Cheesecake should never be a source for anything except pure bliss. Here’s a step-by-step recipe that will help you make a creamy, no-fail cheesecake.
Use full-fat cream cheese. Some people have brand loyalty to Philadelphia, and I won’t deny that it makes a particularly silky, lush cheesecake. I’ve also made cheesecakes with house brands and been happy.
Cheesecake needs more than cream cheese. Most recipes use heavy cream or sour cream; either will do the job of softening the texture of the cheese and adding moisture. I prefer sour cream because I like the sour tang it adds.
You also need eggs to hold the cake together. Three whole eggs do the trick. I also add an extra yolk, which enhances the cake’s velvety texture. (If you don’t feel like separating that fourth egg and don’t mind some extra airiness in the texture, just add the whole egg.)
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Starch adds insurance. A little cornstarch or flour is insurance against cracking and makes the cake easier to cut into clean slices, though it does change the texture a bit. Starch makes the cheesecake more firm and sturdy. A cheesecake that relies on eggs alone has a softer, super-creamy texture.
A water bath makes cheesecake extra creamy. A water bath helps cook the cheesecake oh-so-gently while creating a steamy environment so the surface doesn’t get too dry. It isn’t hard. Just set the cheesecake in a roasting pan or other large baking dish, fill it with a few inches of water, and put the whole contraption in the oven. Wrapping the cheesecake pan in foil keeps any water from seeping through the cracks of the pan.
Prevent cheesecake cracks. There are two main reasons why your cheesecake might form cracks: Overcooking and too-fast cooling. Both are preventable. Cook your cheesecake until the outer ring of the cake is slightly puffed and fairly firm, but the inner circle still jiggles like barely set Jell-O. A few toasty golden spots are fine, but if you see any small cracks forming, immediately move on to cooling.
Let the cheesecake sit in the turned-off oven with the door cracked for about an hour, then remove it from the water bath and cool it completely on the stovetop. When you remove it from the waterbath, also run a thin-bladed knife around the edge to make sure the cake isn’t sticking to the pan, which can cause cracks as the cake settles.
Always (always!) chill a cheesecake. The cheesecake needs to chill for at least four hours or (ideally) overnight. If you cut into the cheesecake before chilling, it will have a firm custardy texture, like flan, but after chilling, it will have transformed into that velvety, creamy, lush cheesecake that we all know and love. It’s like magic.
2 pounds (4 8-ounce packages) cream cheese
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch, or 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour (optional)
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sour cream
2 teaspoons lemon juice (optional)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 large eggs
1 large egg yolk (or 4 eggs)
12 whole graham cracker rectangles (6 ounces)
5 tablespoons butter, plus extra to grease the pan
PREHEAT the oven to 350 degrees with a rack in the lower-middle position. Take the blocks of cream cheese out of their boxes and let them warm on the counter while you prepare the crust, about 30 minutes.
RUB a small pat of butter all over the bottom and sides of a 9- to 10-inch springform pan. Cut two large pieces of foil and lay them on your work surface in a cross. Set the pan in the middle and fold the foil up around the sides.
CRUSH the graham crackers in a food processor (or in a bag using a rolling pin) until they form fine crumbs – you should have 1 1/2 to 2 cups. Melt 5 tablespoons butter in the microwave or on the stove and mix into the crumbs. The mixture should hold together in a clump when you press it. If not, add water 1 tablespoon at a time until it holds together. Place in the pan and use the bottom of a glass to press evenly into the bottom.
PLACE the crust in the oven (be careful not to tear the foil). Bake 8 to 10 minutes until the crust is fragrant and starting to brown around the edges. Cool on a rack.
COMBINE the cream cheese, sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a mixing bowl and beat with a mixer on medium-low speed until creamy, like thick frosting, and no lumps of cream cheese remain. Scrape down the beater and bowl with a spatula.
ADD the sour cream, lemon juice and vanilla and beat on medium-low until combined and creamy. Scrape down the beater and bowl again.
BEAT in the eggs and yolk one at a time, waiting until the previous egg is just barely mixed in before adding the next. At first, the mixture will look clumpy and broken, but it will come together.
SCRAPE down the beater and bowl again, then stir the batter a few times by hand, scraping the bottom of the bowl. The batter should be thick, creamy, and silky.
POUR the batter over the cooled crust and spread in an even layer against the sides of the pan. Bring about 3 cups of water to boil in a kettle. Place a roasting pan in the oven, then place the cheesecake in the pan. Pour in the boiling water to about an inch deep.
BAKE 50 to 60 minutes. (About 50 to 55 minutes for a 10-inch pan, 55 to 60 minutes for a 9-inch pan.) The cheesecake is done when the outer 2 to 3 inches look slightly puffed and set, but the inner circle still jiggles when you gently shake the pan.
TURN off the oven and crack the door open. Let the cheesecake cool slowly for 1 hour. Remove from the oven and from the water bath, unwrap the foil, and transfer the pan to a cooling rack. Run a thin-bladed knife around the inside edge to make sure it’s not sticking to the sides. Cool completely.
CHILL, uncovered, for at least 4 hours or up to three days. Remove from the refrigerator about 30 minutes before serving. Unmold the cake and top if desired. Leftovers will keep, uncovered and refrigerated, for several days.
YIELD: 8 to 10 servings.