the Secret to a Great Cheesecake

Anyone can make a cheesecake if they just follow a recipe. Why, then, do some come out different (better) than others? Is it a super-secret recipe that makes the difference, or is it more?

Todd requested a cheesecake for his birthday this past Friday and I was surprised that I hadn’t shared my secrets for perfect cheesecake on the blog, yet. You might think it’s the recipe, but there’s nothing secret about it.

Basic Cheesecake

2 lb cream cheese
.5 c heavy cream
1.5 c sugar
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1 Tbsp vanilla

See? Pretty simple stuff.

So, if it’s not the recipe, what is it?

The 3 Commandments of Cheesecake

It all comes down to HOW you make the cheesecake. The rest is just details.

Thou shalt whip the cream cheese smooth before adding any other ingredients.

A stand mixer makes this easy because you can crank it up and let it run without tiring your arms. If you’re short of time or in a very cold kitchen, microwaving the cream cheese for 30 seconds at a time until it becomes more pliable will not harm the finished cake. Just make sure it doesn’t start to dry out.

Thou shalt never turn the mixer past low when adding other ingredients.

When the cream cheese is smooth, your beating days are through. Notice that every other ingredient is smooth in it’s own way? All you have to do is gently incorporate them, not beat them into submission.

Thou shalt never scrape the bowl.

Once that first ingredient is added there is absolutely no way to beat any future lumps out of the mixture. If you were to scrape down the sides of the bowl mid-recipe you’d be adding clumps, ruining the texture of your cheesecake. The mixture that touches the sides cools off, congeals, clumps. You do not want this in your cheesecake.

Even when you go to pour the batter into the prepared pan, do not scrape the sides of the bowl. Just let what is loose flow in and leave the rest. Don’t worry, it won’t go to waste. Grab a spoon and nosh on the batter on the sides. After all, it’s gonna be the next day before you get to eat the cheesecake, might as well get something out of it now!

The Water Bath

There’s ongoing debate on whether a water bath is truly necessary for a good cheesecake. I’ve done it both with and without and it depends more on your oven than anything else. If you know you have an uneven oven (it happens to the best of us), use a water bath and make sure to keep an eye on the water level. The cheesecake takes about 2 hours to bake (at 325F) and the water level will drop over that time. Theoretically a water bath will prevent the top crust from cracking, but it’s not 100% fool-proof and it’s not something I worry about as much as I worry about the right texture overall.

Finishing Touches

Remember when I said the rest was just details? Well, they can be pretty yummy details.

I seldom use a graham cracker crust. Instead, I prefer crushed cookies that better compliment the flavor of the cake. Our favorite variety uses crushed Oreos as a base, whole cookies ringing the sides (takes about 13 to circle my springform pan, which makes serving size easy to figure) and a few more crumbled ones stirred into the batter. I’ve used lemon cookies to go with blueberry cheesecakes and chocolate wafer cookies as the crust for my dark chocolate cherry varieties. I’ve even made a baklava cheesecake with the nut-and-phyllo layered base and a honey-syrup added to the batter.

Cheesecake is a treat. The basic ingredients are simple, the wait while it bakes and cools is considerable (including the overnight chill), the results should be absolutely sinful. Don’t let any lumps come between you and your indulgence!00

Apple Dumplings

I’ve been thinking a lot about apples, lately, and with the weather cooling off, the cinnamon brooms showing up in the supermarkets and the idea that the holidays are right around the corner, I think of Mom making Apple Dumplings. This is her recipe, updated a little by me. They are especially good on cool Fall and Winter nights and actually travel fairly well for pot-lucks.

Apple Dumplings
serves 4*

1 sheet Puff Pastry Dough, thawed
4 medium apples, peeled and cored*
Cinnamon
Brown Sugar
4 Tbsp unsalted butter
Dried fruit (raisins, cherries, cranberries or blueberries all would go well)
1 beaten egg
White sugar

Roll out the puff pastry dough just a little bit to curb some of it’s puff tendencies (we want the flaky flavor, not necessarily the poofiness) and cut into quarters. [* If you are using very small apples you can actually get 6 dumplings out of one sheet.] Place an apple in the center of each sheet and sprinkle with cinnamon. Spoon some of the brown sugar (how much you use it up to you) into the hollows of the apples, top with a piece of butter and then the dried fruit.

Bring the corners of the puff pastry square up and around the top of the apple, pinching the corners together. Don’t worry too much about sealing up all the edges, it’s actually quite pretty to leave the little openings that the folded sides create. Place in a buttered baking dish and brush with the beaten egg mixed with a little water. Sprinkle with the white sugar and bake for 30 minutes at 375 degrees Fahrenheit or until the apples are tender, covering with foil if the pastry begins to brown too fast.

Serve warm with ice cream, freshly whipped cream or just plain heavy cream drizzled over them.

Blueberry Dumplings

It’s (technically) Fall now, and that means various group pot-lucks or company get-togethers will be starting, soon. Maybe it’s school fundraisers or church socials, but at some point you’re going to be asked or expected to bring something yummy to share somewhere. Even if it’s not expected, this is a quickly put-together dish that will delight your office, your civic group or just your family one nip-in-the-air morning.

Blueberry Dumplings
serves 16 (or less–depends on how hungry they are!)

1 c boiling water
1 c brown sugar
2 sticks (8 oz) unsalted butter, divided
2 cans crescent roll dough (the uncut sheets)
1/2 c granulated sugar
nutmeg
1 can blueberry pie filling
1 pint fresh blueberries (or 1 pkg frozen if not in season)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Melt one of the sticks of butter and then combine it with the boiling water and brown sugar in the bottom of a 9×13-inch baking dish.

Carefully spread out the crescent roll dough on a baking mat or lightly floured surface and sprinkle with the sugar and nutmeg. Spread half a can of pie filling and half the fresh or frozen blueberries onto each can of crescent dough, leaving about an inch clear on both of the long sides. Dot the top of the filling with bits of butter and then roll up the dough, jellyroll-style, sealing the roll with the inch of filling-free dough.

Slice the rolls into 1-inch sections and place each slice, cut side up, in the pan with the water-butter-sugar mixture.

Bake for 45 minutes to an hour, or until the tops of the dumplings are golden brown.

The sugar mixture in the bottom of the pan makes a delicious sauce for the rolled dumplings. While these are perfectly fine served at room temperature or even cold, they are best when piping hot, served with hot coffee or ice-cold milk.

I made these for a friend’s party, recently (it was a morning get-together) and they were a big hit with everyone who tried them.