Cheesecake is amazing. So many different varieties – you have the dense and creamy New York variety, to the almost sponge cake-like Japanese cheesecake. Many take a more traditional cream cheese approach, but some use ricotta, marscapone, or an even more exotic goat. I love them all. A younger me tried to bake cheesecake once, only to have it fall flat. What did I do wrong? Cheesecake is indeed a fickle friend.
My uncle is a chef so I have a lot to live up to, but at the same time he inspires me to try harder. How? All he has to do is make something amazing, and it has me wondering how he does it. Most recently it was a cheesecake with a chocolate cookie crumble crust. It was closer to the Japanese cheesecake variety but not quite as sponge cakey. Light and delicious, but not quite my favorite cheesecake. I’m sure my uncle will understand, because my favorite is loved by the San Francisco community. Anyway, it got me itching to try to make one that can rival my favorite.
If you haven’t been to Zanze yet, or been lucky enough to have tried their goods, drop everything and GO! Well, not exactly. Zanze Cheesecake is on Ocean Avenue in SF. It is owned by a loving elderly couple, a pair that has accomplished what I would love to have one day – a business and profession they love and works around their schedule. Great for them, but kind of sucks for customers. They are open for limited hours Monday-Saturday, and they close for multiple lengthy stints throughout the year (I’m talking like a month at a time). It’s what I call the Chick-Fil-A syndrome – you seem to always crave it when it’s closed! That’d be Sundays for you non CFA eaters. They have a few flavors, like original, mocha, sometimes pumpkin, sometimes cherry, and some kind of berry. You have to buy them whole, but trust me, you’ll need it.
Anyway, I digress – their cheesecake, which I’m convinced takes a swim in a waterbath, is divine. It is, hands down, my favorite in the whole wide world. It is light and impeccably smooth. This cake is so delicate the owners include a FISH WIRE so that you can get nice, clean, even cuts. A fish wire! Who the heck does that?? It is not too sweet. My inquisitive mind tries to figure it out every time I take a bite — how do they do it???
In the age of Google, what’s the first thing I do? Google it! I came up with this recipe. Of course I had to try it! I’ve also posted the recipe below, and include my notes.
Emilio’s Square Cheesecake
2 pounds cream cheese, room temperature — I used 4 packages of Safeway cream cheese, (2) full-fat and (2) 1/3 less fat. Believe me, any more rich would’ve been crazy. I’ll probably eventually try one with all of the lower fat cream cheese just to compare them.
1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
1 tablespoon pure vanilla
1-1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup less 1 tablespoon cornstarch
7 eggs — make sure you really beat these well. The first one I made tasted kind of egg custardy in some bites. I even considered adding one less egg. 7 may seem like a lot (it probably is) but also remember this recipe uses a 13×9 pan vs. a 9 or 10 inch springform like so many cheesecakes call for.
2 cups whipping cream
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice — (this is at least half a big lemon or a whole smaller lemon)
Berry topping (optional, see instructions)
Yield: 16-24 servings
Chill: 3 hours-3 days
Heat oven to 350 degrees with rack one-third down from top. Butter a 13×9-inch pan and set aside.
In large bowl of electric mixer (you can also try a hand mixer but I’d strongly advise doing this by hand. I dunno how you’d get anything smooth that way), beat the cream cheese and butter until soft and smooth. Remember, beater attachment, not whisking attachment…you can switch to the whisking attachment later. Triple check for lumps; as smooth as it looks, I kept finding lumps and they will not work themselves out during baking! Add vanilla, sugar and cornstarch. Add the cornstarch a shake at a time. Beat, scraping bowl, until smooth. Beat in eggs, one at a time, and add cream gradually with mixer on low speed. The mixture should be thin and smooth as honey. Add the lemon juice last and beat only to mix.
Spray the bottom of the buttered pan with nonstick baking spray. Pour batter into pan. Place pan in a larger pan that must not be deeper than the cake pan. Place the pan in the oven and pour hot water almost an inch deep into the large pan. If a little bit of the water falls in during this steps (oops. This may or may not have happened to me), just mix it in. Bake 30 minutes at 350 degrees. If you see the cheesecake rising higher than the pan, don’t worry – it will sink back down while it cools. Carefully turn both pans together front to back, then raise oven temperature to 375. Bake 10 to 15 minutes more (total baking time is 40-45 minutes). Bake only until the top is a pale golden brown. No need to check with a toothpick or anything. Overbaking only leads to weird chewy edges.
Carefully remove from oven and remove cheesecake pan from the hot water. Let stand until bottom of pan is completely cool. Do not refrigerate until cake has been removed from pan.
Cover cake with a large serving board or tray. A cookie sheet is perfect. Center the board or tray over the cake and hold board and cake pan firmly together and turn them over. Remove cake from its pan. It should come out cleanly. Refrigerate the cake as it is – upside down. There’s no crust anyway. Cut into squares and heap with berry topping.
Berry Topping: this is my suggestion, as compared to what’s posted. I happened to buy a pint of strawberries. The first cake I made, I sliced them up and put them all over the cake. This made it a mess to cut, but it was delicious! I also made a sauce with the frozen berry (raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries) mix from Costco that I was not particularly fond of and wanted to use up. In a nonstick pan, add the berries (I filled my 6″ pan with one layer, probably about 1.5-2 cups) and cook them down. Add some water as needed. I also added a little spoonful of strawberry jam to help keep it on the thicker side. Smoosh the berries down with a wooden spoon as they soften and break down. When the berries are almost completely cooked down, add 1/3 cup of sugar and incorporate. Cook to desired thickness. If you can’t get it to how you like it, consider adding a teensy bit of cornstarch, but be careful to mix it in well before it clumps. I also chopped up some fresh strawberries and mixed it in after. Yum!
Verdict? This cheesecake is rich and delicious! It’s not quite as dense as a good New York cheesecake, but it’s not as light as Zanze’s. This will stay in my repertoire, but I will continue on the hunt for something similar to Zanze. I’ll also work on trying to make these in cupcake/mini muffin tins for easier portioning.
*Recipe adapted from ”Maida Heatter’s Cakes” (Cader Books, 1997). Ms. Heatter adapted the recipe from one by Emilio Braseco that appeared in the New Yorker magazine, March 27, 1971.