THE HAPPY childhood goes like this: My mother unwraps the silver boxes of cream cheese as if they are presents. She beats the soft cheese -- the crack of eggs, a dust-storm of sugar -- into pale snowbanks in the bowl while she lets me crush the graham crackers with a hammer. I sneak a few butter-laced crumbs and, later, watch the cooling cheesecake with that wistful ache children can have about certain foods. Such moments, repeated through the years, transform simple favorites into profound emblems.
Cheesecake has that kind of power; it also has range. Stamped with an ancient provenance (Alan Davidson reports a description of a Roman cheesecake in Cato's 2nd century "De Re Rustica") and European pedigree, it's made with ricotta in Italy, quark (a fresh curd cheese) or farmer cheese in Eastern Europe. And the distinctive texture and clean flavor of classic American cheesecakes comes from silky smooth, creamy but tart cream cheese.
Maybe because of their enduring popularity -- how often does a dessert engender its own restaurant chain? -- cheesecakes often come tricked out like a kid's birthday cake. But clear off the edifice of chocolate and cookies, the whipped cream clouds, the diversion of heavy fruit toppings, and it's the cheese that defines the dessert.
You can use cream cheese or its Italian cousin, mascarpone. You can use fresh ricotta, quark or fromage blanc (a French fresh cheese), farmer cheese or pot cheese, even Greek yogurt or goat cheese.
For sophisticated cheesecakes that are a cut above the expected, look for recipes that match a dominant cheese with a few carefully selected or seasonal ingredients.
Fold tangy and lustrous mascarpone into a batter set atop a walnut-graham cracker base and studded with fresh, tart blackberries in a versatile cake adapted from cookbook author (and food blogger) Dorie Greenspan.
Or take a cue from Spago pastry chef and cookbook author Sherry Yard, who uses cream cheese and farmer cheese with just a hint of lemon. Her take on the New York cheesecake -- the characteristic height, sans crust, with a pretty top that's almost caramelized -- stems from her own childhood, stamped in Brooklyn.
Yard's cheesecake, like Greenspan's, bakes in a springform pan set into a hot water bath, a method used by many chefs and home cooks for custards. Because a cheesecake is actually more like a dense custard than a cake. "It's its own category," Greenspan said by phone from Connecticut, where she's at work on a new book.
A simple water bath is a way of regulating temperature, ensuring that the cake -- dense and creamy, often reaching a vertical height of 3 inches -- cooks evenly.
Ciro Marino's torta di ricotta, on the other hand, is an old-fashioned Italian chef's take on an old-fashioned Italian dessert. Marino, who doesn't even have a measuring spoon at Marino's, the Hollywood restaurant he's helmed for 25 years, bakes his cake in the bottom of the oven, door propped open with an old saucepan (we've updated this method), the cake insulated by a layer of crushed graham crackers tucked around the pan instead of a hot water bath.
Marino's cheesecake is a paean to ricotta. It's made with a whopping 5 pounds of the glorious stuff. Leavened with only two eggs, this cheesecake is subtle in flavor and texture, with delicate notes from rose water, orange blossom water and candied lemon peel that underscore the gentle flavor of the cheese rather than overwhelm it.
These cakes are constructed not to fissure and break on the surface, something that can happen if a cheesecake is baked too quickly at too high a temperature.
But things happen, and cheesecake, at heart a homey confection, is adaptive. That thin layer of sour cream that graces the top of some cheesecakes? That almost mathematical arrangement of berries? It's practical as well as aesthetic.
So if your cheesecake cracks (your oven isn't pastry-shop calibrated, your life intervenes with its casual emergencies), "you just put some schmear on top, it looks great," Yard said in a recent telephone conversation.
But a cheesecake is not a thing to rush, and this patience applies to the time out of the oven, too. Plan to make a cheesecake at least a day before serving it. Cool the cake, then let it set up overnight in the refrigerator. A day, even two, and the flavors come into their own.
The texture of a cheesecake depends a lot on the kind of cheese you use and how you mix the batter. Some ricottas are soft, others grainy; some farmer cheese can be as pliant as goat cheese, others more like feta. Choose the creamiest cheese you can find.
Then you can whip the batter like mad, but do this only if you're using a type of cheese, like cream cheese, that can take it. (Mascarpone will separate.) Or run the cheese or the finished batter -- we suggest doing both -- through a fine-mesh strainer or a tamis. This step can make a world of difference.
