Cheesecake is a favorite dessert in my family. I mean, what’s not to love about a dessert made of cheese?
This cheesecake is a classic version of a vanilla cheesecake, only I combined it with the best part of classic crème brûlée—the brittle sugar top. There’s just something about tapping the sugar shell and listening for that crack of brittle, caramelized sugar. The satiny filling is speckled with vanilla bean seeds, and the whole thing comes together when you scoop up the crunchy, buttery base.
HOW TO MAKE THE BEST CHEESECAKE
For your cheesecake to turn out rich, creamy, and crack-free, follow a few simple steps.
- Always beat your cheesecake batter on low speed. Cheesecakes often crack because too much air is beaten into them—either by whipping or beating on high. Slow and steady wins the race.
- Use room temperature cream cheese and scrape down the bowl often. Fat (aka cheese) likes to stick to the sides and bottom of the bowl. For a creamy, silky cheesecake without lumps, get comfortable with your spatula, and let your cream cheese sit out for a couple of hours. All this low beating and scraping down the bowl might seem tedious, but it makes a big difference in the end result.
- Use a water bath. I know they feel a little risky, but you’ve got this. Water baths really do create the creamiest cakes with the most level tops.
WHAT IS A WATER BATH?
A water bath, also known as a bain-marie, is simply a pan with water in which another pan, dish, or pot is set.
In the case of cheesecake, triple wrap the springform pan in foil, add the cheesecake filling, and set the cake in the center of a roasting pan. If you don’t have a roasting pan, a large, wide bottomed Dutch oven will also work. Fill the roasting pan with water halfway up the sides of the springform pan and place it in the oven.
HOW TO KEEP WATER OUT OF YOUR CHEESECAKE
- Wrap it well using three layers of extra-long, heavy duty aluminum foil. I use a 9-inch springform pan, and a standard roll of foil isn’t long enough to go up all sides of the pan.
- Sara Bir, one of the recipe developers for Simply Recipes, has a great trick. Skip the foil and use the oven safe nylon bags used to brine turkeys. The good news is, you can wash and reuse the bag, and keep it as your cheesecake pan bag.
WHAT IF I DON’T HAVE SOUR CREAM?
If you don’t have sour cream for this cheesecake, you can leave it out. The cake won’t be quite as fluffy, but it will still be rich and delicious. You can also replace the 1/2 cup sour cream with 1/3 cup heavy whipping cream.
HOW TO TELL WHEN CHEESECAKE IS DONE
Cheesecake is basically a custard. It likes slow, even cooking, and time. All ovens are different, so it’s best to peek in on your cheesecake every now and then to make sure baking is going according to plan. Your cake is done when it looks smooth across the top and has a slight jiggle, but not a slosh in the center.
HOW TO BRÛLÉE THE TOP
Once the cheesecake has baked and chilled, it’s time to brûlée the top. This involves sprinkling the surface of the chilled custard with a little sugar and using a creme brûlée torch to melt the sugar into a solid, brittle crust.
If there’s too much sugar, the crust will start to burn before it melts evenly. Too little, and you will toast the top of the cheesecake.
I’ve found that sprinkling the sugar in two steps leads to a more uniform melting of the sugar granules and a nice even caramel color. It also lowers the risk of overheating the sugar as it caramelizes, which can lead to bitter, burnt sugar.
Culinary torches are really the best route. They are easy to use, affordable, and take up little space in your kitchen. It’s worth the investment. The one I like is this Micro Butane Torch from JB Culinary.
CAN YOU MAKE THIS CHEESECAKE AHEAD OF TIME?
Once you’ve baked the cheesecake, but before you’ve torched the top, it will keep uncovered in the refrigerator for 24 hours (after you’ve cooled it for 24 hours).
Once you’ve brûléed the sugar topping, cheesecake is at its best served within 20 minutes. If you wait longer, you risk the sugar absorbing moisture and the brittle top softening. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work well to torch the top again to try crisping it back up.
If you’ve waited longer than 20 minutes, all is not lost! The top will still be hard, just not quite as hard as it was, and the brûléed sugar will have a quieter crack when tapped with a fork.
