Tips for Making the Perfect Cheesecake

I was 22 before I learned there was cheesecake that didn’t come from a box.

Up until that point, my culinary education consisted of boxed macaroni and cheese and baked spaghetti. There were no self-proclaimed “foodies” in our family. In fact, far from it. My family was culinary-challenged at best.

Newly married, my husband and I were invited to have dinner at his co-worker’s house. His wife cooked, and we had cheesecake for dessert – one of my all-time favorite foods. It wasn’t just any cheesecake, however, it was real cheesecake. You know the kind. Made in a spring-form pan. Thick with real cream cheese. A crispy graham cracker crust. I was astonished. She wasn’t much older than me, but obviously had discovered her way around a kitchen. I vowed right then and there to learn to cook.

Over the course of 16 years, many cheesecake recipes have come and gone. I’ve tried pumpkin, chocolate, and even peppermint cheesecakes, but the one that remains the biggest crowd-pleaser (and my favorite) is the following. It seems that simpler really is better.

1 cup finely ground graham crackers (about 20 squares)
1 teaspoon sugar
1 stick unsalted butter, melted

1 pound cream cheese (2 (8-ounce) blocks at room temperature)
3 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 pint sour cream
1 lemon, zested
1 dash vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a small bowl, combine the graham crackers and sugar. Add in the butter and mix until well blended. Spray a spring form pan with cooking spray. Press the graham cracker mixture onto the bottom and slightly up the sides of the pan. Bake for five minutes.

With a mixer, beat the cream cheese until light and fluffy and free of lumps. Add the eggs one at a time until mixture is smooth and combined. Gradually add in sugar. Add sour cream, lemon, and vanilla. Pour the mixture into the crust.

Take two pieces of aluminum foil and place them in a “t.” Place the spring form pan on top and bring up the sides of the foil. Place the foiled pan in a baking dish and fill the dish about 3/4 up with hot water. Place the pan in the oven. Bake for 45 minutes. Cheesecake should still be slightly jiggly in the middle. Turn off the oven and open door. Allow cheesecake to cool in the oven for 30 minutes. Take out and allow to cool for 15 minutes on the counter. Place in refrigerator for at least four hours before eating.

What makes this recipe so delicious?

1. The recipe uses sour cream. Sour cream makes a much lighter (less dense and dry) cheesecake.

2. All of the ingredients are at room temperature before starting. Cream cheese that is cold when mixed will leave lumps throughout the batter, which will create a less-than-perfect finished dessert.

3. It’s cooked in a water bath. A water bath is really simple, even though it sounds complicated. It allows moisture to circulate throughout the oven during cooking, which makes the cheesecake moist and prevents cracking on the top.

4. The cheesecake is cooled gradually and allowed to firm up in the refrigerator before eating. This allows all of the flavors to combine well. Cheesecake is one of those foods that actually tastes better the longer it sits.

This cheesecake can be topped with a number of different toppings. Because the filling is so light and neutral, it can easily be topped with chocolate, powdered sugar, or jelly that has been melted and poured over the top. Of course, the family favorite remains cherry pie filling. Simply allow the dessert to cool completely for several hours before topping.

The results? Perfect cheesecake.