On the Cheesing of Cake

Realtor-me needed a bit of graphic design work done to make an ad I’d mocked up print like something other than a fuzzy, pixellated disaster.  So I asked one of my buddies who does graphic design work if he’d give it a once-over for me and he kindly accepted.  “How much do you want for the job?” I asked.  “I dunno,” he said.  “Bake me a cake?”

Since May just happened to be cake month, I handed him The Professional Pastry Chef and told him he could have anything he wanted out of the decorated cakes chapter, except an Apple Wine Cake.  He chose the New York Cheesecake.  Like pie, I’ve been making cheesecake for years, but this recipe was a bit different from what I’m used to and, hey, after the Chocolate Decadance cake, I was all over making something I’d still respect in the morning.

 The ad was a smashing success, and I was generally smug and over-the-moon with good news and things going right.  Also, my roommates weren’t home, and I started around 11pm.  This means I had Hot Fuss blaring too loud over the stereo while I bounced around the kitchen like a maniac, baking.  This is absolutely the best way to do all of your cooking and enhances the flavor of the end product by 12.547%.  (You know it’s scientifically valid because I used five significant digits)

It’s possible that part of the reason I like making cheesecake is that you start by crushing graham cracker souls.  You smash them beneath your mighty fist, breaking them down until they accept your will as their own, before drowning them in boiling oil melted butter and shaping them according to your own vision.  Seriously, cooking is awesome.

Normal people probably just use a food processor.  Lame.

Cheesecake, for all that it’s a rich dessert with a billion froofy variations, is actually really simple to make.  If you’ve got a good recipe, it’s just a matter of making sure all your ingredients are at room temperature and letting your mixer do the work.  If you’re being efficient, you can make the crust while the mixer works.  I wasn’t efficient, because that left me more time to bounce around the kitchen like an idiot while the cake batter mixed.  “Somebody told me that you had a boyfriend who looked like a girlfriend…”

The cookbook had an interesting discuss about cheesecake, its history and the differences between the different types of cheesecakes, but it didn’t say anything about pans used to make cheesecakes.  I suspect this means it assumed you’d use a regular cake pan.  Given past experience with this cookbook, I trusted my own expertise and ignored that bit.

Cheesecakes are tricky, but it’s not a technique thing, it’s a process thing.  You can do them in cake pans, or pie plates (though I’d then argue it’s a cheese pie…) but what’s most common is a spring form pan.  That’s a pan in two parts, a metal disc bottom, and sides that can expand enough to drop the disc out of the bottom.  This is handy because then you can get the cake out of the pan without having to flip it, or doing any of the other complicated things that involve more prayer and finesse than is really practical.  They’re particularly awesome for cheesecakes and other custard-y style cakes.

Unfortunately, they suck for water baths.  And water baths are the important part of the “process thing” that’s tricky about cheesecakes.  As long as you use the right ingredients in the right proportions, your cheesecake will turn out.  But you can seriously screw up your texture or structure by baking it too long, or too hot, or too fast.  So you want to be confident your oven is at the right temperature, that it’ll maintain that temperature, and you want to slap your cheesecake into a tub of hot water for the baking process.  Except, your pan has seams at the bottom, and hot water sorta likes going in at seams and soaking your preciously crushed crust.  That is bad.

Tin foil.  It’s not just for the crazies.

Of course I’m not one of the crazies.

Shut-up.

The Professional Pastry Chef will not tell you anything about spring form pans or the magic of tin foil water-barriers, so now I’ve told you.  And I’m never taking on cookbook projects that have “Professional” in the title again.  I know what kind of a disaster I’d have had on my hands if I’d only had it to guide me.  *Shudder*

Here’s some more advice about the water bath.  Let’s just assume I’ve already learned all of this the hard way.  First, make sure the pan you use for it is actually bigger than your pan.  You do not want to start rearranging pans full of hot water because things don’t quite fit.  Then, open the oven, slide out the rack you’re going to use, and put the pan in the center of it.  Have a kettle of hot water on hand.  You want the water hot because otherwise it’ll pull down the temperature of the oven, and you’re already letting all the heat escape by opening it and dallying with setting up the bath.  You are, right now, begging fate for cracks in your cheesecake.  Move!

Put the cheesecake in the pan.  Pour the water from the kettle into the pan.  You want to fill to about halfway up the sides of the cheesecake.  Have more hot water on hand than you think you’ll need until you’ve done this enough to know.

This is ostensibly for roasting turkeys. It’s totally my cheesecake-water-bath pan.

Slide the rack back into the oven, close the door and DO NOT TOUCH.  That oven should not open again for at least half an hour.  The water will make sure the cheesecake heats evenly, and it’ll help the oven hold its temperature, but there’s no reason to handicap your oven – it has to do all the hard work of making sure you don’t wind up with a dry and or cracked cheesecake.  Frolic around the house to inexplicably catchy pop music instead.

Or do as I did and read N.K. Jemison’s new book.  It’s hard to compulsively check a cheesecake while compulsively tuning pages.

The cookbook said to bake it until it was done, then pull it out of the oven.  You could do that.  Or you could do something that works.  When it looks mostly set up, turn off the oven and crack the door.  Leave it like that for about an hour.  It’ll finish baking and cool off gently, which stops it from cracking.  It also means you’re not dealing with a roasting pan full of hot water when you take the cake out of the oven.

I would like to take this opportunity to, for no particular reason, introduce you to Poke.  Poke is an aloe plant.  I’m firmly convinced that anybody who does a lot of cooking should own an aloe plant.  You can cut off bits and put them on burns and they work wonders.  Poke lives in my office, where he makes threatening gestures toward the guest bed and waits, patiently, for his next mutilation.

Anyway, leave the cheesecake on a counter until it’s room temperature.  Then you can either serve it, or put it in the fridge for later.  I prefer my cheesecake chilled.  There is controversy on this point.

And so it was that the Killers finished serenading me, and I paid my graphical design debt.

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