In my mind there is a perfect one of everything.
The ultimate what ever. The ideal that I measure everything else against. I won’t lie, it is not an easy thing to live up to. Especially when it comes to cheesecake.
Cheesecake is a constant source of consternation and disappointment. I have met the perfect cheesecake and all else falls to its memory. I have had one other that comes close but alas as it is in New Jersey and cannot be shipped; it might as well not exist at all.
The ideal cheesecake entered my life by way of one of my mom’s customers. A former New York cabby, he was trying to start a bakery business of his own.
In the hopes that my mother would sell his cheesecake in her restaurant he brought over a sample.
It was a tiny unimpressive looking cake. Denuded of crust, its sides were bare and white while the crown was a deep golden hue. It looked a bit like a wheel of brie that someone had forgotten a bit too long in the fridge.
The taste was another matter entirely. Dense and creamy the outside edges cracked gracefully as they met your fork while the inside stood its ground for just a moment before yielding in a buttery, soft surrender. It was not a cheesecake, it was an experience. An interplay of textures from the outside in. Not too sweet not to rich, just perfect.
For a few glorious years this was what I would ask for every year as my birthday cake. And every year it was delivered with the prettiest swirls baked into the top. Unadulterated, plain and utterly, irresistibly, undeniably wonderful.
Alas, like all good things…. The cabby closed his shop to return to New York and I never was able to coax the recipe out of him.
Every cheesecake since then has been, to various degrees a disappointment.
Baking a cheesecake proved no less frustrating than buying one. It is nearly impossible to find a crustless cheesecake. This would not be so bad, except that every crust I find is made of graham crackers; which, taken on their own are not so bad, but when combined with cheesecake just feel like sand next to the cheesecakes creamy texture.
I had all but given up on the idea of having a good cheesecake again when I caught an episode of America’s Test kitchen. They were making a light cheesecake, but in the process discussed the gold standard that they were comparing it to; their basic New York cheesecake.
It was an utter failure. I could have cried.
Sure it tasted fine, but it had the texture of cheesecake flavored mousse. It didn’t so much yield to the fork as shrieked in horror and surrendered at the mere mention of a fork. It was exactly the opposite of what I wanted. A complete 180. Freezing it only barely improved the texture. Even then, as witness by the above picture, it was full of tiny air pockets that had an alarming tendency to simply evaporate when bitten causing you to clack your teeth.
I reread the recipe.
I poked at the cheesecake in disgust.
I glared at my mixer….
And then it came to me. The problem was AIR. The mixer’s purpose, god love it, is to incorporate air into a mixture. Even the paddle attachment, by the time it was finished with the task at hand, incorporate enough air that when the cheesecake hit the oven it inflated into cheese foam. Not the dense creamy ambrosia of my dreams.
This was a job for the food processor.
It was also probably too wet. The half cup of cream in the original mixture was completely unnecessary. Cream cheese alone had enough creaminess, fat, and flavor to carry the day. All the cream did was to dilute the mixture. Out it went. The recipe also called for a ¼ cup sour cream. It was nearly indistinguishable in the finished product. But I liked the idea of a slightly sour tang. So I replaced it with Kifir Cheese (drained sour yogurt).
Flavor nailed down, I further went after the texture. Cooks Illustrated said that in order to get a dense, thick cheesecake you needed to start off at a high temperature and then reduce to very low. I was going to discount it at first but then I realized… the high temperature brings the cheesecake mixture quickly up to temperature while the low temperature keeps the air from puffing inside the cheesecake. However, the 160 degrees and the hour long baking time left the cheesecake far too drooping in the middle. It was exactly like eating room temperature cream cheese with a bit of sugar. EW.
In the end cheesecake baking became a contest of nerves. Would the cheesecake yield its creamy secrets? Would I loose my nerve at ruining yet another cheesecake? Would keeping it in the oven so long ruin the texture? Would it crack?
Would I have any nails left?
I was not a contest for the feint of heart. But when I pulled the cheesecake out with trembling fingers, dutifully waited for it too cool then refrigerated it over night… it was perfect!
It had been worth the effort.
It wasn’t exactly my ideal.
It was better.
Seductively silky and smooth it melted around the fork enrobing it in velvety cheesecake decadence.
I had found my cheesecake Nirvana. 
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated
2 pounds cream cheese (4 8 oz packages), softened
4 eggs, room temperature
1/3 cup Kifir Cheese 
1 ¼ cups sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla
Zest of one small lemon, finely chopped
Butter and additional sugar for the pan
Pre-heat oven to 500 degrees.
Set oven to middle rack and slide into it a large roasting pan. Fill the bottom of the pan with boiling water and allow to heat with the oven to create a little steam. Bring another pot of water to a boil.
Removed the bottom of a 9 inch spring form pan. Line it with a large piece of tin foil, folding the edges under so that they do not interfere. Replace the bottom of the spring form pan into the hoop and lock into place. Carefully uncurl the tin foil from the bottom and bring it up around the edges of ring, crumpling at the top to create a water tight seal.
Brush the insides of the pan with melted butter making sure to coat every nook and cranny. Once the pan is coated, pour in 3 tablespoons sugar, shaking it around to evenly coat the bottom and sides. This will prevent the cheesecake from sticking.
Evenly distribute the cream cheese in the food processor. Turn to on and slowly add the sugar through the feed tube until the cream cheese loosens and becomes smooth. You might have to scrape down the sides a couple of times. Add eggs one at a time, scrapping down the sides between each addition if necessary.
Stop the processor. While it is stopped add the zest, vanilla and kifir cheese. Pulse until smooth and thoroughly combined.
Pour the batter into the prepared crust , resisting the urge to lick the mixer bowl. Shake the pan, taping it against the kitchen counter to get out any errant air bubbles.
Place into the middle of the roasting pan and add enough water to come up a little more than half way up the sides.
Bake at 500 degrees for 12 minutes.
Open the oven door and reduce the temperature to 200 degrees. Keep the oven door open for a few minutes until it cools slightly. Close the oven door and bake without opening for 1 hour.
The cheesecake will look done at this point and be jiggly in the center. It will want to come out. Don’t you believe it! To prevent cracks, run a thin knife between the edge of the cheesecake and the pan. It should retract readily. Close the door and bake for another hour to 75 minutes or until the whole cheesecake move in a slightly rubbery way when gently shaken.
Bring the temperature up to 350 and bake until the top is golden and puffed.
Remove to a wire rack and cool, tearing away the tinfoil to allow heat to escape.
Chill in the refrigerator over night. DO NOT be tempted to cut into it right away. This is very hard, I know, but the texture will not right until it has chilled thoroughly.
Enjoy the fruits of your labor and send some to me.
 Cheesecake Nirvana is currently located in my freezer where it will sit and await my birthday on the 16th.
 Kifir Cheese is sometimes called Lebnan and can be found in Persian or Arabic markets. If kifir cheese is not available, substitute with Greek Yogurt, preferably drained for a few hours in a coffee filter.
 The first hint I had that I was on the right track is that this cheesecake was nearly half an inch shorter than the cheesecake mousse horror! The pan should be about half full, maybe a little more.