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Classic Cheesecake

It hadn’t occurred to me to make a cheesecake for a very long while, but sitting on the patio eating a creamy slice topped with blueberries made me realize it truly is the perfect summer dessert, and the ideal vehicle for any berry or fruit in season, from cherries to blueberries to peaches. They’re perfect to bake ahead and chill when company’s coming, and easier to make at home than you might think.

There are two basic types of cheesecake: those you bake and those you don’t. The unbaked ones often get their structure from gelatin (or simply from the cream cheese itself) and firm up in the fridge. Baked cheesecakes have a different texture altogether; they are richer, denser and cheesier, but are just as easy to make. Regular cream cheese produces the creamiest results, but light cream cheese works very well too. (Fat free cream cheese, I’m sorry to say, just doesn’t cut it in my books.)

The key to a nice, creamy cheesecake is to not overbake it it should be slightly jiggly in the middle when you take it from the oven. To keep the top from cracking, humidity helps – some bakers spray water into the oven as it heats or toss a few ice cubes into a pan slid onto the bottom rack to melt, evaporate and add humidity as the cheesecake bakes; I keep the temperature low and run a thin knife around the edge as soon as it comes out, then leave it to cool with the sides of the springform pan still intact don’t take the ring off until your cake is completely cool, or it will stick to the sides and break in the middle. If you do experience cracks, a sour cream glaze is a quick cure, or simply cover the whole thing with fresh berries – they disguise all imperfections.

This is the recipe I grew up with – it won one cheesecake-baking contest, and remains the cheesecake of choice in our family. It takes on all kinds of toppings – rather than customize the cake itself, we prefer to doll ours up with fresh berries tossed with a little sugar, caramel sauce, or a drizzle of hot fudge sauce, as is or spiked with 1-2 Tbsp. Kahlua.

Classic Cheesecake

Crust:
1 cup graham cracker crumbs (or chocolate wafer crumbs)
3 Tbsp. butter
2 Tbsp. sugar (white or brown – optional)

Filling:
1 1/2 lb (three 8 oz/250 g packages) cream cheese, regular or light, or a combination
1 cup sugar
3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 tsp. vanilla
3 large eggs

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

To make the crust, combine the graham crumbs, butter, and sugar and press the mixture into the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan that has been sprayed lightly with nonstick spray. Bake the crust for 10 minutes, then set it aside. Turn the oven up to 425°F.

To make the filling, beat the cream cheese in a large bowl with an electric mixer until smooth. Add the sugar, flour, lemon zest, lemon juice, and vanilla and beat it again, just until it’s smooth. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each one. Pour the batter over the crust.

Bake the cheesecake for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 250°F and continue to bake for another 30-35 minutes. You can tell when the cheesecake is done when it’s barely firm around the edges and the center is just slightly jiggly. It will firm up as it cools. Immediately run a thin knife around the edge to loosen it from the pan, but allow it to cool completely and then refrigerate it for at least an hour before you remove the sides of the springform pan.

Slice with a sharp knife dipped in hot water, then wiped dry before each slice. Serves 16.

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