25 September 2011

Urban Cheesecake

You may be aware than I am a big fan of homemade birthday cakes. But my husband doesn't want cake, he wants a cheese custard with a crust. Sure, we call it cheesecake, but it's not cake. I feel like I'm cheating somehow, serving up custard pie when I should be making layers and frosting them, and maybe even trying out some of the tricks I learned at the cupcake workshop I attended a while back. But no, he wants cheesecake and it's hard to argue that the layer cake means I love him more than the cheese pie he really wants.

So it must be the best cheesecake possible. Naturally I turn to someone known for being meticulous about recipes, Jack Bishop of America's Test Kitchen. The cheesecake is fabulous. It is creamy with just enough sweetness. The crust holds together but doesn't require you to hack at it with the knife.

We will ignore the fact that this recipe comes from gimmick cookbook Cooking with Friends where the Friends in question live in absurdly large Manhattan apartments that are missing a fourth wall. We'll just pretend that I wouldn't buy such a cookbook, nor would I have allowed it to survive 15 years of moves and bookshelf purges. That way I don't have to explain why Phoebe, Joey, Monica, Chandler, Rachel and Ross stare out at me from my collection of cookbooks. (“It's really a Jack Bishop cookbook!” I'd have to explain. “And the recipes are really good!” I'd continue. Then you'd shake your head at me and my silly cookbook.)

The cheesecake is in the “Urban Living” chapter, rather than the dessert chapter. In 1995, cheesecake, pesto pizza and grilled corn sprinkled with chili powder were things you would encounter only in a metropolis, so says my cookbook. I don't know if that is strictly true, since my small-town library provided me with an entire cookbook full of cheesecake recipes in 1996 when I first made a birthday cheesecake for my college boyfriend. But it did make me think about the way that our food world has changed in the last 15 years. Both the World Wide Web and the Food Network were in their infancy in 1996, though of course libraries had cookbook collections and PBS had Julia Child. Everybody has heard of pesto pizza now, right? And we've learned to sprinkle chili powder on nearly everything. Cheesecake is certainly everywhere, including Factories that want to serve you cheesecake if you happen to have room after the platter of main course you ordered.

If we were to write an Urban Living chapter today, what food would we use to entice a cook in middle-America who was looking for a change?

Urban Cheesecake
adapted from Cooking with Friends

Graham Cracker Crust
5 ounces graham crackers
2 Tablespoons sugar
3 Tablespoons unsalted butter

2 pounds cream cheese (low-fat works perfectly)
1 ¼ cups sugar
4 large eggs
½ cup sour cream
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 450 Fahrenheit.

Place all crust ingredients in the work bowl of a food processor and pulse until butter is fully incorporated. Alternately, melt the butter, crush the crackers and mix all the ingredients together.
Place in the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan and press down with a smooth bottomed glass. Set aside.

Beat the cream cheese in a large bowl until light and fluffy. Beat in the sugar until smooth. Beat in eggs one at a time. Beat in the sour cream and vanilla.

Pour the batter into the springform pan.

Bake for 15 minutes.

Open the oven door all the way. Turn the oven temperature down to 200 Fahrenheit. Close door and continue baking for 45-60 minutes. The cheesecake should be set at the edges but still jiggly in the middle. If you bake until the center is set you'll get a very over-baked cheesecake.

When cake is ready, remove it from the oven and run a knife around the edge of cheesecake to free the custard from the sides of the pan. Allow to cool to room temperature on a wire rack and then refrigerate for at least three hours before serving.

The cherries in the picture were canned in light syrup, but the cheesecake will be completely delicious on its own.


  1. I think contemporary "Urban Living" would have to be American "ethnic" food: pad thai, Tex Mex, something Indian...

    Baked Cheesecake, or New York Cheesecake, as it's often known on the other side of the pond, is still a different thing for us non-USAians. Our version of cheesecake is chilled and not baked. It makes something more like a dense mousse on a cracker crumb (digestive biscuit, actually) base. I prefer the baked version.

  2. Indian certainly. I feel like Tex Mex is everywhere, but perhaps that's only because I haven't been in Iowa recently. (I was in Columbus, OH 5 years ago and they had a variety of food there.)

    Does Irish chilled cheesecake have gelatin in it? American no-bake cheesecake has gelatin to hold it together. I'm not a fan.

    1. I will answer your question now, two years later. I think so. The only recipe I ever made contained a pack of lemon jello (because cheesecake was always lemon), except called Jelly, because that's what it is. It also had a block of ice-cream in it. It was excellent.

      My mum used to make something similar but the filling was runnier, so you had to build up the sides of the digestive-biscuit base and make them in low flan tins. It was very yummy, and had no gelatin. Hmm... I wonder where that recipe is...



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