Why It Works
- A small portion of fresh goat cheese improves the flavor and texture of the cream cheese, without imparting a discernable flavor of its own.
- A deep and sturdy pan gives the cheesecake height, allowing more space for its creamy interior.
- An initial burst of high heat encourages the cheesecake to puff, lightening its texture.
- Baking at 250°F keeps the oven temperature low, obviating the need for a water bath.
On the heels of my love letter to the ultimate cheesecake pan, beautifully constructed from non-reactive aluminum with a seamless design and a whopping four inches of depth, I'd be remiss not to share my recipe for the ultimate cheesecake. Of course, as per the pronouns peppered throughout that last sentence, what's best is a subjective thing. My work in restaurants shaped my perspective of a cheesecake; I didn't want some paltry slice showing up to the table, no fancier than a given customer could make at home.
I wanted a classic but jaw-dropping presentation, a slab of cheesecake so tall it could set itself apart from the rest before that first bite. And, of course, that first bite had to really count. It needed to taste exactly how someone would expect a New York cheesecake to taste, but better. It had to blow all their other points of comparison out of the water. It had to be creamier, more flavorful, and nuanced, with nothing gummy or cloying about it. If it failed on any of those counts, I could rest assured the grumpy Yelp reviews would roll in. "Nothing special. Could save some money and make it myself at home."
And so, eventually I developed a recipe that delivered across the board, something that is really special. And hey, now you can make it yourself at home.
I started with a formula that was printed in New York more than a hundred years ago, changing up the blend of ingredients but keeping the overall ratios intact. You can read more about that in my cookbook, BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts, which takes a deep dive into origins and evolution of both cream cheese and cheesecake. Here, I'll be focusing strictly on ingredients and technique—so let's dive in!
Preparing the Graham Cracker Crust
My preferred pan, an eight- by four-inch loose bottom style, doesn't require any prep, but I do like to line the bottom piece with foil. Later on, when the cheesecake has been un-molded, a gentle tug on the foil will expose a nice gap between the cake itself and the pan. This makes it easy to slip an offset spatula underneath, to lift and transfer the cheesecake to a serving plate (please, don't ever cut it into slices directly on the bottom of the pan; it's not good for your knife, and it's not good for the pan).
When it comes to cheesecake, I'm all about a graham cracker crust. The use of cookie crumbs for a cheesecake crust dates all the way back to 1928, making it a perfectly traditional option despite what some purists may claim. I mean, if you don't like it, that's one thing! But with over 90 years of established use, let's not pretend the graham cracker crust isn't a legitimate option.
If you have my cookbook, along with the time and inclination, the crust offers a perfect excuse to whip up a batch of homemade graham crackers. If they don't turn out aesthetically perfect, who cares? You'll grind them to crumbs, and have experienced a low-key chance to play with the graham technique. The effort-to-reward ratio here pays off for sure, as their graham flavor is particularly bold. Plus, the grahams can be made as far in advance as you like. They keep for weeks at room temperature, and even longer in the freezer.
But no pressure! Your favorite brand of store bought graham crackers will do nicely. Biscoff cookies are my personal favorite on lazy days; they have a deep, graham-like flavor backed by notes of caramel and subtle spice, contrasting brilliantly with the gentle tang of the cheesecake. Or, if you're feeling ambitious, give Biscoff-style speculoos cookies a whirl instead.
To make the crust, I don't even bother with a bowl. Rather, I mix the cookie crumbs with salt (to taste) and butter directly in the prepared pan. Once the crumbs have been moistened, I compress them into an even layer by hand. They may feel a touch dry compared to what you might expect, but the crust will absorb moisture from the cheesecake later on, binding it all together.
Making the Cheesecake Batter
Like many of my other recipes, the filling relies on a few less-than-traditional ingredients than you'd normally find in a New York cheesecake. With all these "hacks," my intent is always a dessert that tastes how it should, but somehow more so. For example, I use a small amount of coriander in blueberry pie to increase the blueberry aroma with a sympathetic essential oil found in coriander. Or I'll let rose water intensify the floral sweetness of honey in a semifreddo.
In either case, the goal isn't to make a Coriander Blueberry Pie or a Rose Honey Semifreddo. Rather, the idea is for these ingredients to add depth of flavor and aromatic complexity to the inherent flavors we want to emphasize, so that the blueberries taste more like blueberries, and the honey tastes more like honey.