Like any good cheese, a slice of cheesecake is best at room temperature. But cutting the slices is easier when the cake is chilled; you'll also get cleaner cuts if you first halve then quarter the cake and so forth, instead of cutting a slice at a time.
Another trick is to use a length of dental floss, or use a knife you've heated by running it under hot water. (Yard uses a blow torch to heat the knife.)
Offer your cheesecake with a few complementary endnotes. Mozza pastry chef Dahlia Narvaez serves her cake made of goat cheese, cream cheese and mascarpone with three kinds of honey and toasted pine nuts.
In fact, think of your cheesecake less as a dessert and more as a cheese course -- an elegant wedge like the geometry of the end of a meal -- offered with a few plump figs, a handful of almonds, a glass of late harvest Gewurztraminer.
Of course my mother just gave us each a cup of milk.
A & S cheesecake
Total time: 2 1/2 hours, plus chilling time
Note: From "Desserts by the Yard" by Sherry Yard. Farmer cheese can be found at Bay Cities deli, Canter's Deli, Marcel Marceau market and select Whole Foods stores.
6 ounces soft, creamy farmer cheese
1 pound, 14 ounces cream cheese at room temperature
1 cup sugar
3 eggs plus 2 yolks, at room temperature
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3/4 cup sour cream
3/4 cup heavy cream
1. Place a rack in the upper third of the oven and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9-inch springform pan with cooking spray and line the bottom with a round of parchment paper. Spray the parchment. Wrap the outside of the pan with aluminum foil to prevent any water from coming in from the water bath.
2. Press the farmer cheese through a fine-mesh strainer to ensure the curds are fine. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or use a large bowl and a hand mixer), mix the cream cheese and the sugar. Beat on low speed for 2 minutes, or until smooth, scraping down the sides of the bowl.
3. Add the eggs and egg yolks, one at a time, scraping down the bowl and paddle or beaters after each addition. Beat in the lemon juice and vanilla. Scrape down the bowl and paddle.
4. Still on low speed, beat in the sour cream. Slowly add the heavy cream, beating until blended; stop to scrape down the bowl and paddle every 30 seconds. Gently press the finished batter through a fine-mesh strainer.
5. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan, scraping every last bit out of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Place the pan in a baking or a roasting pan and place on the oven rack. Pour enough hot water into the baking pan to come halfway up the sides of the springform pan. Bake for 1 hour.
6. Turn off the oven; do not open the oven door. Leave in the oven for another 45 minutes to an hour; the cake will be golden and set (if you don't have a window, open the oven door quickly to check).
7. Remove the cake from the oven, remove from the water bath to a rack and cool to room temperature, about 2 hours. Chill for at least 4 hours in the refrigerator.
8. To serve, run a knife around the inside of the rim of the springform pan and remove the rim. Allow the cake to stand at room temperature for 20 minutes before serving.
Each serving: 333 calories; 7 grams protein; 16 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 27 grams fat; 17 grams saturated fat; 147 mg. cholesterol; 195 mg. sodium.
Marino's ricotta cheesecake
Total time: 1 1/2 hours, plus chilling time
Note: Adapted from Ciro Marino of Marino Ristorante in Hollywood. Rose water and orange blossom water are available at Middle Eastern and specialty food stores.
6 tablespoons ( 3/4 stick) butter, softened
9 1/2 ounces graham crackers (about 17 whole), divided
5 pounds ricotta, preferably Polly-O
4 ounces ( 1/3 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons) sour cream
3 generous cups (12 ounces) powdered sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
1 1/2 teaspoons finely diced candied lemon peel
1 teaspoon orange zest
2 teaspoons lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon rose water
1/2 teaspoon orange blossom water
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
2 large eggs
1. Heat the oven to 450 degrees and place a rack in the lowest part of the oven. With your fingers, butter the bottom and sides of a 10-inch springform pan. Use all the butter; you will have a fairly thick coating. Finely grind 7 1/2 graham crackers in a food processor, careful not to over-process to a paste. Pour the crumbs into the pan, shaking and turning the pan to coat all surfaces well (the remaining crumbs will form a thicker layer on the bottom of the pan).
2. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a large bowl if using a hand mixer), combine the ricotta, sour cream, sugar, lemon peel, zests, rose water, orange blossom water and vanilla. On low speed, gradually combine all the ingredients. Switch to high speed and beat until thoroughly combined, scraping the sides of the bowl as you go.
