Baked Sunday Mornings: Upstate Cheesecake

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It all started with cheesecake. Way back circa 2002, a young woman of, let’s say, 24, made a cheesecake that wasn’t half bad. And then another, and another. And then she tried cookies and cupcakes. And layer cakes! And macarons! And tarts! She fell in love with butter, sugar, and flour, and the magical things she could conjure with these simple ingredients.

But slowly her interest in cheesecake waned, as other sweet delights took precedence. But she never forgot the cheesecake, as it always held a special place in her heart as the dessert that spawned a million desserts. And so, she– okay, *I*, I’m talking about me, surprise!– I was excited to make this week’s recipe for Baked Sunday Mornings, Upstate Cheesecake from BAKED: New Frontiers in Baking. I haven’t made cheesecake in ages, and I thought it was going to feel like a baking homecoming of sorts. While I did enjoy lovingly and obsessively forming my smooth graham cracker crust, it didn’t come out quite as I’d hoped, but I see the potential. I wish I’d had time for a re-bake this week, which I’ll do at some point.

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Cheesecake has always held a special place in my heart because growing up as a Jewish American, it was ever-present at celebrations, holidays, and sometimes just because. I also worked at a Jewish deli-inspired restaurant that was known for towering slices of various cheesecake flavors. (I will never forget the chocolate chip version!) This particular recipe is a classic New York-style– tall, dense, and rich. I love a hearty graham crust, and this one seemed to fit the description. The recipe calls for 2½ cups of graham cracker crumbs, which I recently bought in bulk. Going by the weight listed on the package, this turned out to be a hefty 330g, which looked like a lot more than the volume measurement, but I went with it. (And no, I did not feel like getting out a measuring cup for comparison.) With only (only) one stick of butter mixed into the graham crackers, my crumb mixture barely stuck together, but I didn’t want to it to be greasy, so I decided against adding another 2 tablespoons or so. I did like the amount of crust, as it was enough for a thick bottom and side wall all the way to the top of the cake. It took me a full 15 minutes to press it evenly and completely because a) OCD, and b) the mixture wasn’t sticky enough, but in the end it looked lovely and solid.

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The cheesecake filling is quite simple to pull together– the main things to remember are that the cream cheese must be at room temperature, and to be careful not to overmix, the latter being in order to prevent cracking. You’ll place the whopping five bricks of cream cheese, sugar, lemon zest and juice, and flour in the bowl of a stand mixer and beat just until smooth; I think I did accidentally overmix here a smidge while I was trying to capture a shot of the batter mixing! Then add each egg and egg yolk one at a time, followed by heavy cream. The mixture will be thick, but pourable. There was so much batter that it didn’t all fit in my crust, so a small amount went unused.

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The tricky part for me was the baking phase. We are instructed to bake the cheesecake for 45-60 minutes, until the edges are set and the middle is still wobbly. It begins at 500°F for 10 minutes, then you turn the oven down to 350°F for the remainder of baking. However, mine puffed up so much (like a tall soufflé) that it developed huge cracks all the way around. When testing for doneness, it was very difficult to tell when it was ready because the whole top seemed wobbly. I left it in for the full hour, but by then, the top was super dark and the edges looked a bit burnt. The final step is to spread a thin layer of sour cream on top. I was hesitant to use the entire ½ cup because I was afraid the puffed top would collapse under the weight, so I just applied a thin layer and put it back in the oven for the final 5 minutes. It came out looking uneven and anemic, but I managed to at least even out the thickness a bit.

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While cooling in the oven, the cheesecake center sank waaaay down. Fortunately it was perfectly flat and not at all cracked, but the rim was burnt and messy-looking. I wished I’d added the full amount of sour cream, for one thing. When unmolding the cake, I also found that the crust was a little too toasty. And when cutting the cake, it was a bit dry and almost crumbly. I probably should’ve taken the cake out of the oven 5-10 minutes sooner, but it was too hard to tell at the time.

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I reeeeally wanted to love this cheesecake because it’s the family recipe of Matt Lewis, one of BAKED’s founders. I’d like to try it again at some point with a little more butter in the crust, and I also found it a touch too lemony for a non-lemon cheesecake– I would probably substitute vanilla bean paste for the lemon zest, and also add a pinch of salt. Despite being overdone, my tasters liked it, and I certainly believe it’s worth a re-bake. You can find the recipe for Upstate Cheesecake at Baked Sunday Mornings, and make sure to check out how the other bakers fared.

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© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2019.

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