So when it comes to the "secret" ingredient in my cheesecake, fresh goat cheese, please believe it's not meant to be the star of the show or even detectable on its own. Its role in this recipe is primarily textural, breaking up the sometimes gummy texture that cream cheese can develop on its own—who hasn't encountered a weirdly gooey cream cheese frosting, or a slice of cheesecake that somehow sticks to the roof of your mouth?
At just 11% of the cheesecake filling by weight, fresh goat cheese is a small part of the whole, serving merely to complement the cream cheese by improving its texture and offering a touch of complexity to the dairy profile, so it's more than a one-note affair.
Because the flavor of the goat cheese won't shine through on its own, there's no need splurge on pricey chèvre from a local creamery, nor should you stoop to a pre-crumbled supermarket brand. Choose a fresh goat cheese that's fresh, creamy, and soft, with a clean dairy aroma and minimal funk. When in doubt, brands like Vermont Butter & Cheese and Montchevré perform quite well, but ask someone at the cheese counter or in the dairy department, and they can point you to something subtle and mild.
Along with my cream cheese and goat cheese blend, I spike the mix with a trio of aromatics: orange flower water, lemon juice, and vanilla extract. Again, the goal isn't to make a cheesecake that's perfumy, or lemony, or even vanilla-y. Here, a small amount of each aromatic ingredient creates a blend that's floral and fresh, but a little earthy, underscoring the innate qualities of the cream cheese itself.
To make the cheesecake, I combine the cheeses and aromatics in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, mixing on low speed to get things started, then increasing to medium until no lumps remain. Only then will I add the sugar.
Mixing the cheeses together without sugar limits how much air they can take on, so I don't have to worry about big bubbles or pockets forming in the batter. Once I add the sugar, everything's already smooth, so I only need to mix until it can be absorbed.
From there, I take the bowl off the stand mixer to add the eggs by whisking them through a fine mesh sieve. It's an unusual step, and a little time consuming, but it ensures total homogenization of the white and yolks while removing the lumps of chalazae, creating a silken consistency in the cheesecake itself.
Meanwhile, I bring a little pot of cream to a boil. Once the eggs have passed through the sieve, I resume mixing on low and add the hot cream all at once. It's not hot or abundant enough to curdle the eggs, but it will substantially warm the batter, making it runny and thin—too loose-bodied to retain any substantial air bubbles.
Even so, I like to bounce a spoon over the surface of the cheesecake to help draw up any small bubbles that may have yet formed. If you don't see any little bubbles rising to the top at this stage, you're in good shape! If you do, keep bouncing the spoon here and there until they're gone.
Baking the Cheesecake
My recipe differs from most other cheesecakes in that I put the cheesecake onto a half sheet pan to bake at 450°F (yes, you read that right) for the initial 20 minutes. This burst of high heat causes the cheesecake to puff, for a bit of aeration that gently opens its crumb. We're not talking about the giant, fluffy cheesecakes of Japan, but rather a very subtle souffle.
Because this burst of heat is so brief, the internal temperature of the cheesecake never has the chance to climb dangerously high, so it's not as risky a maneuver as one would think.
Still, when I'm done with this step, I shut off the heat altogether and leave the oven door ajar for 10 minutes to vent, before resuming my bake at 250°F. This low temperature obviates the need for a water bath (i.e., a giant pan filled with scalding hot water just begging to slosh around, or at least give you a steam burn).
For that reason, an instant-read digital thermometer is the easiest and most reliable way to test a cheesecake. Insert the probe into the very center of the cheesecake, to a depth of about two inches, and hold the thermometer as steady as you can while giving the readout time to stabilize. This cheesecake is done when it hits an internal temperature of 145°F (63°C), as carryover cooking will push it about 10° higher as it sits.
Testing the cheesecake with a thermometer won't cause it to crack, and the tiny belly button that's left behind will be easily covered by whatever toppings you later choose. What causes a cheesecake to crack? Over-baking, and nothing more. So please bear in mind that the times listed in any recipe are only a guideline (hence the word "about") and keep a close eye on the cheesecake as it bakes, checking its temperature as needed to keep it safe.
After baking, let it sit at room temperature for about 15 minutes, then slide an offset spatula around the edges of the cheesecake (this helps it settle more evenly). Continue letting it cool at room temperature for at least an hour (or up to four) before covering it to refrigerate overnight.
That last bit is important. There's no fast way to cool a cheesecake, all the more so for one as thick as this, so don't rush the process. It will need at least 12 hours to cool and set; never plan on making and serving a cheesecake in a single day. If you need something faster, try my no-bake cheesecake instead.
