Monday, April 27, 2009

Daring Bakers Challenge: A Challenge of Biblical Proportions!

The April 2009 challenge is hosted by Jenny from Jenny Bakes. She has chosen Abbey’s Infamous Cheesecake as the challenge.

Most bakers have made cheesecake before but Jenny challenged the Daring Bakers to take her basic recipe and play around with it. Make it unique.

Jenny’s recipe instructions call for baking the cheesecake in a bain-marie, a French term for placing a pan of food in another pan with water in it to stabilize the heat reaching the food. A bain-marie is used not just in cooking but also in science and industry. Legend has it that Miriam, sister of Moses, who was thought to be an alchemist, invented the bain-marie or Mary’s bath.

I just call it a water bath and I’m in the Mark Bittman camp: he despises using a water bath “about as much as anything in all of cooking.”
It just seems such a messy and time-consuming method. But a water bath almost always ensures a cheesecake that doesn’t have a massive crack down the middle.

Most recipes for cheesecake are fairly quick to blend together. The only time-consuming part is making sure you have your ingredients at room temperature before you get started.

So for me, the two challenges would be to see if I could come up with a way to make a great tasting AND great looking cheesecake without using a water bath and with my ingredients right from the fridge.

I decided to do a bit of research both online and in my collection of cookbooks.

There was a general consensus from my research that in addition to using a water bath the best way to have both great taste and good looks in a cheesecake, the cook needs to keep the following in mind:

•A cheesecake isn’t a cake at all but a custard. Therefore it needs to be treated gently.

•Overbeating the batter will cause cracking.
Air bubbles expand in the heat of the oven, causing the cheesecake to rise. In the case of cheesecake, too many air bubbles cause a dramatic rise and since cheesecakes don’t have any flour in them to set the structure and hold the rise in place, it collapses once it is removed from the warm oven causing an earthquake in the middle.
•Bake in a low oven – about 325 degrees. If the oven temp is too high, the protein from the egg whites in the surface of the cheesecake bind too tightly and dry out, forming cracks. To prevent cracks, once the cheesecake is done, shut off the oven, open the door and let the cheesecake sit in the turned off oven for one hour. •Improper cooling – everything contracts as it cools. If you don’t quickly run a knife around the edge of the cheesecake after it is done, it cannot contract away from the side of the pan causing cracks. Also need to allow plenty of time for the cheesecake to cool. If you put a warm cheesecake in the fridge to chill so you can serve it quickly, it will crack.

I also thought it was amusing to find out just how many recipes called for a sour cream topping on the cheesecake not just for taste, but because it hid any cracks that had appeared!

This was all good information but what about that darn water bath. I keep researching. And finally, in The Best Recipe cookbook by the amazing Cook’s Illustrated folks I found the following:

After much testing of a way to make the perfect tasting and no cracked cheesecake: “We were almost there. We had the lush and creamy and the light and fluffy cakes perfected, but we had not come up with a crack-free, smooth-textured, dense cheesecake. We finally decided to try the absurd.”

Now that last sentence had my attention. And here is what they did:
They baked the cheesecake at 500 degrees for 10 minutes then at 200 degrees for one hour. No water bath involved!


A bit more digging and I found my solution to using ingredients direct from the fridge. According to Cindy Mushet in her excellent book, The Art & Soul of Baking, “A food processor allows you to make a cheesecake on the spur of the moment, using ingredients cold from the refrigerator. The food processor incorporates less air than a mixer and blends the mixture beautifully."

Now I was ready to make my cheesecake.
So, how was I going to change the flavor of my cheesecake? I’m not much of a graham cracker crust fan so I decided to substitute Nabisco’s Famous Chocolate Wafers – many of you might remember the retro dessert called the Famous Chocolate Refrigerator Roll that used these thin chocolate wafers.

I also decided to use a raspberry puree on top. I thought the look of the red on top of the cheesecake with a dark crust would look snazzy – and of course, taste good.

I set the oven to 500 degrees and got started. After 10 minutes I checked the cheesecake, no cracks so far. I then opened the door to lower the temperature to 200 degrees. I baked the cheesecake for an additional hour. No cracks. I let it cool on the counter for two hours. No cracks. It was a thing of beauty!

I then poured a bit of raspberry jam that I had heated then cooled on top of the cheesecake. Remember when I mentioned Moses earlier? Well, I thought of him again after I poured the jam on top. Once I poured the red jam on top of the cooled cheesecake, my beautiful cheesecake parted like the Red Sea parted for Moses.

I will do more research to find out exactly why the cheesecake cracked when I poured the jam on it but it most likely cracked because of the difference in the temperature of the cheesecake and the jam even though I had cooled the jam.

I put it in the fridge and decided that although it wasn’t a good looking cheesecake, at least next time I would know what I did wrong and could use my new methods of no water bath and food processor. I actually enjoy learning from my baking failures so I wasn’t too upset. I just wish I knew for certain that it was the warm jam that caused the cracking and not some other factor.

Next thing I knew I was heading to my grocery store for more cream cheese and Famous Chocolate Wafers.

Yes, I made it again. The cheesecake once again didn’t crack during cooking. No raspberry jam this time around. I put it in the fridge as directed to chill. Still no cracks when I removed it from the fridge and released it from its pan.

My cheesecake was a bit plain looking so I jazzed it up with a bit of dark cocoa powder and a stencil.

Thanks Jenny for the challenge. Now that I have a quick and easy method for making cheesecake, I can’t wait to try different flavor combinations: dulce de leche, caramel, chocolate, lime………


  1. Cracks and all its beautiful. I love learning also, and its fun trying new and different techniques. Even still I bet it wasn't hard to eat, lol.

  2. Thanks for all your research! I will definitely try the food processor method next time as it is such a pain to have to get everything down to room temperature! Your cheesecakes look delicious--I love the one with the stars! :)

  3. It probably cracked because of the sugar in the jam? It leeched out the moisture from the cheesecake, causing it to crack. Just guessing. Looks delicious regardless!

  4. I love all the research you did to find the best way to prevent cheesecakes from cracking minus the bain marie, Mark Bittman should hire you!! In any event, your cheesecake turned out lovely, and I mean both of them - cracks or no cracks. It's how they taste :)

  5. Wow that is interesting that it cracked AFTER putting the jam on top. I love the stars on the second one... quite cool!

  6. I LOVE your site! I discovered it via Peter Reinharts blog. What a joy!

    I enjoyed your story about ring-a-lings, although bittersweet, and ringing of the sadness that a loved ones loss has upon us, it reminded me of one of Life's greatest legacies, that of sharing. Your mother gave you such a gift. You will give it in return to your own daughter. What a joyous hope, and a blessing to the spirit of your mom.

    Kudos to you!


  7. both cheesecakes looks beautiful. Thanks for all the useful tips! Love the simple stars on the second one, simple and beautiful

  8. Wow, this was a very well-researched baking experiment. I have a cheesecake recipe I make in the fall that uses the high-heat followed by supreme low heat technique, and that one never cracks either so there must be some validity to it. I personally don't think water baths are that time-consuming or messy to just do, but I made several cheesecakes without them that did not crack through the course of the challenge. I think the overbeating is the bigger culprit, actually.

    Thanks for being a part of the April Daring Bakers Challenge! I am sorry to be so late in replying, but I'm determined to get to every blog.

    Jenny of JennyBakes