Friday, August 13, 2010

The Perfect Cheesecake, Part I

There are people in life who are in search of happiness, truth, knowledge, inner peace, the ideal pair of shoes. You know, all perfectly worthy things to be looking for. I, however, am in search of the perfect cheesecake.
You may be thinking that this cheesecake looks slightly deformed. My mom took a sliver from the center before I had the chance to take these pictures.

I would like to call myself somewhat of a cheesecake aficionado. Again, some people rationally discuss the particular merits of wine and cheese ("buttery," "ashy," "oaky," "Asian pear-y"). I, however, am devoting an entire blog post to the specific merits of my ultimate cheesecake.

Of course, I must admit that I have not found my ultimate homemade cheesecake (stay tuned for the latest details on that front). Nevertheless, my search for the perfect commercial cheesecake has come to a successful, delicious, creamy close. Hailing from Carnegie Deli in New York City, this thing is a real looker.

How crazy delicious does this look? Admit it: you want a slice now.

But to really understand how this slice stands up to years of cheesecake scrutiny and wins my award for the best I've ever eaten, it's necessary to dissect its components. This cheesecake is a prime example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

First up, the crust. Even though this slice is definitely in the New York-style (that is, dense and creamy with a bronzed top), it forgoes the typical pastry crust and uses a cookie dough base. For me, the crust must extend at least halfway up the side of the cake (none of that bottom-only nonsense, or, worse, crustless variations) and actually complement the cheesecake. I love the cookie dough crust here, but my actual favorite is a gingersnap base. The subtle spiciness of gingersnaps balances the creaminess of the filling without overwhelming it. Traditional graham crackers aren't far behind, while chocolate cookie crusts are just alright (likely because of my biased distaste for Oreos). And let's not even go there with pastry crusts, because you know how I feel about pie dough.
This scrumptious cookie dough crust extends all the way up the cheesecake. As a more neutral crust, it is the perfect complement to the decadence of this dense filling.

Second, the filling. As the main affair in the cheesecake, it must be no less than ethereally smooth (ricotta cheesecakes are another story for another day). Texturally, I tend to favor denser cheesecakes, but I also appreciate lighter cakes. I think it all depends on the flavor. For a plain cheesecake like this lovely specimen, a denser texture is more palatable, not to mention appropriate because of its New York roots. However, a pumpkin or chocolate cheesecake simply cannot boast the same density as plain cheesecakes. Can you imagine such a confection? It would be like tasting a whole slice's worth of pure pumpkin flesh or working your way through three inches of ganache. Better in small doses, I say.

I am also a firm believer in a variation of textures. That is, I like a natural but subtle transition from creamy bliss at the cake's center to a more cake-like, drier texture at the perimeter. This gradation not only adds interest to the slice but it also cuts through the thick cream cheesiness that dominates the cake's center.
This aerial view shows the nutty brown crown of this cheesecake wonderfully. Beneath the lovely golden top is an intensely dense filling. Even when sliced, this cake shows almost no aeration. That is because it is pure awesome.

Finally, flavor. I love the toasty, light-brown top that many cheesecakes exhibit as a result of their baking. An initial blast of high heat (again, a New York tradition) followed by low and slow oven heat makes for a nutty brown surface that I've come to regard as a fine attribute in a cheesecake. I'm actually quite open to cheesecake flavors, though, whether they be seasonal (pumpkin cheesecake with a spiced gingersnap crust is a Thanksgiving favorite, as is a cranberry swirl cheesecake), indulgent (chocolate Kahlua, anybody?), or bare-bones minimalist (this cake, obviously). One of my favorite things about cheesecake is the blank canvas that it provides. Anything is possible with a cheesecake, and I'm pretty much open to anything.

That said, there are a few major downfalls of cheesecake. A few that immediately come to mind are gloppy "strawberry" pie filling used as a topping, unincorporated cream cheese that suspends in the filling (room temperature ingredients, people!), and insufficient crusts (only four graham crackers? Why even bother? Also, crusts must be baked prior to adding the filling.).

Now, you may also be thinking, What about humongous cracks that look as if an earthquake has wreaked havoc on your dessert? Well, I have mixed feelings about this. The folks at America's Test Kitchen swear that cracked cheesecakes are a sure sign of overbaking, and I do believe them. They also say that you can forgo a bain marie (water bath) so long as you check the temperature of your cheesecake with an instant-read thermometer and promptly whisk it out of the oven once it reaches 160 degrees. This scientific approach makes perfect sense, so I tried their water bath-less method, and the cheesecake still cracked. It had nothing to do with my falling asleep on the couch as the cake sat in the oven (oops), because the cake cracked within the first 30 minutes of its baking. So now I only bake cheesecakes in water baths. Always, even if the recipe doesn't say so. It's too easy not to, and my cheesecakes come out so much prettier. Still, I think a cracked cheesecake is still a cheesecake, which is to say that it's still awesome.
Notice the thickness of this crust. It is pretty much uniform throughout, about a quarter-inch. Also observe the cheesecake's stature, about three inches. A short cheesecake is a sad cheesecake, and a too-tall cheesecake never gets eaten in one sitting.

Of course, I realize that I sound like an ultimate cheesecake snob. I hope some of you are still reading this lengthy digression. Anyone? Okay, well, as I said before, this ultimate cheesecake is truly greater than the sum of its parts. Yes, the filling is incredibly lush and the crust is sweet and wonderfully chewy (like cookie dough...) and the top is just brown enough, but this cheesecake fills me with so much joy. I get so happy thinking about this cheesecake, talking about this cheesecake, ordering this cheesecake, looking at this cheesecake, and taking 11 pictures of this cheesecake that eating it is somewhat of an afterthought. Sure, it's my favorite thing on this wonderful Earth and I don't think I'll ever make one as tasty as this, but I believe the thought of this cheesecake is enough to satisfy my appetite for it....

...You didn't really believe that, did you? I ate it last night, every last bit.


  1. I wondered what you were going to say (or not!) about my eating that little piece before you even got to the photos - and I think you handled it perfectly. but even as well as I know you, I was still surprised you ate every last bit of it in one sitting (what happened to saving something good for tomorrow?)

  2. my passion for cupcakes pales in comparison to your cheesecake fixiation-i have a recipe that uncle steve loves-maybe you can test it out for me and give me a real critique!