My mom first taught me how to make cheesecakes when I was 11 years old. I remember tiptoeing to reach the counter, holding the mixing bowl steady while my mom cracked eggs into it. That mixer is still the same one my mom used sixteen years ago when she first introduced me to the art of making this ambrosia. While I still have the mixer, the original recipe has undergone tremendous revisions, so much so that it’s not even a shadow of its former self.
A cheesecake is deceptively simple to make. Stripped to its bare essence, it only requires cream cheese, eggs, and sugar. To make the crust you just need a cup of crushed graham crackers and some butter. Because it’s so easy to put together, this dessert lends itself to a whole world of flavor variations: Mint Almond Swirl, Neapolitan, Amaretto Chocolate, the list never ends. You can also depart from the uniform graham crust and try chocolate cookies, crushed pecans, or toasted coconut.
So what exactly did I do to create the mother of all cheesecakes? It’s a work in progress that continuously evolves. I can tell you now that I’ve used enough cream cheese to feed a small village and that my taste standards for cheesecake are so high that it’s almost impossible to please me in this dessert department. The perfect cheesecake is tall, dense, and heavy. When you place a forkful into your mouth, the silkiness of the cheese rolls languorously on your tongue, leaving a velvety-smooth path as it melts, languidly coursing down your throat. Although most people couldn’t care less about the crust or base of the cake, it makes a monumental difference to me. I am more inclined to thick crusts ”“ half an inch or thicker ”“ that speak volumes about the dessert it carries on its back. Most people disregard the crust, carelessly waylaying it to the side of their dessert plate. What most people don’t understand is that the crust provides an ideal foil for the cheesecake, guarding against the typical cloying taste that most cheesecakes are wont to give.
I spent about two years creating, testing, and experimenting on various mixtures. The crusts of my first timers would fall apart, getting reduced to a grainy mess at the bottom of the pan. To harden the crust, I tried varying the amounts of butter I put into it; I used a spatula to really press down on the crust; I also tried chilling the crust after forming it, thinking that the butter in the crust would solidify, thus grabbing onto the crust particles. (I swear cooks can really let the science get into their heads!) That worked, but I yearned for the crust to be more compact. Then one day, acting upon something I’d seen in a cookbook, I decided to double the amount of butter called for in the crust, packed it down hard, and then cooked it in a 350°F pre-heated oven until I could smell the butter. After it cooled, I flicked the crust with my finger. Bingo! Hard and able-bodied, just the way I like ”˜em.
Now that I had the crust down pat, I turned my energies to the batter itself. The original recipe that my mom had taught me used one scant bar of cream cheese, but I increased that over time to four bars roughly equaling 32 ounces. More cream cheese used equals a creamier texture due to its high butterfat content. Others will try to use Neufchatel cheese, which is low-fat cream cheese, or cottage cheese or even ricotta. These are all acceptable substitutes except that of course the consistency will differ and the end product will be slightly more watery. I don’t waste my time on substitutes ”“ it’s either the real deal or nothing at all, especially where cheesecake is concerned. I also introduced eggs into the batter that would hold the cake together and give it body, rendering the gelatin powder useless. I also included the juice of a few calamansi to give it that extra tang and to offset the richness somewhat.
I also found that I couldn’t afford to underestimate the importance of the cooking time and temperature when baking a cheesecake. These desserts are notorious for those great big cracks that ruin their smooth top. My numerous errors have taught me that a cheesecake should be taken out of the oven when the surface is no longer shiny and when the center is still slightly jiggly. A cheesecake cools as it hardens, starting from the outside in.
As a result of my quest to make the perfect cheesecake, I’d like to share the simplest recipe with you. You can make this with your eyes closed and the taste will make people think that you slaved half the day in the kitchen. There’s no need to go through all the trial and error like I did because I’ve done everything for you. As I said earlier, stripped to its barest, divine flavors can be had with just cream cheese, eggs, and sugar. Enjoy!
2 cups crushed graham cracker crumbs
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup margarine or butter, melted
2 (8-oz.) packages cream cheese, softened
1 can condensed milk (I like Alaska Condensada because it doesn't leave a “milky” aftertaste)
juice of 2 calamansi or 2 tsps. lemon juice (if available)
Preheat oven to 300ÂºF. Combine crumbs, sugar and margarine; press firmly on bottom of 9-inch springform pan. Bake for 10 minutes. Set aside.
With mixer, beat cream cheese in large bowl until fluffy. Gradually beat in condensed milk until smooth. Add eggs and calamansi or lemon juice. Mix well.
Pour into prepared pan -- it doesn't matter if crust is still warm. Bake 50 to 55 minutes or until center is slightly jiggly but perimeter is set. Cool 1 hour. Chill at least 4 hours to let flavors develop. Will keep in refrigerator for two weeks (but do you really think it will last that long?)