3. Add both eggs and mix, first at low speed and then high speed, scraping down the sides of the bowl, just until the ingredients are combined. Be careful not to over-mix.
4. Using a large spoon, drop the batter into the pan, starting in the center and working your way out to the edges so that the crumbs do not get mixed into the batter. Smooth the batter to the edges of the pan, using the spoon to form an even layer.
5. Finely grind the remaining crackers, and spread the crumbs evenly over the top of the cake.
6. Center the cake pan on a baking sheet. Place the sheet in the oven and bake 8 to 10 minutes until the graham cracker topping is golden brown. Cover the top of the cake with foil and continue to bake until the cake has risen (including the center) about an inch over the sides of the pan, an additional 40 to 55 minutes depending on the oven. Rotate the cake after 20 minutes for even baking. Carefully remove the risen cake and cool (still on the cookie sheet) to room temperature; this will take a few hours.
7. Refrigerate the cake overnight before serving. Just before serving, dust the top of the cake with a light sprinkling of powdered sugar.
Each serving: 504 calories; 18 grams protein; 39 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 31 grams fat; 19 grams saturated fat; 124 mg. cholesterol; 235 mg. sodium.
Tall and creamy cheesecake
Total time: 3 hours, plus chilling time
Note: Adapted from "Baking: From My Home to Yours" by Dorie Greenspan.
Butter for greasing the pan
1 3/4 cups graham cracker crumbs
1/2 cup finely chopped walnuts
1 1/3 cups sugar plus 3 tablespoons, divided
4 tablespoons ( 1/2 stick) butter, melted
2 pounds cream cheese, at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 eggs, at room temperature
1 1/3 cups mascarpone cheese, at room temperature
2 cups blackberries
1. Make the crust: Butter a 9-inch springform pan with sides at least 2 3/4 -inches high, and wrap the outside of the pan in a double layer of aluminum foil.
2. In a medium bowl, combine the graham cracker crumbs, walnuts, 3 tablespoons sugar and a pinch of salt. Pour in the melted butter and stir together, using your fingers or a fork, until all of the dry ingredients are uniformly moist. Place the crust mixture into the springform pan and use your fingers to pat an even layer (about one-fourth-inch thick) of crumbs over the bottom of the pan and about halfway up the sides. Place the pan in the freezer while you heat the oven.
3. Center a rack in the oven and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the prepared springform pan on a baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes. Set the crust aside to cool on a rack while you prepare the filling. Reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees.
4. Using a stand mixer or in a large bowl using a hand mixer, beat the cream cheese at medium speed until soft and creamy, about 4 minutes. With the mixer running, add the remaining sugar and one-half teaspoon salt and continue to beat until the cream cheese is light and fluffy, about 4 minutes. Run a spatula along the sides and bottom of the bowl to make sure everything is combined. Beat in the vanilla, then add the eggs one at a time, beating a full minute between each addition -- you want a well-aerated batter. Reduce the mixer to low and beat in the mascarpone. Run a spatula through the batter again to make sure everything is evenly incorporated.
5. Place the foil-lined springform pan in a roasting pan. Pour half of the batter into the springform pan. Gently drop the blackberries over the batter, then spoon the remaining batter over the berries and smooth out the top. Make sure that the batter comes no higher than the top of the pan; you might have just a little batter left over.
6. Place the roasting pan in the oven and pour enough boiling water to come halfway up the sides of the springform pan.
7. Bake the cheesecake for 1 1/2 hours, until the top is browned (and perhaps cracked). Turn off the oven and prop the door open with a wooden spoon. Allow the cheesecake to sit in the water bath for an additional hour.
8. Remove the roasting pan from the oven, and remove the springform pan from its water bath. Carefully remove the foil from the springform pan, and cool the cheesecake to room temperature on a rack. Cover the top of the cooled cake lightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.
9. To remove the sides of the springform pan: Run a blunt knife around the sides of the pan, then warm the sides of the pan lightly with a hair dryer before unmolding. To slice, run a long, thin knife under hot water then lightly wipe dry. Keep warming the knife as you slice. The cake will keep, tightly wrapped, up to 1 week refrigerated and up to 2 months frozen. (To defrost, place the still-wrapped cheesecake in the refrigerator overnight.)
Each serving: 471 calories; 9 grams protein; 31 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 36 grams fat; 20 grams saturated fat; 147 mg. cholesterol; 252 mg. sodium.