In her day, my mother was an amazing cook. Like Ruth Reichl, I too “grew up in a house that when you opened the refrigerator, food fell on top of you.” My mother’s repertoire was deeply rooted in her Italian and French heritage and there was always a cake, or cookies in the bread box, all made from scratch.
Of all the things I make now, that are reminiscent of my mother’s cooking (Veal Birds, Meatballs, Tomato Sauce, Fresh Pasta, Butter Cookies, Spareribs . . .) there is only one dish I haven’t augmented in one way or another, that is her cheesecake.
Everyone has a cheesecake they like – be it New York style that is dense and creamy. Or equally as rich, Eli’s Cheesecake in Chicago, which is indulgent, super rich and creamy and is available in a wide assortment of flavors. I’ve had them all, and I always compare them to my favorite, my mom’s cheesecake.
My Mom’s cheesecake is light, almost like cheesecake foam. It’s not overly sweet and is flavored with lemon and vanilla. It’s creamy, and melts in your mouth much in the same way a light mousse would. I’ve not ever had anything quite like it, and it’s adorned several menus of restaurants I’ve worked in and has been a best seller.
It’s not easy to make, and my first several attempts were miserable failures. There is an art to making this that has to be achieved. Follow the recipe precisely. Folding in the whipped egg whites has to be done in such a manner that you increase the volume of the batter proportionately. Doing this correctly assures the perfect texture when cooled. This recipe calls for a 10-inch spring form pan which can be a challenge to find. If using a smaller pan, you’ll want to fill it up to about ½ an inch from the top of the pan. More, and the batter will overflow and make a mess of your oven. If you use a smaller pan, pour the remaining batter into a few ramekins and bake them off alongside the larger cake – keep an eye on them, they will take less time than the larger cake. These mini treats can be eaten as a little reward a few days after you’ve served the entire cake.
Don’t rush making this. It has to cook in a slow oven, it needs to cool in that oven slowly, and you’ve got to chill it overnight – trying to rush the chilling process has resulted in a mess. You’ll know it’s baked when the entire cake has risen like a souffle and is golden brown on top with a few cracks in it, and it jiggles very slightly in the center when gently shaked. As it cools it will deflate a bit, and even a bit more after it has cooled completely in the refrigerator overnight. I’m serving it here with a peach and ginger compote, but this cheesecake stands well on its own, and is equally at home with butterscotch, chocolate sauce, or fruit.
1/3 cup graham cracker crumbs
2 Tablespoons dark brown sugar
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
6 eggs, separated
¾ cup sugar
2, 8-ounce packages cream cheese
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon corn starch
1 ½ cups (1 pound) sour cream
¼ teaspoon salt
1 ½ tablespoons vanilla extract
1 ½ tablespoons lemon juice
Heat oven to 300 degrees. Grease 9-inch spring-form pan, set aside.
Combine graham cracker crumbs, brown sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl.
Coat the sides and bottom of spring-form pan with graham cracker mixture, set in refrigerator.
Whip egg whites in bowl of electric mixer until foamy, gradually add ¼ cup of the sugar. Whip to stiff peaks, about 4 minutes, lower speed to medium and whip 5 minutes. Transfer to large bowl, set aside.
Beat cream cheese and remaining ½ cup sugar in bowl of electric mixer on medium speed using paddle attachment until creamy, about 5 minutes. Beat in yolks, corn starch, sour cream, salt, vanilla, and lemon juice until smooth, about 3 minutes. Remove from mixer and fold in egg whites. Batter will be thin.
Pour batter into spring-form pan, place on baking sheet and bake until crust is golden brown at the edges, has risen up and slightly over edge of pan and top of cake has cracked and cake is set, about 1 hour 30 minutes.
Turn off oven, leave door slightly ajar and allow cake to cool for 1 hour. Transfer to refrigerator, loosely wrapped in plastic film and chill until firm, about 8 hours or overnight. Once completely chilled, remove cake from spring-form pan and serve cold.