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Simple, Sensational Cheesecakes

Cheesecakes rank high on the list of favorite American foods. Perhaps their popularity is the result of their elegant simplicity. Or maybe it's the fact that cheesecakes are rich indulgences that are still very easy to swallow.

Surprisingly, cheesecakes are also easy to make at home. The basic recipe for cheesecake is just sweetened cream cheese with eggs to bind the mixture into a smooth and creamy whole. Usually cheesecakes have a crust, but it doesn't have to be a complicated pastry. You can easily make a cheesecake crust out of crushed cookies or graham crackers. For flavor, you can choose among extracts, chocolate, fruit, nuts, herbs and spices.

Dessert cheesecakes aren't usually overly sweet, making them a good choice when you're serving a variety of people with different taste preferences. A savory cheesecake makes a palate-pleasing appetizer for a wide range of guests.

With only an electric mixer--handheld or stand--and a bowl, you can prepare a cheesecake batter in a jiffy. Just remember two things:

1) For a smooth texture, remove the cream cheese from the refrigerator to soften it and take the eggs out of the refrigerator 20 to 30 minutes before you use them. Beating a fat--such as butter or cream cheese--until it's soft, light and airy is called creaming. If you add refrigerator-cold eggs to a creamed fat, it could cause the fat to re-solidify, making the batter look curdled or lumpy. The eggs don't need to reach room temperature, but taking the chill off of them helps keep the fat from hardening again.

2) Avoid baking too long. A cheesecake is done before the center of the mixture is set. Remove the cheesecake from the oven when a cake tester or wooden pick inserted near, but not at, the center comes out clean. At that point, the sides will be higher than the center and just starting to brown. Cooking longer is likely to result in cracking. The heat trapped inside the cheesecake will continue to cook the soft center while the cheesecake cools.

That's all you really need to know to become an expert cheesecake baker.

This unsweetened cheesecake gets its flavor from fresh herbs and garlic powder. For quick baking and easy serving, the cheesy mixture bakes on a ready-made pizza crust--your choice of thin (which bakes up crisp throughout) or thick (which crisps only at the bottom). You can also choose to serve the cheesecake warm or chilled and to serve it plain or decked out with one or more toppings to suit the palates of family and friends.

To produce a batter that won't drip off the sides of the crust and will create a dense finished texture, be sure to beat the herbed cheese-egg mixture very well before spreading it on the crust.

Savory Appetizer Cheesecake

2 packages (8 oz each) cream cheese, cold
3 eggs, cold
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
2 teaspoons chopped fresh dill weed
1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
1 (11- to 12-inch, 10- to 14-oz) thin or thick baked pizza crust (like Boboli)

Optional toppings*

In large mixing bowl at low to medium speed, beat together cream cheese and eggs until thoroughly combined. At high speed, beat until mixture is smooth and fluffy, the consistency of frosting and thick enough to mound on spoon. Add chives, dill and garlic powder. Beat until herbs are evenly distributed. Place crust on pizza pan. Carefully spread cream cheese mixture on crust, leaving 1-inch border all around edge of crust. Bake in preheated 400 F oven until puffy, lightly browned and cake tester or wooden pick inserted near center comes out clean, about 18 to 20 minutes. Cool on wire rack. Serve warm or refrigerate to chill. Just before serving, arrange your choice of toppings over the top, if desired. With pizza wheel, cut into wedges or squares, wiping wheel with clean, damp towel or rinsing wheel in warm water after each cut. Promptly refrigerate leftovers. Makes 12 to 16 servings.

* Optional toppings--Choose one or more foods, mixing and matching as you like, for example, basil leaves wrapped in prosciutto slices or smoked salmon sprinkled with capers and chopped chives:

--artichoke or olive tapenade;
--chopped, sliced or wedged hard-cooked eggs;
--chopped raw, sautéed or caramelized onion;
--crisp-cooked, crumbled bacon;
--flaked tuna;
--fresh basil leaves, chopped chives or dill weed;
--fresh cooked or thawed frozen shrimp;
--halved grape or quartered cherry tomatoes;
--roasted red or chopped pickled peppers;
--sautéed wild or marinated mushrooms;
--sliced ham, prosciutto or plain or herb-crusted salami;
--sliced smoked salmon, sturgeon or trout;
--stuffed green or pitted ripe olive slices;
--sun-dried tomatoes;

If you've never made a cheesecake before, try this one first. Quick, easy and fun to prepare, this shortcut cheesecake can be a new experience each time you make it. Pick a flavor of pastry filling--fruit, nut or seed--and just beat it right into the batter. The filling will determine both the color and the texture of the finished cheesecake. The more dense pastry fillings create a firmer texture and the wetter fillings result in a fluffier texture. For a topping, simply spread on some sweetened sour cream for the last five minutes of baking time.

