Will the real cheesecake please stand up?
Some say there are as many cheesecakes recipes as there are bakers. If this is true, then we can be forgiven our bewilderment over the immense canon of cheesecake variables . What exactly is a cheesecake? Which is best? Why are they so different?
Cheese in a cake?
A cheesecake is not the dry crumbly cake we normally associate with cake. This is because cheese is too dense to allow eggs to rise. The eggs tend to set, in a custard-like manner, making a moist cake. Further, cheese is not a very intuitive choice for a sweet cake. The sugar conflicts with the flavour of the cheese. Therefore lighter fresh cheeses are used, such as cream cheese, curd cheese, ricotta or even fresh goats cheese.
To cook or not to cook?
You can do both. In cooked versions the eggs ‘set’ the cake. (Some cakes use beaten egg whites to create a lighter texture.) Uncooked cakes use either gelatine or stiff whipped creams which ‘set’ when chilled. Cooked types have a denser texture and richer taste than lighter ‘chilled’ versions.
And what about a crust?
Cheesecakes can have a pastry crust, a crumb crust or no crust at all. The pastry can be shortcrust or sweet and the crumb crust can be baked or chilled. Perhaps the crust is the element passed-down in family recipes that helps define your idea of a cheesecake. My memories are of an American-style dense cake with a thick biscuit crumb base (usually made with Graham Crackers). When living in the UK, I would scoff at the idea of an ‘English’ tearoom-style cheesecake which was quite dry, made in a shortcrust pastry and served at room temperature. The archetypical New York-style cheesecake comes from Lindy’s deli in New York and is made with a pâte sucrée crust on the bottom and sides.
And the rest?
The New York cheesecake will often be piled with fresh fruits or enrobed with set fruits in a thickened jelly glaze. Fruit can also be used with a lighter chilled-style cheesecake. This can even be adapted into a kind of parfait and served in a glass. Some styles include a soured cream icing. Other styles will benefit from just a simple dusting of icing sugar.
Of course the fresh sweetness of cream cheese is a great foil for other flavours especially chocolate and caramel. These can be incorporated into the cake mixture or poured over the top as a thick coating or runny sauce.
Having made a few cheesecakes, I am much more comfortable with my understanding of genre. I am very proud to add my own version into the immense canon of cheesecake variables…