Meringue Is the Secret to Lighter-Than-Air Japanese Cheesecake

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A meringue is the secret to this light cheesecake. [Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

"Oh, this cheesecake is too rich!" I hate when people say that, as they take one forkful and then push the rest of the dessert aside. I hate it because it makes me look like that much more of a glutton, as I keep my eyes low and devour the rest of my full-fat, cream-cheesy slice. That said, I can appreciate the desire for a lighter, more delicate version. So my curiosity was piqued when I came across a style of cheesecake called "Japanese cotton-soft." I thought "cotton-soft" referred only to snuggly brown bears clutching rolls of toilet paper.

What's a Japanese Cotton-Soft Cheesecake?

If you've never heard of Japanese cotton-soft cheesecake, you're not alone. This is not a traditional Japanese dessert. It is a total internet sensation, however, sometimes going by the name Japanese soufflé cake.

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Separated eggs are the key to light-as-air Japanese cheesecake.

What's different about it from regular cheesecake? Instead of simply creaming all the ingredients together, as you would for a traditional cheesecake, the cotton-soft kind is made by folding a voluminous meringue into the mixture, which lightens the texture significantly as it bakes. Added starch, like flour or cornstarch, holds the structure together and prevents it from collapsing as it cools (like a soufflé). The result is a featherlight, tangy lemon cheesecake that's, well, cotton-soft. If you find more classic, New York–style cheesecake too dense, too cheesy, or too sweet, this is the dessert for you.

After testing a handful of recipes, I came up with my own pillow-perfect version. Here's how you make it.

Prepare the Pan

I baked this cake in a deep, eight-inch springform pan. Most recipes tell you to place a baking paper around the inside of the pan to contain the batter as it soufflés in the oven. I didn't find that necessary because my pan was tall, and the batter didn't puff up much anyway thanks to a gentle bake in a hot water bath. However, if you're starting out with a shallower pan, grease the sides and stick the baking paper around the inside of the pan so that it comes up about two inches higher than the pan's rim. Regardless of whether you use the baking paper or not, don't forget to wrap the bottom half of the pan in a large piece of foil. (I haven't found a watertight springform pan yet.)

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Did I mention that this cheesecake is crustless, too? That means one fewer step, which means it's automatically a winner in my book.

Make the Batter

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Start by beating together the softened cream cheese, butter, some of the sugar, and salt until it's nice and smooth. Be diligent and make sure that you get all of the lumps out at this stage—no one likes a lumpy cheesecake.

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Then stir in egg yolks, lemon, and sour cream. Every recipe I've seen calls for milk, but I find that sour cream, a more traditional cheesecake ingredient, really supplies that full-bodied cheesecake texture without being heavy.

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A traditional cheesecake may require just a wee bit of starch thickener, if any, because the copious amount of cream cheese thickens it up well enough on its own. There's a mere eight ounces of cheese in this version, plus a lofty meringue, so a little more starch is needed to bind and set it. I use a combination of cake flour and cornstarch to keep things nice and light.

Make the Meringue

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The meringue should barely hold peaks that fold over on themselves.

This is the best part, and what really makes this cheesecake unique: whipping up a thick and glossy meringue of sugar and egg whites. Adding sugar to the egg whites keeps them nice and creamy and helps prevent them from becoming over-whipped. Keep whipping until you reach "medium-peak" stage. How will you know? When the meringue starts looking good and thick, lift some from the bowl. If the tip of the meringue falls over just slightly, you're there.

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Fold the meringue into the batter gently to avoid deflating it.

Fold the meringue into the batter in three batches, using a swift but gentle motion. The goal is to incorporate all of that luscious meringue without deflating it. As soon as the last streak of white disappears, pour it into the pan and get it in the oven.

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After it's baked, transfer it to the fridge to chill, which will help firm it up even more. Once chilled, it's ready to be cut into perfectly light, creamy slices that are just sweet enough, with a balanced lemony tang. And don't worry—classic-cheesecake lovers will like it just the same. In fact, they just might ask for seconds.

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