Flavor-of-the-Month Cheesecake

2 packages (8 oz each) cream cheese, softened
1 cup sugar, divided
1 3/4 teaspoons vanilla, divided
4 eggs
1 can (12 to 12.5 oz) OR 1 jar (10 oz) filling for pastries, cakes and desserts*
1 (10-inch) prepared graham cracker crumb crust
1 cup sour cream
Sliced fresh fruit or chopped, slivered or halved nuts, optional

In large mixing bowl at medium speed, beat cream cheese until fluffy. Add 3/4 cup of the sugar and 1 teaspoon of the vanilla. Beat until blended. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Add pastry filling. Beat until well blended. Pour into crust. Bake in preheated 325 F oven 55 minutes. Meanwhile, stir together sour cream, remaining 1/4 cup sugar and remaining 3/4 teaspoon vanilla. Gently spread sour cream mixture over top of hot cheesecake. Continue baking until center is almost set and cake tester or wooden pick inserted near center comes out clean, about 5 minutes longer. Cool completely on wire rack. Refrigerate until firm, several hours or overnight. Garnish with fruit or nuts, if desired. With thin-bladed knife, cut into wedges, wiping knife with clean, damp towel or rinsing knife in warm water after each cut. Promptly refrigerate leftovers. Makes 8 servings.

* Notes on Filling Flavors:

Apple: If you prefer a more highly spiced flavor, add 1/2 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice.

Apricot: To bring out the apricot flavor, add 1/2 teaspoon almond extract.

Cherry, Blueberry, Raspberry and Strawberry: All produce a colorful cheesecake shaded from pink through a rosy blue-red or medium light blue. For blueberry, add 1/2 teaspoon lemon extract.

Date and Prune-Plum: Both fillings create a gingerbread-brown tone in the cheesecake. For a livelier flavor, add 1/2 teaspoon orange extract to either filling.

Poppy Seed: The filling creates flecks of black in the cheesecake. To enhance the flavor, add 1/2 teaspoon lemon extract and, for a denser cheesecake texture, add 2 tablespoons flour.

Nuts (Almond, Fancy Nut [Mixed] or Pecan): Add 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon and/or substitute brown sugar for granulated sugar.

Pineapple: For a pina colada flavor, add 1/2 cup flaked coconut and 1/2 teaspoon rum extract.

Lindy's Restaurant in New York City was famous for its cheesecake from the early 1930s to the 1950s, when owner Leo Lindermann passed away. Although Leo was supposedly the only person who knew the secret recipe, Lindy's is still open and still serves cheesecake. This recipe isn't likely to be the exact original, but it does make a similarly rich and impressively tall cheesecake, sized for a crowd. For purists, serve the chilled cheesecake just as it is. For those who like their cheesecake with fruit, just before serving, glaze the top by pouring on a bit of melted jelly or spoon cut or pureed fresh fruit over the top of the whole cake or on individual servings.

New York-Style Cheesecake

Cooking spray
2 cups (8 oz) vanilla wafer crumbs (about 56 to 60 wafers)
2 eggs, separated + 5 eggs
5 packages (8 oz each) cream cheese, softened
1 3/4 cups sugar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons grated lemon peel
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/4 cup whipping cream
Fresh raspberries and kiwi slices, optional
Mint leaves, optional

Evenly coat 9-inch springform pan with cooking spray. Set aside. In medium bowl, stir together crumbs and the 2 separated egg whites until thoroughly blended. Press crumb mixture onto bottom and 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 inches up sides of sprayed pan. Chill. In large mixing bowl at low speed, beat together cream cheese, sugar, flour, lemon peel and vanilla until thoroughly combined. At high speed, beat until fluffy. Add the 2 separated egg yolks and the 5 eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in cream until blended. Pour into chilled crust. Bake in preheated 300 F oven until cake tester or wooden pick inserted midway between outer edge and center comes out clean, about 1 1/2 hours. With thin spatula or knife, loosen at edges. While still in pan, cool on wire rack. Refrigerate until firm, at least 8 hours or overnight. To serve, remove rim of pan. Garnish with raspberries, kiwi and mint leaves, if desired. With thin-bladed knife, cut into wedges, wiping knife with clean, damp towel or rinsing knife in warm water after each cut. Promptly refrigerate leftovers. Makes 12 to 16 servings.

For more easy baking recipes, see www.aeb.org.

Date: 10/25/06


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