New York Cheesecake with Spiced Cran-Cherry Topping

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.

I’m glad my hubby requested this. It was delicious! 🙂

Adapted from NY Cheesecake | King Arthur Baking

Ingredients (crust)

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


Ingredients (filling)

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*


Ingredients (topping)

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)


*Notes

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.



Instructions

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Bake at 400° for 10 minutes, then remove pan and allow crust to cool at room temperature.
  5. 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.
  6. Beat in vanilla, Fiori di Sicilia (or lemon zest) and salt.
  7. Add eggs, one at a time, beating until blended and scraping bowl after each egg.
  8. Stir in sour cream and give the mixture another thorough scraping.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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!


To serve

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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The Foundation of Good Pizza

Homemade pizza dough isn’t as complicated as it seems. Unless, of course, you happen to live with the one person who is seemingly the expert on all things related to “New York pizza.” And I do.

My husband, Les, is a little finicky completely fanatical about his pizza, to such a degree that I am still nervous about making it for him, even 3+ years into marriage. Like, “Beat Bobby Flay” kind of nervous. If you ask him what part of the pizza is most important, he will answer before you finish the question—the sauce is important and you should never, ever use too much of it. And the cheese should be good quality and never, ever pre-shredded from a bag. But the crust? Ohhh, the crust—the very foundation, the bedrock of a good pizza—this, Les declares, is most important.

When we met, I was still early into my adventures of bread making, but I was gaining confidence in it. And because pizza crust is, essentially, a bread, it made sense to me that I would simply make it. As you have probably already imagined, I wasn’t quite prepared for the onslaught of constructive feedback I’d receive:

This one is OK, but it’s a little dry. The texture on this one is good, but the flavor is a little bland. This one is all right, but it’s a little too thin, like a cracker. This one is a bit too chewy, but not bad.

During our honeymoon, we went straight to a NYC mecca of pizza, so I could see what “true north” looked like. Between the aroma of great pizza emanating from the shops and the ubiquitous New York street performers, it was a great moment in time.

And the pizza at John’s of Bleecker Street was indeed amazing.

I’m not even slightly embarrassed to admit that we ate the entire pie.

Back at home, I got serious about upping my game. By day, I’d research formulas, test recipes, develop my technique. By night, I’d pray feverishly to the pizza gods for some kind of divine dough guidance. I scoured through books written by bread experts including Peter Reinhart and Ken Forkish, clicked through about a million Pinterest buttons claiming they had the “best New York pizza dough EVER” and I sat through dozens of YouTube tutorials to learn the correct way to shape my dough. In case you’re wondering, you don’t have to throw it into the air to be successful. My ceiling is thankful.

Finally, I found the dough recipe that was closest to Les’s memory of New York pizza, and with a few tweaks of my own (most notably, my effort to build the dough from my sourdough culture), I have earned my keep. You can imagine my joy today, each time we make pizza at home, when this man of mine declares out loud (and, of course, to all his Facebook friends) that our homemade pizza rocks.

Just go ahead and get one.

Beyond the recipe, we have discovered the beauty of a pizza steel, which has completely changed the game for us. If you’ve ever considered getting one, just do it. It inspires me to make even more homemade pizzas, and in the weeks ahead, I’ll elevate your happy by sharing some of my favorite unconventional toppings (because everyone can figure out a pepperoni and cheese).

Ready to roll in the dough (well, figuratively)? I’ve created a tutorial for replicating our favorite homemade pizza dough—complete with recipe, instructions for yeast version and sourdough version, and steps for shaping the crust so you can enjoy pizza at home that rivals the best local takeout joints.

Have fun with it!


Spanish Onion Sauce

For just about everyone, the term “comfort food” applies specifically to the foods we learned to love during childhood. For me, that’s the made-from-scratch foods I learned in my grandma’s kitchen, including applesauce, soft molasses cookies and bread pudding. For my husband, Les, it’s pretty much all the foods you can only find in a Jewish deli and on the streets of New York. I’ve grown to love many of these foods myself—the bagels, the knishes, the in-house pastrami from Katz’s deli and of course, the pizza (am I the only one hearing angels sing right now?).

Any true New Yorker will admonish you for assuming you could just pick up a bag of Lender’s and call it “close enough.” The best bagels are apparently made with NYC water, but we are thankful to have a very good option for them in our home city. Then there’s the matter of pizza, but let’s not even start on that, though I’m proud to report we’ve finally perfected our at-home pies to nearly the level of Les’s high standards. And although hot dogs (even the Kosher, all-beef kind) are readily available in every corner of these United States, there’s no match for a good, old-fashioned New York hot dog. And for one main reason. The Spanish onion sauce.

Honestly, no other condiments are needed.

This stuff is simple enough, just sliced onions cooked in a thin, lightly spiced tomato sauce. But like any food that’s part of the very fabric of your life, it’s the memory of it that means something. You want it to taste the way you remember it. When I finished this batch of onion sauce, I cautiously asked Les to give it a taste and tell me what it needed. Last time, it was “pretty close,” so imagine my relief (and utter joy) when he licked the spoon and said, “Yep, that’s it!” Pardon me while I do the h-a-p-p-y dance. And though I’m only from “upstate” (not the same as New York, he reminds me, ad nauseum), and I don’t have my own early memories of this onion sauce, I have to say, it’s pretty darn tasty, and super easy to make. If this is all it takes to elevate his happy, I’m golden.

Ingredients

1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1 medium Spanish onion (about the size of a tennis ball)

3 Tbsp. tomato ketchup (preferably one made with real sugar)

2 pinches chili powder* (see notes)

Pinch of dried, crushed red pepper*

Pinch of ground cinnamon

1/4 tsp. kosher salt

1/4 cup water

*Chili powder is an ingredient that is wildly inconsistent, because different brands have different formulas and sometimes high amounts of salt. Use the most “neutral” chili powder you have, or substitute whatever makes you happy. For my most recent batch of onion sauce, I swapped out both noted spices for about 1 tsp. of the oil poured off a jar of Trader Joe’s “Chili Onion Crunch.” This earned an enthusiastic thumbs up from my New York-born taste tester. Don’t be shy about experimenting with the stuff in your cabinet—it’s how I’ve found all my best recipes.

Instructions

Cut the onion in half lengthwise. With flat side down, slice the onion into 1/4” crescent-shaped slices. For this recipe, I find it better to have similar-sized pieces of onion, rather than ring slices.

Heat a medium-size skillet over medium heat. Swirl in olive oil, then add onion slices and saute for about 8 minutes until softened and slightly translucent. Mix together the ketchup, spices, salt and water, and add to the onions. Stir to combine and bring to a slight boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for about 30 minutes. Much of the liquid will evaporate, and you’ll be left with silky onions glistening in a light, tomato-y glaze.

Quite simply—it’s real Nu Yawk daawg sauce.

We served our Spanish onion sauce on uncured all-beef dogs and homemade potato buns. Delish!

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