Because traditional cheesecakes require so long to cool and keep so well in the fridge, they're phenomenal make-ahead desserts, so use that trait to your advantage. It's not possible—or desirable—to serve a "freshly baked" cheesecake, so if you've got a special occasion coming up, make that cheesecake ahead of time and lighten up your schedule for the big event. So long as the cheesecake is stored airtight, you can count on it holding up for over a week in the fridge (and, with a non-reactive pan like this, prolonged contact with the cheesecake in the fridge is no problem at all).
When it comes time to serve, loosen the sides of the cheesecake from the pan, and place it on something tall and wide, like a large can of tomatoes. With both hands on the sides of the pan, pull down firmly and voila! The sides will slip right off.
For me, this is the beauty of the loose bottom pan, as this downward motion sweeps the sides of the cheesecake into a smooth finish, without any outward pressure, as I've experienced with springform pans.
Transfer the cheesecake to a flat work surface, then slide an offset spatula under the cheesecake, and transfer to a serving plate. When properly baked and cooled, it will be sturdy enough to tote in one hand.
Serve the cheesecake plain, or piled high with your favorite fresh fruit—whether pitted cherries, sliced peaches, blueberries, or some fun jumble of everything that sounds best. Make a coordinating sauce by melting up a bit of your favorite jam, or try our fruit syrup for ice cream. It makes a wonderfully thick and glossy sauce for cheesecake, and works with any number of juicy fruits.
From the specialized equipment to the potential for a homemade crust, and the unusual elements in the filling, I'll be the first to admit this cheesecake isn't the simplest or easiest recipe around. But it's one of the recipes I'm proudest of. And, for what it's worth, I'm not the only one a little obsessed with this recipe; Zingerman's Bakehouse borrowed it this spring for a limited edition Father's Day cheesecake.
Every bite is rich and creamy, but not cloying, with a fresh and tangy flavor that seems like pure cream cheese (even though it's not). With the subtle floral qualities of orange flower water and vanilla, and a hint of lemon for balance, it's beautifully aromatic too, and ready to pair with whatever fresh fruit you have on hand.
Reprinted from BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts with permission from W. W. Norton.
For the Graham Cracker Crust:
7 ounces graham cracker crumbs, store-bought or homemade, see note (about 1 3/4 cups; 200g)
1 ounce unsalted butter, melted (about 2 tablespoons; 30g)
Pinch of salt
For the Cheesecake:
32 ounces full-fat cream cheese, such as Philadelphia, brought to about 70°F/21°C (about 4 cups; 905g)
8 ounces fresh goat cheese (not pre-crumbled), brought to about 70°F/21°C (about 1 cup; 225g)
1/2 ounce lemon juice, freshly squeezed (about 1 tablespoon; 15g)
1/2 ounce vanilla extract (about 1 tablespoon; 15g)
1/4 teaspoon (1g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use about half as much by volume or the same weight
1/4 teaspoon orange flower water
14 ounces plain or toasted sugar (about 2 cups; 395g)
6 large eggs (about 10 1/2 ounces; 300g)
6 ounces heavy cream (about 3/4 cup; 170g)
16 ounces (volume will vary; 455g) fresh fruit, such as pitted and halved cherries, blueberries, sliced peaches, small strawberries, or some assortment thereof, optional
1 recipe (about 1/2 cup) complementary Fruit Syrup or jelly, for saucing the fruit, optional
Getting Ready: This recipe requires an 8- by 4-inch non-reactive aluminum pan, preferably a non-latching, two-piece style; this style can be difficult to find, but this pan was manufactured especially for this recipe. Otherwise, a traditional cake pan of those dimensions will work, with a touch more effort to unmold. Of course, cheesecake can be baked in any size or style of pan, but the volume of batter, bake temperatures, and times will require individual adjustments which have not been tested here.
If using a two-piece pan, wrap the bottom piece in foil before assembly, then tear away the excess so the pan sits flat. If using a traditional cake pan, line the bottom with a parchment round (explanation and tutorial here). In either case, lightly grease the pan.
For the Graham Cracker Crust: Add the graham cracker crumbs, melted butter, and salt to the pan, and stir with a fork until well combined. If needed, season to taste with additional salt. With your fingers, compress into an even layer along the bottom of the pan.
For the Cheesecake: Adjust the oven rack to the middle position and preheat to 450°F. Combine cream cheese, goat cheese, lemon juice, vanilla extract, salt, and orange flower water in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Do not add the sugar at this time. Mix on low until roughly combined, then increase to medium and cream until no lumps of cheese remain, and the mixture is perfectly smooth; about 5 minutes. Halfway through, pause to scrape the bowl and beater with a flexible spatula.
