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.