One day, I’ll learn that if I’m going to ask my husband, Les, to pick a dessert for me to make, I should make it a multiple choice. When I gave him free rein to decide on dessert for our tiny Thanksgiving for two, I imagined he’d choose from the obvious traditional sweets. You know, maybe pumpkin pie or bourbon pecan pie, or maybe this would be the year he’d ask for the apple cranberry pie I’ve mentioned for the past three Thanksgivings. Nope.
“Make a real New York cheesecake,” he said.
Cheesecake? C’mon, that’s not a Thanksgiving dessert. But maybe I could do a maple cheesecake with a caramelized apple topping, and that would be delicious and appropriate for Thanksgiving. But my hubby was clear about it: he was craving the authentic New York-style cheesecake—tall, dense and creamy. Oh, and topped with bright red cherries. His memory was based on the desserts made by one Miss Grimble, who was apparently an institution in the city of his youth. Not to set the bar too high, right? I’m good at researching, so I was on it.
Most recipes for this style cheesecake require baking in a water bath, which promotes even baking and a smooth top without unsightly cracks. That made me nervous right out of the gate. I know for certain that my springform pan is not watertight, a truth I learned when a birthday quiche I made for a gal pal a few years ago leaked out all over the oven. I wasn’t up for a repeat of that performance, for sure. And I was also insecure because there were differing opinions about the right temperature to bake a New York-style cheesecake. Some “authentic” recipes insisted the cake should bake in a water bath at 500° F for the first few minutes, then about half that temperature for almost an eternity. Other “real cheesecake” recipes said skip the water bath and just cool the cake in the oven to avoid the cracking on top. With so many opinions, I made the only decision that felt safe: I searched the King Arthur Baking Company website, read all the way through their recipe instructions as well as the accompanying blog post written by baking expert P.J. Hamel, and then I donned my apron and got to it.
The King Arthur recipe included instructions for a shortbread cookie-style crust, which I promptly replaced with a homemade graham cracker base (Les swears this was how Miss Grimble did it) and the blog post suggested two major rules for perfect cheesecake: start with room temperature ingredients, and don’t whip air into the filling mixture. One thing that attracted me to this recipe was that it did not emphasize a need for a water bath. Whew.
This turned out to be one of the tastiest and prettiest desserts I have made at home, and I did find a way to adapt it to the flavors of the season. Les got his cherry topping, but I spiked it with fresh cranberries and real cinnamon. We both loved it, and the cranberries are making it a festive dessert option all the way through the rest of the holiday season.
Adapted from NY Cheesecake | King Arthur Baking
1 sleeve honey graham crackers
1 handful ginger snap cookies (I used Trader Joe’s Triple Ginger cookies)
1/2 stick unsalted butter, melted
Pinch of kosher salt
4 packages (8 oz. each) full-fat cream cheese*
1 3/4 cup organic cane sugar
5 large organic eggs*
1 tsp. real vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. Fiori di Sicilia flavoring*
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 cup full-fat sour cream*
2 cups frozen dark sweet cherries
1 cup fresh cranberries, rinsed and sorted
1/4 cup pure cherry juice (or water)
1/4 cup organic cane sugar
1 cinnamon stick, about 4” long (or a few pinches ground cinnamon)
The most helpful thing I learned from the King Arthur experts is the importance of bringing all ingredients to room temperature before blending. This helps prevent clumping of the cream cheese and ensures the cheesecake mixture is the best temperature headed into the oven. Plan wisely, and take all the refrigerated ingredients—cream cheese, eggs and sour cream—out of the fridge at least a couple of hours before you begin.
Fiori di Sicilia is a specialty ingredient I purchase from King Arthur Baking Company. You may not have heard of it, but you would find the citrus-vanilla flavor reminiscent of Italian panettone or a frozen creamsicle treat. The ingredient is not essential for this cheesecake, but I love the “special something” it brings to desserts. This was my substitute for lemon zest in the original King Arthur recipe.
The recipe that inspired me did not require a water bath, but P.J. Hamel suggested in her “cheesecake tips” using cake strips, which are soaked and wrapped around a cake pan to promote even baking. Find these online or at a gourmet kitchen store, or give the recipe a go without them. I already had them, so I used one and it worked great.
- Preheat oven to 400° F. Butter the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan, then cut a piece of parchment paper to size for the bottom, and butter the parchment.
- Use your hands to break the graham crackers and ginger snaps into smaller pieces. Pulse into fine crumbs in a food processor or use a rolling pin to smash them into fine crumbs in a large zip-top bag. Pour melted butter into crumbs and stir to mix well. It should resemble the texture of wet sand.
- Press crumbs firmly into a springform pan, evenly covering the bottom and about a half inch up the sides. I used the bottom of a small glass bowl to compress the crumbs.
- Bake at 400° for 10 minutes, then remove pan and allow crust to cool at room temperature.
- In a stand mixer on the lowest speed, beat cream cheese and sugar until well blended. Use a spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl and beat again briefly.
- Beat in vanilla, Fiori di Sicilia (or lemon zest) and salt.
- Add eggs, one at a time, beating until blended and scraping bowl after each egg.
- Stir in sour cream and give the mixture another thorough scraping.
- Carefully spoon in part of the filling mixture, taking care to not disturb the crumb crust. Gently pour in remaining filling and use rubber spatula to smooth the top of the cheesecake.
- Reduce oven temperature to 325° F and slide the cheesecake into the oven on a center rack. Bake 50 minutes, or until filling is set around the edges and slightly jiggly in the center. Turn off oven and prop door open, allowing cheesecake to cool slowly. This will help prevent the top of the cheesecake from cracking.
- When cheesecake is completely cool, cover cheesecake with aluminum foil and refrigerate at least overnight.
Cinnamon Cran-Cherry Sauce
Combine frozen cherries, cranberries, sugar and cinnamon stick in a medium saucepan. Stir and cook over medium heat until it reaches a low boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes. Berries and cherries should be softened and thickened. Transfer mixture to refrigerator overnight. Try not to eat it all with a spoon!
When cheesecake is completely cooled and chilled, run a clean knife carefully around the inside of the springform pan, then release to plate the cheesecake. Cut into wedges and top with cinnamon cran-cherry topping.
Store leftovers covered in the refrigerator for up to a week. We found that we liked the flavor and texture even better after a few days in the fridge. Enjoy!
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