges with a non-stick cooking spray or coating with butter.
- In a food processor, pulse the walnuts with the sugar until finely ground. Add the butter; pulse about 30 seconds, or until the mixture resembles moist sand.
- Press the nut mixture into the bottom of the pan, being careful to push the mixture up along edges so that the cheesecake will not fall over the crust.
- Bake for 15 minutes, or until slightly browned. Set aside to cool.
- To make the filling, beat the cream cheese on low speed in the bowl of an electric mixer for 1 minute, or until smooth and free of any lumps. Add the eggs, one at a time and continue to beat slowly until combined. Gradually add sugar and beat about 30 seconds, until mixture is creamy. Add sour cream, lemon zest, and vanilla, and beat another 30 seconds. The batter should be well mixed but not overbeaten. Pour the filling into the crust-lined pan and smooth the top with a spatula.
- Set the cheesecake pan on a large piece of aluminum foil and fold up the sides around it. Place the cake pan in a roasting pan. Pour boiling water into the roasting pan until the water is about one quarter of the way up the sides of the cheesecake pan, the foil will keep the water from seeping into the cheesecake. Bake for 45-50 minutes. The cheesecake should still jiggle, but not look or be soupy. It will firm up after chilling, so be careful not to overcook. Let cool in pan for 30 minutes.
- Chill in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours. Unmold and serve cold.
Ann M. Evans writes and draws in Davis, and watches over her beehives, chickens and garden. She continues her search for great cheesecake recipes; if you have one, feel free to share it with her. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Georgeanne Brennan lives in Winters, where she writes and oversees her new entrepreneurial adventure, La Vie Rustic – an on-line store with kitchen and garden products in the French style. www.lavierustic.com
Together they have a food and agricultural consultancy, Evans & Brennan, LLC. Follow their blog, Who’s Cooking School Lunch? (www.whoscookingschoolunch.com) Or reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.