Life is a series of choices. What kind of education should I pursue? Who should I marry? How many children do I want? Should I buy or rent, spend or save? What should I do with my free time this weekend? Do I buy cheesecake or learn to make it myself? Ahh . . . it’s a choice and someone has to make it.
I grew up with chocolate chip cookies, peach cobbler and birthday cake. There were no opportunities to learn how to appreciate a refined dessert. Probably the first bite of cheesecake I tried came from a box of five dozen tiny squares. They were just right for a party where you are trying to serve small bites to dozens of people. But real cheesecake didn’t sit on my plate until I tried some at a restaurant a few years ago. Then I became gluten free. No more cheesecake for me.
Some cheesecake has flour added to it. But it isn’t really necessary and leaving it out makes the filling gluten free. The crust usually has gluten in it also but it can easily be made with gluten free substitutes. I knew that unless I lived in an area that had a true gluten free menu without any danger of cross contamination, commercially produced cheesecake was only a dream. You would think that a metroplex as big as Dallas/Fort Worth would have some kind of a truly gluten free restaurant with a full menu of delectable desserts. But alas. It isn’t happening. So I began a journey to learn how to make cheesecake for myself. What a journey it has been! Blogs, recipes, web sites and advice are plentiful. I soon learned that no resource has all the information I needed. As a newbie in the world of cheesecake, I had so many questions that were never answered completely. Recipes seemed to be incomplete. Do you prepare the pan or not? If yes, then how do you do it? Is a water bath necessary? What’s the best way to prevent issues like a cracked top or a soggy bottom? So many questions. So few answers.
Much of what I have learned over the last few weeks about cheesecake has come from trial and error. I will admit that none of the errors were thrown away. The crust may have been soggy; the top might have been cracked; the filling might not have been as creamy as I expected. But all the errors were shared and enjoyed. I gleaned a list of “testers” who became “tasters” and each comment has brought improvement. Here is a synopsis of my journey towards an awesome dessert.
Step 1: Equipment
You need the right pan for the cheesecake and the right pan for the bain-marie. Doesn’t that make me sound like I know what I am doing? I fooled you. A bain-marie is a hot water bath that allows for more even cooking. If you have ever used a double boiler to melt chocolate or make lemon curd, then you have used a bain-marie. It is not required for cheesecake, but it helps to keep the top from cracking. I had used it for crème brulee and custard but I had no idea that was the official name. Now I know and so do you. We both learned something.
I am going to cut right to the chase and tell you something you don’t expect. After my first few test recipes, I gave up on a spring form pan. Thousands of people use one and most of them have success. I did not. Part of the problem was that the recipe I was using was not at all clear about what to do with that spring form pan. Do you prepare it like a cake? Should you do nothing like an angel food cake? Parchment paper? Spray coating? I was surprised to see so many recipes that expected me to know the answer. I was a cheesecake newbie. I needed to be told what to do!
Some web sites explained that if you want your cheesecake to bake without a crack on the top, you need to use the hot water bath. And if you use a hot water bath, you need to wrap your spring form pan in layers of heavy duty foil to keep the water from leaking into the crust. A few web sites suggested the water bath but never suggested that the water should be hot. Room temperature or hot, the water still leaked into my cheesecake. Even with heavy duty aluminum foil covering my spring form pan, I still had soggy bottoms. Was it the recipe, the foil, the pan? I did not know for sure, but I did know I needed to fix it. So I discovered a professional cheesecake pan made by Fat Daddio’s. I found it here. I wrapped it in heavy foil and made a cheesecake. Somehow that really hot water from the bain-marie was seeping through to the edge of the crust. So I searched some more and I discovered a silicone baking pan. Slightly larger than the professional cheesecake pan, the silicone pan held the cheesecake pan and kept the hot water away. In spite of the numbers you see below, it was a tight fit when I put them together. But it worked! Here is the silicone pan I purchased. You can use a spring form pan and aluminum foil or you can use these. I only know what works for me. And I won’t be persuaded to go back!
You will also need a big pan for the bain-marie. It is like that children’s song. “There was a bird on the branch and a branch on a tree and the tree in a hole and the green grass grew . . .” Sorry. It’s the Nana in me. For my testing, I needed a big pan that was at least 3″ deep so it could hold the water. I needed to put the cheesecake pan in the silicone pan and the silicone pan in the water pan. It’s a process. And this is what it looks like.
You can use a cast iron skillet or a roasting pan. I used a double size cake pan. I have had it for a couple of decades and I do not remember the last time I used it to bake a double recipe of any cake. But it is sure handy for many other cooking projects like crème brulee or a large batch of gluten free Chex mix.
Step 2: Preparation
This is not a cooking project to be attempted when you need a dessert for tonight’s dinner. Cheesecake takes planning and prep work. The results are worth it. Plan to make your cheesecake at least 24 hours before you need to serve it. Lay the bottom of your pan (spring form or professional cheesecake pan) on top of a sheet of parchment paper. Draw the circle and cut it out about an inch wider than the circle you drew. I have tried making the circle the same size and I found that it was more challenging to peel it away when it was time to move the cheesecake to a serving plate. Making it bigger gives me an edge to hold while the cheesecake slides to the plate.
Make sure your ingredients are at room temperature. While I use a microwave oven for far more cooking than the average person, bringing cheesecake ingredients to room temperature is not for the microwave. Set out the butter, cream cheese, and eggs. Leave them on the counter for at least 2 hours. I prefer to take my cream cheese out of the cardboard package but leave it in the foil package until I am ready to start. And I prefer to leave the ingredients on the counter for 4 hours. I have been known to do this step at breakfast time. By mid-afternoon, all is ready.
Now that your butter is soft and pliable, you can lightly coat the bottom and sides of the pan. I use a sandwich bag. It keeps my hands clean and I can turn it inside out and toss it in the trash. Keep the coating to a minimum. Just a tiny bit is enough to do the job. After I have coated the bottom of the pan and put the pan back together, I lay the circle of parchment paper in the pan and press the excess to the sides. The butter holds it in place. While it isn’t necessary, I have found it helpful to put a few swipes of butter on the parchment paper too. Sliding the cheesecake off the parchment is easier when there is a small amount to grease the path.
I have the right equipment. The pan is prepared and ready for gooey goodness. It is finally time for Cheesecake Journey, Part 2!