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 a 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 detectible 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).
Water baths work by insulating a cheesecake from the oven's heat, fixing its maximum temperature exposure to 212°F, thus minimizing the risks of overheating. In this case, that risk can't be eliminated by a water bath, however, as cheesecakes can still over-bake at internal temperatures as low as 165°F (the exact temp will depend on the recipe and degree of carryover cooking experienced out of the oven).
Water baths are particularly useful in commercial kitchens, where bakers may need to maintain higher oven temperatures while working on other, simultaneous projects (and where perforated rubber mats make sloshing hot water less of a hazard on the floor).
But in a home kitchen, the easiest way to avoid overheating a cheesecake is, well, to turn down the dang heat! Because air is a relatively poor conductor, a temperature of 250°F will provide enough heat to bake the cheesecake at a steady pace, but without fear of launching it past the danger zone in the blink of an eye.
The exact time required to bake the cheesecake will vary depending on the batter temperature, as well as the specifics of the pan (not to mention the accuracy of a given oven), and the physical cues can be a bit subjective to say the least.
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.