August 20, 1964 – Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho
Today is the 50th anniversary of my third birthday.
Birthday cakes are the subject of intense consideration in my family, always homemade unless the cook has a doctor’s note, and always of a type and flavor chosen by the guest of honor. I wear two party hats today as both cook and birthday girl, and I choose cheesecake. It’s in the fridge now, to be served after my family’s dinner out at a local barbecue joint.
This cake is creamy, dense, and delicious. I have extra goodness in the freezer in the form of sun-ripened local strawberries preserved with a tiny bit of sugar, which I’ll serve on the side.
Cheesecake with a Walnut Crust
(Graham cracker crust version included below, which will require a change in oven temperature.)
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Place a cotton kitchen towel in the bottom of a large roasting pan with handles. This will become the water bath in which the cheesecake bakes. You’ll also need some heavy-duty foil.
In a food processor fitted with a knife blade, whiz together 1 1/2 cups (180 g) walnut pieces and 1/4 cup granulated sugar until finely ground. Add 4 Tablespoons melted unsalted butter, and pulse until the texture resembles damp sand. Press in an even layer on the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan. Bake for 12 minutes, or until the crust is brown around the edges. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. (Feel free to substitute your favorite homemade graham cracker crust, if you prefer.) Leave the oven on.
(Graham cracker crust variation – For a graham cracker crust, preheat oven to 375°F. In a bowl, combine 1 1/4 cups graham cracker crumbs, 3 tablespoons granulated sugar, 6 tablespoons melted unsalted butter, and a pinch of salt. Dump into the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan, and press firmly with the bottom of a measuring cup to an even thickness all the way around. Bake for 10 minutes, then set aside on a wire rack to cool. Reduce oven temperature to 350°F., and make filling.)
4 8-ounce packages cream cheese softened to room temperature
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
5 large eggs
2 large egg yolks (discard the extra whites)
1/3 cup whipping cream
1/4 cup gluten-free flour blend like Cup4Cup Multipurpose Flour (or use all-purpose flour if gluten is not a concern)
In the bowl of a standing electric mixer, beat together the cream cheese and sugar until completely smooth. Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl periodically to ensure that all of the cream cheese is being incorporated. Beat in the 5 whole eggs and 2 egg yolks, one at a time, scraping the bowl periodically. Add the whipping cream, and beat until thoroughly combined. Beat in the flour until the batter is smooth. Scrape again to make sure all of the ingredients are evenly mixed, and mix some more, if necessary. Pour the batter over the cooled, baked crust in the springform pan. Smooth the top with a spoon or an offset knife.
Place 3 sheets of heavy-duty foil on a counter, and set the filled springform pan carefully on top. Bring the edges of the foil up around the outside of the pan to create a tight shield, crimping the top of the foil pieces together against the rim of the pan. Place the wrapped pan carefully on top of the towel inside the roasting pan. Pour enough very hot tap water into the roasting pan to come halfway up the sides of the springform pan.
Make sure your oven racks are set in such a way that none will obstruct the roasting pan handles.
Uttering fervent prayers for divine protection against spillage, gingerly hoist the now-heavy roasting pan onto a rack in the center of the oven. Bake until the cheesecake is set around the edges and the center jiggles slightly when nudged, about 1 hour 35 minutes. If the top of the cheesecake starts to brown too quickly, arch a piece of foil over the top of the pan, taking care not to let the cheesecake come in contact with the foil. (It’ll stick.)
When the cheesecake tests done, carefully remove the pan and its load of simmering water to a heat-safe surface without scalding yourself. Remove the springform pan from the water. (I recommend donning heavy-duty dishwashing gloves for this task, aided by pot-holders. Just remember, the pot-holders may soak up any hot water they touch.) Remove the foil from the springform pan, taking care in case any hot water seeped into the folds. Let the cheesecake cool for an hour on a wire rack, then transfer to a refrigerator to chill overnight. Don’t cover or enclose the cheesecake in the fridge until the cake is completely cold.
Let the cheesecake sit out at room temperature for 10-15 minutes before serving. To remove from the springform pan, first run a thin, pan-safe knife all around the edge of the cheesecake, then slowly release the pan’s clamp. Remove the ring completely.
Serve slices of cheesecake with sugared strawberries, or whatever may be the birthday girl’s desire.
August 20, 2014 – Sherwood, Arkansas
Photos by (top) Loyd Burton and (bottom trio) Hannah Hale