I always thought cheesecake was one of those inarguably beloved foods, like expertly prepared French fries or the perfect baguette or the tender oysters of a roast chicken, plucked delicately from the carcass. But in a highly unscientific study I did a few weeks ago, I discovered something quite to the contrary. It turns out that more people dislike cheesecake than like it.
I know, earth-shattering, right?
The complaints all seemed to be the same. Too rich, too heavy, too much. To the people whom I polled, cheesecake was a thing of the past. And once I turned the poll on myself, I realized I wasn't exactly cheesecake's biggest advocate. Give me German Kaesekuchen or Italian torta di ricotta over a slice of cheesecake any day. Airy, refreshingly sour, and - most importantly - not a leaden brick sinking in my stomach, those cakes feature Quark and ricotta, relatively light fresh cheeses when compared to our dependably stodgy cream cheese.
But my compulsive recipe-clipping led me to a cheesecake recipe from all the way back in another lifetime - February 2001 - when Amanda Hesser wrote about a cheesecake from New York City's Tasting Room restaurant. Her description, of a cheesecake akin to a wedge-shaped marshmallow, is what made me stop and think twice. I simply had to try it.
The filling of the cake is quite straightforward: cream cheese and vanilla, folded into a shiny, billowy mass of beaten meringue. You pour this ambrosial, cloudlike mixture into an almond crust and bake it in the oven. There's no water bath, which means that the cheesecake will probably crack. Not at first (ah, hubris), so you'll think you're in the clear, but as it cools, oh man, it can get ugly. Never mind. Just tell yourself it's rustic that way. Oh, and in any case, the recipe has you cover the top of the cheesecake with vanilla-flavored, sugared sour cream for another run in the oven. I assume this is meant to mask some of that crackage, but it can also backfire, leading to a cheesecake that practically looks like a crucifixion in cheese.
(Quite fitting, that, since this was my contribution to our Easter lunch with our friends upstairs.)
But when you cut into it, all thoughts of cracks and ugliness disappear. What you're left with are towering wedges of the lightest, airiest cheesecake you can imagine. At our table, we had two avowed cheesecake foes and they had two pieces each. Two! Each!
Here are my quibbles, though:
For one, the crust was a pain in the neck to eat. It was quite tough and hard - each time I tried to use my fork to pierce it, pieces went skittering across my plate. Next time, I'd make this with a traditional graham-cracker crust.
Second of all, the vanilla flavor can be somewhat overwhelming. Now this may be an issue of personal preference. I happen to like lemon in cheesecakes. I happen to also like the combination of vanilla and lemon. Vanilla all on its own is a little bit...cloying? Next time, I'd add some lemon zest to the filling and perhaps reduce the vanilla by a 1/4 teaspoon.
And last but not least, that damn layer of sour cream. I'd leave it off if I make this again. It was a little goopy and I didn't really understand its point. Mask? Topping? Crack-filler? It did none of these things very well.
Makes one 9-inch cake
1 1/2 cups ground almonds
3 tablespoons brown sugar
1/3 cup butter, more for pan
1 1/2 pounds cream cheese, softened
4 egg whites
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 pint sour cream
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a small bowl, combine almonds and brown sugar. Melt butter, then stir in. Butter bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan, then press nut mixture into bottom but not up sides.
2. In a small pan, warm cream cheese over low heat. When very soft, remove from heat, and set aside. In a large bowl, whisk egg whites and 1 cup sugar until they hold soft peaks. Be patient, this can take quite a while. Fold in cream cheese and 1 tablespoon vanilla. Pour into pan, and bake 25 to 30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in center comes out only slightly moist; cake should not be brown.
3. Meanwhile, in a small bowl whisk together sour cream, remaining sugar and vanilla. When cake comes out of oven, increase setting to 450 degrees, and carefully spread mixture over cake. Return it to oven for 5 minutes. Do not overcook or it will crack or turn brown. Remove, and let cool in pan. Chill in refrigerator. To serve, run a knife along edge of pan, and remove sides of pan. Cut into wedges and serve.