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I'm all about cheesecake in any form, whether it's Japanese-style and cotton soft or a towering slab like they serve in New York; I'd even take a scoop of cheesecake ice cream, with graham cracker bits mixed right in. So when a friend asked if I looked down on "no-bake" cheesecake, my answer was a resounding, "Hell no!"
Sure, there are times I want a classic cheesecake, but there are also times at the height of summer when you couldn't pay me to fire up the oven. Yet the middle of summer is just when I could really go for a slice of cheesecake, all tangy and cool and loaded with fresh fruit.
Beyond keeping my oven off and the temperature down, no-bake cheesecake is eggless, which gives it a super clean flavor profile—freed from the custardy yolks, the creamy dairy notes really stand out. That simplicity makes no-bake cheesecake an excellent vehicle for fresh fruit, where it takes on a real berries and cream vibe.
Most no-bake cheesecake recipes either incorporate gelatin for body, which can quickly veer into a weirdly panna cotta-like territory, or else fall back on what I call the Key lime pie method. As you might expect, this technique relies on a chemical reaction between citrus juice and sweetened condensed milk to thicken the filling. It's a great, cheesecakey twist on Key lime pie, but far too citrusy and acidic to scratch the itch when I'm craving cheesecake.
So when I'm taking a no-bake approach, I prefer a method that puts cream cheese center stage. But before diving into the details, let's talk crust. Obviously, graham crackers are a classic choice, but having just come off a month of recipe testing for homemade Biscoff, I've gotta say: they make a killer crust.
Especially in no-bake form, where crumb crusts lack the nutty, toasty flavors that develop in the oven, Biscoff cookies (whether store bought or homemade) add a welcome depth of flavor. By comparison, an unbaked graham cracker crust tastes a little blah, though I'm willing to acknowledge that may simply be a personal preference.
Wherever you land on the cookie/cracker divide, making the crust is a straightforward affair: melt some butter, mix in the crumbs, and season to taste with a pinch of salt.
From there, scatter the moistened crumbs in a 9-inch pie plate or quiche pan, and press into an even layer with a drinking glass, measuring cup, or some type of flat tool. Since there will be no baking to bind the crumbs together, it's important to really compress them to avoid, well, a crummy crust.
Pop the crust in the fridge (if you like, it can be wrapped in plastic and held for a few days in advance), then start on the filling. Full disclosure: My recipe is embarrassingly simple. I beat up a pound of cream cheese with about five ounces of sugar, a squeeze of lemon juice, a drop of vanilla, and a pinch of kosher salt in a stand mixer. Once everything's nice and creamy, I switch to a whisk attachment and whip in twelve ounces of cream.
At first, the mixture will look runny and soft, but after a few minutes of aeration it will begin to thicken.
Transfer the whipped cream cheese into the prepared crust, and spread it out in an even layer. It can be near impossible to scrape it into a perfectly smooth finish, so I embrace a more casual presentation with lots of messy swoops and swirls.
And really, messy can be very beautiful indeed.
No-bake cheesecakes may not need an oven, but they do need a refrigerator and several hours to chill before serving. When the filling is still above 50°F, it's soft, loose, and airy, something like a mousse, with a crust that crumbles a bit more readily.
But given time to chill all the way down to 40°F, which takes about 6 hours, the filling becomes firm and dense, much more like a "real" cheesecake and far easier to slice. During that time, the filling will lend some of its moisture to the crust, making it considerably less crumbly.
So if you're just itching for a bite of something sweet on a lazy afternoon, it's okay to rush things a little, but if you'd like to cut pretty slices for a dinner party you've got to give a no-bake cheesecake plenty of time. And trust me, it's well worth the wait; compared to the airy texture it has early on, I vasty prefer the velvety density that develops only after several hours of refrigeration.
That gives no-bake cheesecake an edge as a make-ahead dessert, since you can whip it up a day or two in advance. I think it's best within the first 36 hours, as its brightness will start to dull over time, but that's admittedly a pastry chef's pickiness talking. I've been assured by my family and co-workers that their test cheesecakes were quite tasty even a week after I dropped them off.
But don't count on keeping this dessert around for long; it's light, fresh, tangy, and cold, refreshing on a summer day when other desserts can seem too heavy or rich. So when you're ready to kick back and keep cool, remember that cheesecake is beautiful in any form.