Desserts are divine and nothing makes me reach for a fork faster than a luscious slice of cheesecake. While it’s hard to ruin the taste of this oh-so-special treat, they sometimes end up a bit dry and far from aesthetically perfect. The usual culprit? Cracks – deep or shallow, those jagged, ugly scars mar the perfection of an otherwise-delightful treat.
So how do savvy bakers avoid cracked cheesecakes? I’ll let you in on my secrets. Truthfully, I’m not certain which method works best, so I employ them all when creating one of my masterpieces.
The right ingredients
An outstanding cheesecake begins with high quality ingredients. So, opt for real vanilla, not the imitation. Use the spendy spices, cage-free eggs – all the good stuff. You may be tempted to cut calories by using low-fat cream cheese or some other “healthier” substitute. Some advice? Don’t! This is a rich, decadent dessert, best served in dainty slices. As such, you can indulge in the real deal and be satisfied with a small serving. You have my blessing, and I am confident the baking gods concur. A cheesecake masterpiece is no place to skimp.
But there are some secrets to bringing out the best in those ingredients and ensuring a fabulous finish. First, bring your ingredients to room temperature before you start mixing up the batter. Not only are they easier to mix, they will make smoother batter, sans lumps.
Add the eggs last and beat them just enough, slowly, to incorporate them into the batter. Why? Eggs hold air. The more you beat them, the more air they’ll hold. Air is the enemy when baking a dense dessert like this! That trapped air escapes resulting in fissures, holes and bumps on the surface of your piėce de rėsistance.
The right environment
Cheesecake is a delicate creature, and must be treated as such through all stages of its development, particularly when baking. Steady, stable heat is required, which means your oven needs to be in top working order.
Mahlander’s appliance guru Tom Marso says to keep your oven temperature consistent, avoid opening the door. “You know what they say: If you’re looking, you’re not cooking,” he says. “Use the light and the window to take a peek.” He also advises checking the seal around your oven door to be sure it’s not worn out or otherwise deteriorated. “You can lose a lot of heat that way.”
In addition to a well-maintained oven, there are some non-negotiable musts:
- Use a water bath. This helps the cheesecake cook slowly and evenly, and is perhaps the most effective anti-crack measure you can take; don’t skip it! It also adds moisture to the baking environment, which helps render a creamy, dense texture that’s not too dry. To make a water bath (or bain-marie, as the French say), use a deep pan with high sides that’s large enough to accommodate your springform pan with plenty of space around it. (A rectangular roasting pan is ideal.) Wrap your springform pan in foil to avoid water seepage, then fill it with batter and center it in the larger pan. Pour about an inch of boiling water into the roasting pan, around the cheesecake pan.
- Place your gâteau au fromage on the middle rack of a preheated oven, set precisely to the recommended temperature and set the timer.
- Avoid opening the oven door while baking. Even a slight draft can cause temperature fluctuations, and this dessert needs steady, even heat to cook through without splitting.
- You’ve taken all the recommended precautions and are on the home stretch! (Tres bien!) Now, take care not to overbake this precious confection. To check for doneness when recommended baking time is nearly expired, give the pan a gentle shove for a “jiggle test.” Unlike regular cakes, you want your cheesecake to be a bit jiggly in the center. If there’s no movement, it’s overdone – and prone to crack. When there’s a two to three-inch wobble in the center, it’s done. Remove the whole works from the oven, and move the cheesecake pan to a wire rack.
- Immediately run a dull knife or spatula along the inside perimeter of the springform pan to release the edges just a bit from the pan. (Don’t remove the outer ring yet.) As it cools, the sides will contract. If there’s resistance, the edges can crack or crumble.
- Cool in the pan for about an hour, then chill in the fridge for at least four hours or overnight. Remove from the refrigerator and run a knife dipped in hot water around the edges of the outer ring. Then, release the latch to remove the sides of the pan. Some bakers opt to warm up the base of the pan and slide the entire cheesecake off of it and onto a platter or tray. I’ve yet to master this, so simply leave the base of the pan to be uncovered as the slices disappear.
The right attitude
Despite best efforts, there may still be a cracked top on one of your cheesecakes. C’est la vie, no? But don’t despair! Is there really any such thing as a bad cheesecake? Of course not.
Remember, this is mainly a cosmetic flaw. Texture might be slightly affected, but the flavor won’t suffer at all. In fact, it might even be enhanced – depending on how you choose to camouflage the crack. Try any of these, depending on what goes with the other flavors involved:
- All-over fruit topping
- Fresh fruit, artfully (and strategically) arranged over the offending crevice
- A generous dusting of cookie crumbs, like Oreos or gingersnaps
- Fresh whipped cream
- Candy bar chunks
- Nuts or nut clusters
- Chocolate ganache
Any of these can hide unsightly batter or baking blunders. However, if employing the above tips, you won’t need to use camouflage techniques often.
A final tip: always use a springform pan. They are a worthwhile investment and easily obtained. After all the work to turn out a crack-free cheesecake, one needs to be able to remove it from the pan unscathed. Plus, there’s a certain satisfaction in releasing the outer ring – voila! Your creation is unveiled. Bon appetit!