For some reason the humble cheesecake is something that every aspiring home chef seems to have troubles with at one point or another. Common problems include large cracks, burned top, lumpy filling, collapsed centers and the amazing shrinking cheesecake (cake shrinks around the outside).
All of these problems tend to go away when the cheesecake is prepared and cooked properly. Here then is how to prepare and cook what is sure to be a family favorite, Homemade Lemon Cheesecake.
Before we get cooking, a little science if you please. Most of the problems mentioned above all stem from an improper cooking process. That usually is because people treat the recipe as if it was for a cake. But the truth is, cheesecake is a lot more similar to a custard pie than it is to a regular cake recipe. So, that means we need to work and cook the ingredients differently.
First is the pan. Some people recommend using a spring form pan but I don’t like them. The reason will become apparent when we get into the cooking process. For now locate a 9 inch round cake pan with nice high sides (at least 2 inches). We first need to treat the pan so we can get the cooked cheesecake out later. For that, melt some butter and using a brush, coat the entire inside of the pan. Next, using parchment paper, cut out a circle for the bottom of the pan and a long rectangle for the side. Once the parchment has been added to the pan, we can focus on the crust.
Some people like a cookie crumble crust but I prefer good old graham crackers. I take about 2 dozen and place them in a plastic ziptop bag. Using my fingers only, I crush them for about 30 seconds to a minute. Some big chunks are ok. Next, melt 1/4 cup of unsalted butter and add the cracker crumbs to it along with 1 tablespoon of sugar. Mix with a spatula briefly and add to the bottom of the pan. Next grab a heavy glass with a flat bottom or other tamping tool (the kind used to flatten meat works great). You want to tamp down all the crumbs in the pan so they stick to each other and help the crust form. Bake the crust blind for 10 mins at 300 degrees.
Next comes the filling. Before you started working on the pan preparation, you should have taken your cream cheese out of the fridge and set it on the counter to soften (at least 30 mins or so). We are also going to need 1.25 cups of sour cream, 1 cup of sugar, 1/3 cup of cream (whipping or heavy), 1 tablespoon of vanilla, 5 large eggs, 1/4 cup of lemon juice, the zest of one lemon, and 1 tablespoon of cornstarch (optional).
Now, the mixing of the batter is important. We want everything mixed well but we do not want to add any air into the batter. Air is usually the problem when a cheesecake falls or has a sunken center. So, the best tool in my opinion is the Kitchenaid stand mixer (or your favorite brand).
To start, place the sour cream in the mixing bowl and using the paddle attachment beat on medium low for a minute. Next add the cream cheese, the sugar and the optional cornstarch. The cornstarch acts to help slow down the binding of the eggs in the custard which prevents cracking. Think of it as a little extra insurance. If you follow this recipe you should not need it but if this is your first time trying this recipe, consider adding it.
So, now we beat this mixture on low speed for 1 minute. Then turn up the speed to medium for a few more minutes. Stop the machine and scrape the bowl. Next, in a container mix the 1/3 cup of cream, vanilla, 2 large eggs, 3 egg yolks, lemon juice and lemon zest. Mix this up well with a fork.
Turn the mixer on medium low speed and slowly drizzle in half of the cream and egg mixture. Stop the mixer and scrape the bowl again. Start it again but this time on medium high speed and add the remaining egg mixture. Continue mixing for about one more minute. The batter should be uniform (no lumps) and not airy.
Now, the baking. Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Remember when we cooked the crust blind. Well, we want to add the batter to the pan but first make sure the crust is completely cool (let it cool out of the oven for at least 15 minutes). Add the batter to the pan. Give the pan a few little twists left and right to help any air bubbles come to the top.
At the same time, boil at least 2 quarts of water (the amount will depend on your pan size). You need to create what’s called a “bain marie” (Marie’s bath). If you have another cake pan that is a few inches bigger in diameter use that. If not, a disposable aluminum baking dish works well too (the kind for lasagna or roasting). Add a clean towel to the bottom of the large pan and insert into the oven. Add the cheesecake pan into the larger pan and gently push it to the side. Now, carefully add the boiling water into the larger pan. Pour enough to come up 2 thirds the way up the cheesecake pan.
Now, gently center the cheesecake pan in the larger pan and close the oven. Bake at 250 for an hour. Here’s the hard part. After an hour the cake will not looked cooked. But the problem is we don’t want to overcook the cheesecake. So, open the oven door for about 30 seconds to let some heat escape. Next, close the door and leave the cake alone for another hour. After that, carefully take the cake pan out of the water pan and place it in a fridge for 6 hours.
Finally we have cheesecake. There are some minor acrobatics necessary to get the cake out of the pan. First, fill your sink half way up with hot water directly from the tap (the hottest it will go). Next, let the pan float in the sink for 15 seconds. Now remove it and place it on a towel. Using a sharp thin knife gently trace around the outside of the pan and then carefully remove the parchment from the side of the pan. Now, take some wax paper and cut a circle the same size as the cheesecake. Place the wax paper on top of the cheesecake. Place a round plate or the bottom from a spring form pan on top of the cheesecake and carefully but quickly invert it. Next remove the pan.
Ok, but now you are looking at the bottom of the cheesecake. Remove the parchment from the bottom. Decide what plate you will use to serve the cheesecake (or select a nice size bakers cake round). Place that on the bottom of the cheesecake and once again invert it carefully. Lastly, remove the wax paper from the top and cut your cheesecake.
If all went well you should have a delicious and beautiful lemony cheesecake that your friends and family will thought you bought. And you know what, if the top does crack, who cares. That’s why they invented whipped cream.