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Sometimes classified as a flourless cake, a cheesecake is basically an unstirred custard baked in the oven, however, it can also be unbaked or typically molded in a dessert ring or springform pan then simply chilled before unmolding. It's sensitive to being baked under direct heat or being overcooked. The end result is usually a crack down the middle.
A cheesecake can be savory (and served with crackers as an appetizer), however, most of us think of the term as describing a luscious, rich and sweet dessert. The texture can vary greatly-from light and airy to dense and rich to smooth and creamy depending on the ingredients and mixing methods used.
What is a cheesecake?
Cheesecakes are made-up from two or three components layered in a special pan called a Springform or in a solid baking pan: optionally, a crust on the bottom, sometimes prebaked; a filling, in the middle, which can be savory or sweet; and optionally including a topping, such as fruit, sour cream, cookie crumbs or chocolate. Its filling is really baked custard, based on an egg protein structure, which sets into a semi-rigid gel, and needs to be treated as such.
Baking the Cheesecake: The cheesecake is typically baked at low heat, typically at 325 degrees F, often further insulated in a waterbath (water bath) or bain-marie (bain marie), so it sets into a semi-solid gel, is even-colored and smooth. During baking, the water bath never exceeded 212 degrees F, the temperature at which water converts to steam. Plus, the evaporated water from the waterbath creates a humid oven, further insulating the cake.
SARAH SAYS: Often the filled pan is placed in a larger pan that's half-filled with water to insulate the delicate, creamy cake from the oven's strong bottom heat, which might give the baked cake a porous, or overly browned and cracked, rather than silky texture. This is called baking the cake in a water bath.
When is a cheesecake done baking?:
This is one of the most asked and hardest questions to answer. Cheesecakes are done when they are baked to 150 degrees F when an instant read thermometer has been placed in the center of the cake. (Bake until the center of the cheese cake reaches around 150 degrees F. As the cake cools, it will reach about 160 degrees F, which is the optimal temperature for doneness.) When baked over 160 degrees F, cheesecakes tend to crack because it continues to cook after baking, and its internal temperature rises to over 170 degrees F.
A cheesecake is also considered done baking when a 3-inch circle in its center jiggles (but does not slosh) slightly when its container is tapped lightly on its side with the handle of a wooden spoon.
SARAH SAYS: If using an Instant Read Thermometer, check the cheesecake's temperature once, or again through the same hole made by the end of the thermometer; multiple holes made in the cheesecake's center can cause the cheesecake to crack.
Cooling and Refrigerating the Cheesecake: The last phase of cooking takes place during cooling. Remove the cheesecake to a cooling rack, and to prevent cracking, free the cheesecake from the sides of the pan with a long sharp knife, after 10 minutes from when it comes out of the oven. It's because cheesecake shrink as they cool, and if they cling to the pan's sides, they will crack at their weakest point to relieve the pressure, typically in their center. However, if you grease the pan's sides before making your cheesecake, the cake will shrink from the sides of the pan as it cools, freeing the cheesecake naturally.
Refrigeration afterwards is necessary to set the cake's filling into a semi-rigid gel. Then, the cheesecake can be served, stored in the refrigerator since it is perishable or frozen.
MORE INFORMATION ABOUT CHEESECAKES
Cheesecake Fillings: The cheesecake's filling is a thick, rich, creamy custard made from mainly eggs and/or yolks, as well as cream or milk, sugar and usually salt and flavorings. A small amount of starch such as flour, cornstarch, arrowroot and potato starch can be found in some cheesecake recipes to help stabilize the gel, while not in others.
SARAH SAYS: For a thick cheesecake recipe, baked in an 8- or 9-inch Springform or a 9- x 2-inch cake pan, look for recipes that contain 2 pounds (4, 8-ounce packs) of cream cheese.
Cheesecake fillings can be sweet or savory and begin with a soft cheese, typically cream cheese, in the block form, but can also be mascarpone (MODERN ITALIAN MASCARPONE CHEESECAKE RECIPE), cottage cheese, farmer cheese, Neufchatel (HEALTHY OVEN MODERN NEW YORK CHEESECAKE RECIPE), ricotta, goat cheese (MARIO BATALI'S LEMON GOAT CHEESE CHEESECAKE RECIPE) or yogurt cheese (PERSIMMON TOPPED YOGURT CHEESECAKE RECIPE), cottage cheese or sometimes Swiss or cheddar cheese, or a combination.
Cheesecake Crusts: A cheesecake typically has a crumb crust. The classic GRAHAM CRACKER PIE OR TART CRUST RECIPE is the most widely used, made from a mixture of graham cracker cookie crumbs, sugar and melted butter. The mixture is then pressed down into the bottom of the pan, where it can be optionally prebaked for less than 10 minutes and cooled, before the filling is poured in. The cake is baked, again, for about an hour in order to set the custard-like filling.
A graham cracker crust works perfectly in our CREAMY AND LUSCIOUS NO CRACK CHEESECAKE RECIPE. Some crust recipes use a combination of chopped nuts, cookies, sugar and melted butter, such as in our GLUTEN-FREE CREAMY AND DENSE CHEESECAKE RECIPE. A Pound cake can be used to line a cake pan, with a cheesecake layer baked on top, such as we have done with the DECORATED LAYERED MINI-CHEESECAKE AND POUND CAKES RECIPE. A thin Sponge cake bottom makes a delicious crust lining for JUNIOR'S FAMOUS NO. 1 STRAWBERRY CHEESECAKE RECIPE. Or, a cheesecake can be baked directly in a pan with no crust at all! However, make sure your Springform pan has a tight seal.
Cheesecake Toppings: Right after baking or after being chilled, cheesecakes can be topped by varied choices as sour cream, raspberry, strawberry, praline and streusel. Toppings also include whipped cream, fruit or even chocolate ganache. A cheesecake's edge may be trimmed with crust or cookie crumbs pressed into it. On top of that, frosting can be applied, such as with our WHITE CHOCOLATE FROSTED HAZELNUT CHEESECAKE WITH RASBERRY SAUCE RECIPE.