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Archive for Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Cheesecake that’s so simple, it’s almost criminal

January 4, 2006

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During the months of November and December, I made and gave away 10 cheesecakes. I made and threw away four (more on that in a minute) and made and kept two. For all of that cheesecake baking, I invested less than 90 minutes in prep time.

Through the years, I have figured out that the cheesecake has no rival as an outrageously easy dessert that still will impress people.

On multiple occasions I have had someone point at his slice of cheesecake with his fork and ask, "You really made this YOURSELF?" This has happened so often that I have stopped being equally incredulous in my response. The cheesecake I make consists of a butter-and-crumb crust and a filling that contains all of five ingredients. Making a cheesecake is so simple, it is almost criminal.

I have no definitive explanation for how cheesecake developed this mystique as being beyond the grasp of the mortal cook. But it's there.

I have three vague theories, however. One is that cheesecake turns up frequently on the dessert carts of fancy restaurants, alongside such items as puff pastry and crÃme brule, which really do require a bit of expertise to prepare. By association, cheesecake developed a rep as being complicated. Theory No. 2 is that because cheesecakes tend to be overpriced in both restaurant and retail settings, people assume that something special is going on there.

My third theory lays the blame at the door of the Jell-O people, who developed the instant cheesecake mix in 1966 and have spent the last 40 years trying to convince consumers that they need a box mix to make a cheesecake. The Jell-O marketers also have pushed the notion that people need a no-bake cheesecake, as if the baking - all 20 minutes of it - were some horrible burden.

Through the years I have tinkered with a recipe in the old "Joy of Cooking" and come up with one that is simple and reliable. You can add chocolate chips, melted chocolate, swirls of caramels or whatever you like to the batter. You can frost it or ladle berries over the top. Pie filling works great as a topping.

The only trick to making a cheesecake is to bring the cream cheese and eggs to room temperature before combining the ingredients. If you don't, the ingredients may not bind.

I rarely endorse brands of food products, but after my recent cheesecake-baking frenzy I am ready to swear off all but Philadelphia Cream Cheese. The four cheesecakes that went into the trash were made with a supermarket's brand of cream cheese. Even though the cheese was at room temperature when I subjected it to the mixer, it would not cream with the sugar and eggs. I went ahead and baked the batter to see what would happen, and those cheesecakes never set. I have used store brands before with no problem, but PCC appears to be the more reliable choice.

For the crust, simply combine 1 1/2 cups of graham cracker crumbs with a stick of melted butter. Press the crumbs into the bottom of a 9-inch pie pan. I generally do not bake the crust separately. If you are making a cheesecake to give away, a ready-made crust may be more practical because you don't have to worry about getting a pie plate back. Also, the plastic cover of the store-bought crust can be inverted to form a dome over the cheesecake.

This recipe may be doubled to make two at a time.

Basic cheesecake

2 8-ounce packages of Philadelphia cream cheese

2 eggs

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Using a hand mixer, combine the ingredients. Then beat on high for 3 or 4 minutes, until most of the small lumps disappear and the batter becomes thick and creamy.

Spoon the batter into a 9-inch pie crust and level, using a spatula.

Bake on the center rack for 20 minutes or until the outside inch of the cheesecake just begins to brown and puff slightly.

Place on a rack to cool. Cover and refrigerate.

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