"I think cheesecake is a classic dessert that has captured our hearts for generations," Tory McPhail, executive chef of Commander's Palace in New Orleans, says. His restaurant is known for its Creole cream cheese cheesecake. "It's time-consuming to make, so the payoff at the end is more rewarding after all your time and effort. Cheesecake, for me, is a popular and timeless dessert because of the reactions that it evokes and the flavor memories that it conjures up."
We have the same feelings of nostalgia when we think of cheesecake—especially the rich, classic New York-style version, known for its buttery graham cracker crust and creamy, cream cheese-based filling. "Some of my happiest memories were being in the kitchen with my mom and watching her bake cheesecake for special occasions—I was only allowed to crack the eggs," Eileen Avezzano, owner of Eileen's Special Cheesecake in NYC, recounts. "The anticipation of celebrating the special occasion and then having delicious cheesecake for dessert was truly the inspiration for my bakery."
Much as we love it, though, this comforting dessert is a labor of love. Not only does it cook low and slow, but the chilling time is just as important as the cooking time to ensure a firm, structured filling. For our no-fail version, we use a blend of cream cheese and sour cream flavored with citrus and vanilla to top a graham cracker crust before adding a swirl of raspberry purée (see the recipe).
We reached out to the cheesecake experts for tips to accompany our ultimate cheesecake recipe.
Trust the crust. The base of all that creamy goodness, the crust provides the textural contrast and a defined spice to the cake. Though most of the experts agree with our classic graham cracker crust, Alan Rosen, the third-generation owner of Junior's Cheesecake in NYC, tells us he uses a sponge cake base for his cheesecake. The reason? "It should be cake from top to bottom," Rosen explains. His father even started making one of their signature desserts, layer cakes filled with layers of cheesecake, to maintain this mantra of all cake, all the time. While we love the idea (especially of a cake within a cake), we took the quick route and added crisp texture with graham crackers.
Quality control. Rosen swears by the ingredients. "The freshest and highest-quality cream cheese and eggs make the best cheesecake," he says. We couldn't agree more—the base is relatively simple, so you need those ingredients to shine.
"We take the time to make our own cream cheese from local milk provided by our Louisiana farmers," McPhail explains, emphasizing the importance of fresh ingredients for his Creole cream cheese cheesecake. "This process takes two days before you can make the batter."
At Tatte Bakery & Café in Boston, Tzurit Or ships in cream cheese from Israel for the perfect 5-percent-fat cheese. "The perfect cheese makes the perfect cake," Or says.
However, people are going beyond cream cheese and mixing other ingredients into their batter. Avezzano mixes in sour cream for a light, airy result. She even separates the eggs and whips the whites before folding them in for an almost-soufflé-like result. Though we didn't whip our eggs, we love the light tang sour cream adds to the batter, so we added some to our cake, too.
Swirled peace. While a plain cheesecake is delicious, we wanted to make a truly showstopping presentation for any special occasion. The result: a marbled swirl of fresh raspberry purée over top, which adds a vibrant pop of red and the tart sweetness of fruit. The trick is spooning the purée over the cake and using a knife to lightly swirl it into the batter, creating the marbled effect.
Rosen explains that Junior's even has a special machine built to inject the swirl batter into the cheesecake, marbling it from the bottom up. Well, excuse us.
Chill out. Every expert, especially Rosen, tells us to take the time to chill the cheesecake overnight before serving. The cheesecake should also be brought to room temperature before serving to let the flavors really shine.
Commander's Palace goes one step further: "The batter is made, then rests for a day, then it's cooked and chilled overnight, then topped and left to set, then finally ready to serve," McPhail explains.
So naturally, we wanted to see how crucial this step was. On our first test, we let the cake cool to room temperature and then tried to slice it. Though still delicious, cutting the cake was a complete mess. We went ahead and chilled the cake, only to yield clean, beautiful slices the next day.
Follow the leader. The one step everyone agrees on: a water bath. While it may scare you to add a tray of boiling water to the oven, it's actually an easy and important part of the baking process. Rosen explains that the steaming water adds moisture to the cake and helps evenly set the filling. Wrapping the bottom of the springform pan with tinfoil will prevent any water from getting in. And to make your life easier, add the pan with the cheesecake in it without any water to the oven, then quickly pour the boiling water into the pan to a depth of half an inch around the cheesecake.
"The best advice I can give you is to seek out the best base recipe and don't vary from the techniques," McPhail says, coming in as the voice of reason. "You can be creative with the sauce, or switch up the seasonal fruit, but don't mess with a tried-and-true recipe that works. I'd rather eat a cheesecake that's simple but perfect, rather than one that's too complex and overcooked. Keep it simple, have fun and don't over think it. It's dessert."
See? Piece of (cheese)cake.
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