So, I had cheesecake on my mind last week. We had a big holiday dinner with the fam, and love them though I do, they tend to be a disparate bunch when it comes to desserts. This seems nuts, right? Who doesn't like dessert? ALL dessert?! I do. But my in-laws? Well, some like chocolate, some don't; some like fruit pie; some don't. Some like cake, but only this kind of cake, not that kind of cake. My father-in-law likes fig cookies; my husband like pignoli; the niece and nephew like chocolate chips. This leaves the family baker (me) with the constant conundrum of how to try to please all palates, which sometimes feels like the equivalent of running the wrong way up an escalator. Try as hard as you might, you're gettin' no where.
But there is one universal, family-loved, post-meal sweet that they all, me included, dig, and dig-in to: Cheesecake. So simple, right? But it took me years of trial and error to figure this out. I used to try to win them over with, among myriad other treats, something called a cassata, a Sicilian ricotta-based dessert. The recipe I have (and love) is Marcella Hazan's, and encases the soft, baked, sugary cheese in a soft almost cookie-like dough and has bits of chocolate and citron in it. My mother-in-law and father-in-law used to love it... but Dan and his sister? They scrunched up their noses at the citron, although they like citrus and they they like cheesecake generally. And so, finally, it occurred to me: "Just make a plain cheesecake, maybe with a little citrus accent! For the love of Pete, go for the crowd-pleaser!" And so I did.
The cake, which I got out of the new, formidibly large and all-encompassing (600 recipes!)
Bon Appetit Desserts -- a gorgeous book that does a really great job of walking you through the steps of each recipe -- seemed heaven sent. A light-as-air sounding cheesecake that, ta-da, had the addition of lemon zest and juice and was exactly what I wanted, and what I knew would make them all happy at meal's end. The problem? It was a little bit too much of what I wanted...
The thing is, even the best of cookbooks can have mistakes -- something that can be really intimidating to the home cook because, of course, you assume you screwed up somehow. I followed the recipe closely -- and as I scanned the ingredients and made my shopping list for thing, I thought, huh, that sounds like an awful lot of cream cheese (5 8-oz packages). And an awful lot of eggs (7). But hey, who am I argue with Bon App? Nobody, that's who. Off I went to my little Key Food, grabbed up the ingredients, and the next day set to putting the thing together for my long-awaited moment of making a final course that would appeal to my husband's entire family. But it turned out my instincts were right -- it was a lot of cream cheese. And a lot of batter. So much, that there was enough left for an entire other cheesecake. Damn! After I poured as much as would fit into my 9-inch springform pan, I stood there staring at the massive amount left over and wondering, ugh, what do I do with all this; it doesn't fit! Not wanting to get distracted, I poured the leftover bunch into a bowl, tightly covered it with some plastic wrap, and went about finishing up my holiday dessert. The thing is, the cake cooked into what was the most perfect cheesecake I've ever made, in no small part because of that water bath it cooks in. Total genius. If any recipe tells you to do this and you consider skipping it, don't. It's the ringer between a cake with a top that looks like untrodden snow, and a cracked, dried-out one that's fine, but not great.
But back to that extra batter -- it sat for two days post-Christmas Eve, but like a timer going off in the universe, an email came in from our friends Mark and Caroline: "Hey, you guys want to come over for dinner tonight?" I was relieved -- I wasn't about to let all that cheesecake batter go to waste, but the idea of having an entire thing of it sitting around for Dan and me to eat by ourselves was, well... a little daunting, especially with all the cookies and candies and cakes that we'd already wolfed down over the last few days. I whipped out my springform, threw together a little gingersnap crust, and gave the batter a good stir to make sure it was thoroughly mixed. We arrived at friends' house a few hours later, cake in hand. "You know, cheesecake is my favorite," Caroline, who is pregnant and due any, any second (really -- she could be at the hospital right now), admitted to me later when she snuck a second slice. And thank goodness for that.
(Double!) Lemon Cheesecake with Gingersnap Crust
2 cups ground gingersnap cookies
6 TBSP unsalted butter, melted
5 8-oz packages Philadelphia-brand cream cheese, room temperature
2 cups sugar
1/4 tsp salt
7 large eggs
3 cups sour cream
2 TBSP finely grated lemon peel
2 TBSP fresh lemon juice
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Stir cookie crumbs and melted butter in a medium bowl until evenly moistened. Press crumb mixture onto bottom (not sides) of 9-inch diameter springform pan with 3-inch high sides. Bake crust until deep golden, about 12 minutes [Follow this exactly: Do not overbake - I did on the first cake, and the crust was a little hard to cut.] Cool completely. Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees F. Wrap the outside of the pan with 3 layers of heavy-duty aluminum foil.
Using electiric mixer, beat cream cheese in large bowl until smooth and fluffy. Gradually beat in sugar, then salt. Beat in sour cream, lemon peel, and lemon juice. Pour filling into crust. Place wrapped cake pan in large roasting pan. Pour enough hot water into roasting pan to come halfway up sides of cake pan.
Bake cake until filling is slightly puffed and moved only slifhtly when pan is shaken gently, about 1 hour 25 minutes. Remove cake pan from water bath; remove foil. Cool cake in pan on rack 2 hours. Chill uncovered until cold; cover and keep chilled at least one day, and up to 2 days.
Cut around pan sides to loosen cake; remove pan sides. Place cake on platter.