Reduce speed to medium-low, add the sugar all at once, and mix only until well combined. Remove the bowl from the stand mixer and place a single-mesh sieve over the bowl, then crack in the eggs, and whisk until they pass through. Discard any clots of chalazae that remain trapped in the strainer. Resume mixing on low until well combined, then scrape the bowl and beater once more.
In a 1-quart stainless steel pot, bring the cream to a full boil. While mixing on low, add the hot cream all at once in a steady stream, and mix a few seconds more. This warms the batter, which helps release any air pockets introduced in mixing while reducing the overall bake time. Use immediately, or refrigerate the batter in an airtight container until needed, up to one week. Bring cold batter to room temperature before baking.
Pour batter into the prepared pan and place on a baking sheet. Bounce a spoon across the surface to dislodge any air bubbles that may have slipped through. If you don't see any, no need to continue. If you do notice a few rising up, keep bouncing the spoon until they're gone. Bake until the cheesecake is puffed and dry to the touch around the edges, about 20 minutes. In most ovens, the cheesecake will also begin to brown, forming golden patches along the surface, deepening its flavor. If needed, rotate the baking sheet to ensure even browning. Alternatively, for a denser, paler cheesecake, skip to the next step and bake only at 250°F until done; this may take an hour or more.
Turn off the oven, open the door, and let it stand ajar 10 minutes. Close the door and set the oven to 250°F. Continue baking until the outer edge of the cheesecake feels firm, though the innermost ring of cheesecake will wobble quite freely if you shake the pan, about 35 minutes. This wobbly zone should be no more than 3-inches across. The cheesecake will be done when the very center registers 145°F on a digital thermometer inserted to a depth of 2-inches. Testing with a thermometer will not cause the cheesecake to crack; cracking is the result of over-baking and nothing more.
Let the cheesecake cool for 15 minutes, then run a thin knife or offset spatula around the sides to loosen (this helps the cake settle evenly as it cools). Continue letting it cool at room temperature for at least 1 hour (or up to 4) before covering it to refrigerate until cold to the core, at least 12 hours.
Unmolding the Cheesecake From a Loose Bottom Cake Pan: Loosen the sides of the cheesecake from the pan with a thin knife or offset spatula. Place the pan on a large can of tomatoes or a similarly sized object; something tall enough to lift the cheesecake 4-inches from the counter, and wide enough to form a stable base. With both hands on the sides of the pan, pull downward to drop the outer ring away from the bottom. Place the cake onto a flat work surface, loosen it from the bottom of the pan with an offset spatula, and transfer to a large, flat serving plate. Cover with plastic and refrigerate until needed, up to 10 days.
Unmolding the Cheesecake From a Traditional Cake Pan: Loosen the sides of the cheesecake from the pan with a thin knife or offset spatula. Stand the cake in a few inches of scalding hot water until the pan feels warm (a roasting pan works well for this). Drape the cake in plastic wrap to protect its surface, then invert onto a large, flat plate, and lift the pan to pull it away. It should slide free without any resistance; if not, continue standing in hot water a few minutes more. After removing the pan, peel the parchment from the crust, and re-invert the cheesecake onto a serving plate. Cover with plastic and refrigerate until needed, up to 10 days.
To Serve: Combine the fresh fruit and warmed fruit syrup or jam in a large bowl, and gently fold with a flexible spatula until the fruit is well coated and glistening (optional). Cut the cheesecake with a large chef's knife dipped in hot water; for clean and tidy portions of cheesecake, pause to clean the blade under hot running water between each slice. Top with spoonfuls of the sauced fruit, if using, or other toppings and sauces as desired.
This recipe was developed with the homemade graham crackers from BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts in mind, but will work well with your favorite brand from the store. Alternatively, it can be made with homemade or store bought Biscoff cookies as well (see our Biscoff-style speculoos cookies. Gluten free alternatives to any of these cracker or cookie styles will work equally well.
Please bear in mind that the times listed in any recipe are only a guideline (hence the word "about") and keep a close eye on the cheesecake as it bakes, checking its temperature as needed to keep it safe
Make-Ahead and Storage
In an airtight container, the cheesecake batter can be refrigerated up to one week; bring cold batter to room temperature before baking pouring into the pan. Wrapped in plastic, the finished cheesecake will keep well for about 10 days in the fridge.