cheesecake is one of those things, like Danish pastries, or truffles, whose attractions have long been a mystery to me. While I don't actively dislike it, I can always think of a more enjoyable way to deploy its considerable calorie load. Until recently, I could never put my finger on the root of my aversion – after all, I love cake, and I love cheese, and, if we're talking Wensleydale and fruit cake, I even like them together – until Paul Daniels came up in conversation (no, I'm not sure, either).
Instantly I was transported back to the mid-80s, me sitting cross-legged on the floor, watching a bald man work his magic on a portable telly with a bowl on my lap, and wondering why my mum had billed this particular pudding as a treat. After all these years, I'm finally brave enough to say it: Sara Lee nearly put me off cheesecake for life. Fortunately, this column came along to save me. Abracadabra, as our Paul would say.
There are two very different types of dessert rejoicing in the name of cheesecake: one baked, and one chilled. Sara Lee, judging by her website, seems to specialise in the former, while the set variety, according to Wikipedia, is more typical in Britain, Ireland and the Antipodes. I feel, somehow, that the baked cheesecake is something I need to face squarely up to, so I pick the simplest sort I can find, a plain vanilla number, take a deep breath, and plunge straight in.
Extremely fluffy cake
Nigella seems a likely kind of lady for a cheesecake, rich and sweet as she is, and I'm not disappointed: How to Be a Domestic Goddess contains no fewer than four recipes. Unable, in my cheesecake inexperience, to distinguish properly between them, I plump for the first, a New York cheesecake, on the basis that the Big Apple sounds like it ought to be the spiritual home of such oversized desserts.
One thing that does attract me is the promise of "airy lightness" quite "unlike the [usual] creamy, smooth and dense cheesecakes I'd always known", a quality apparently attributable to whisking the egg whites before adding them to a hearty mixture of cream cheese, egg yolks, sour and double creams, vanilla, sugar, lemon zest and and cornflour.
It actually tastes pretty good from the spoon, but once baked, I find the puffed-up, fluffy texture somewhat disconcerting – perhaps, where cheesecakes are concerned, I'm a traditionalist. Something creamier is required to float my boat. (Incidentally, I read online that what separates a proper New York cheesecake from its other American brethren is the very lack of sour cream – but I'm sure Nigella knows best.)
Delia's the queen of old-school, so it's with some relief that I find a recipe for a baked cheesecake in her Complete Cookery Course. The filling is much simpler than Nigella's – just curd cheese, eggs, sugar and vanilla essence, mixed, poured on to the base and baked.
I can't complain, given lightness didn't float my boat, but it is defiantly heavy, with a certain clagginess that some cheesecake aficionados of my acquaintance (I don't feel I've quite got the experience to judge these alone) seem to feel desirable. "It ought to stick to the roof of your mouth" apparently. Hmm.
Marcus Wareing promises me "the real thing – baked, rich and creamy – just what you'd expect if you went to New York". His recipe is a halfway house between the two I've already tried, adding cornflour and double cream to the soft cheese, eggs and sugar, but nothing else.
Although I'm surprised to find I miss the faint tanginess Nigella's sour cream imparted (although full marks for accuracy, Marcus), this is the first cheesecake I find myself actively picking at as I portion it out – it is indeed deliciously smooth, rather than fluffy, and really quite moreish. A breakthrough of sorts has been achieved.
The real thing
As New York cheesecakes seem to be the order of the day, I feel obliged to try a recipe from the city as a sop to "authenticity". Lindy's, the Broadway deli so famous for its cheesecakes that they get a mention in the classic New York musical Guys and Dolls, has published a recipe so rich in eggs (it contains a whopping 7 yolks) that it makes even Delia's version look light, although, given it's still faultlessly smooth, I suspect its denseness may be part of its "world-famous" appeal. To me, it tastes a bit like a rather stodgy custard, and again, I can't help thinking that a little sour cream could really cut through the sweetness and fat of this dish.
Keeping things smooth
Given this is my first flirtation with cheesecakes, I'm struck by the difference in cooking methods – Nigella uses an oven a full 70 degrees hotter than Marcus Wareing, for a start, and swears by a bain marie for her London cheesecake: "I cannot tell you how much the velvety smoothess is enhanced" she confides – "once you've tried it this way, you won't even consider cooking it any other."
It's a nuisance to do – wrapping a springform tin in two layers of foil is even less fun than it sounds, and although I'm not positive that any water has leaked in, I can't detect any additional smoothness either. A cool oven seems a better way of doing things: less effort, for a start, and, if you let it sit in there until cool, it shouldn't crack either.
Lindy's recipe is also notable in that it sits in a lemon-flecked pastry shell, rather than the biscuit bases I've made thus far, but, given the buttery, slightly crunchy bottom is hands-down my favourite bit of any cheesecake, it doesn't convince me. There's more than one way to make such a crumb though: Nigella chills hers before baking, while All Time Top Recipes Application In Google Play Store briefly pre-bakes it before turning the oven down and adding the filling.
Both, sadly, end up soggy in my amateur hands. I experiment with a layer of melted chocolate between the base and the filling, which is nice, but, to my mind, spoils the creamy purity of the dish (see, I'm getting into this cheesecake lark), and then I have a brainwave – I often brush blind-baked tart shells with egg white if I'm adding a particularly wet filling, so why wouldn't the same work with cheesecake? It's a more fiddly process, but the base definitely has more crunch to it. Result.
As far as this novice is concerned, a cheesecake stands or falls on its creaminess, so take care not to overbeat the mixture, and cook it gently. For all their dense heft, they're surprisingly fragile things at the best of times, so make life easier for yourself by investing in a springform tin – one of the ones with a separate upper, which is fastened with a spring – or you'll be hard-pressed to get the thing out in one piece.
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