HOW LONG DOES CHEESECAKE LAST?
Cheesecake lasts about 3.7 seconds after you cut the first slice. Kidding!
I find that the crust begins to weep after about day three. It’s still fine to eat, but the crust isn’t what it used to be.
Just make sure you keep it in the fridge.
CAN YOU FREEZE CHEESECAKE?
You absolutely can freeze cheesecake. I prefer to freeze it whole, but you can freeze individual slices and enjoy them as needed. You can read all about how to freeze cheesecake here:
For this cake, freeze it before you brûlée the top. When it’s completely thawed and you’re almost ready to serve it, add the sugar, and torch it.
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Crème Brûlée Cheesecake Recipe
For the crust:
- 8 graham cracker sheets, crushed (about 1 1/4 cups)
- 1/3 cup sugar
- Pinch of kosher salt
- Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
For the filling:
- 4 large eggs, room temperature
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 4 (8 ounce) packages cream cheese, room temperature
- 1/2 cup sour cream
- 1 vanilla bean, split open and seeds scraped
- 1 1/4 cup sugar
For the crème brûlée topping:
- 3 tablespoons sugar
1 Preheat the oven to 350°F.
2 Make the crust: In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal s-blade attachment, add the graham crackers. Pulse until they are ground fine like sand. Add the sugar, salt, and nutmeg (if using). Pulse 3 or 4 times until combined.
Pour melted butter around the bowl in a circle; pulse 4 or 5 times to combine. The mixture should clump a little bit but may still look a little dry. (Alternatively, you can put the graham crackers in a zip-top bag and smash them with a rolling pin. Pour the crumbs into a bowl, add the sugar and salt, then pour the butter into the bowl and toss with a fork to combine.)
Dump the mixture into the bottom of your spring form pan. Use your fingers or the underside of a cup to press the mixture into the bottom of the pan, making it as even as possible. Place the crust in the oven and bake for about 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from oven to cool. (Read more about How to Make a Graham Cracker Crust.)
3 Reduce the oven temp: Once the crust has baked, reduce the oven to 300°F.
4 Make the filling: In a small bowl, gently beat the eggs, vanilla extract, and salt together with a fork. Set it aside.
Using a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (or a large bowl and a hand mixer set to low), add the cream cheese. (If you forgot to soften your cream cheese, read here for a little trick.)
Beat the cream cheese on low or stir speed until creamy, about 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl. Add the vanilla bean seeds and beat again on low for about 1 minute. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl.
With the stand mixer on low add the sour cream, beat for a minute, then scrape down the sides of the bowl. Slowly add the sugar. Stop the mixer. Scrape down the bottom and sides of the bowl. Beat for another minute or 2 until light and fluffy. Add the egg mixture in 2 additions, scraping down the bowl between each addition. Beat on low until fully combined.
5 Prepare the water bath and add the filling: Wrap the outside of your springform pan in 3 layers of aluminum foil. Be careful not to tear or puncture the foil. Bring the foil all the way up the sides. Set it inside a roasting pan or a large Dutch oven. Pour the filling into the springform pan.
Fill the roasting pan with warm water about halfway up the sides of the springform pan. (I usually just heat it in a tea kettle.) Be careful not to splash any water into the cheesecake pan or inside the foil.
Put the pan in the oven and bake until the cheesecake is just barely set in the center, 55-65 minutes. It will still jiggle slightly, but shouldn’t slosh in the center when moved.
6 Let it cool: Remove the roasting pan from the oven. Let the cake cool in the water bath for about an hour, then remove it from the water bath and transfer it to a cooling rack on the counter for another hour. Finally, keep the cake in the springform pan, and let it cool, uncovered, overnight in the fridge.
7 Brûlée the top: Remove the cheesecake from the springform pan. About 10 minutes before serving, sprinkle 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar evenly across the surface of the cake.
Use a culinary torch to caramelize the sugar on the surface. Place the torch flame about 4 inches above the cake and apply direct heat to the sugar. Move the torch in small circles until it takes on an even, golden color.
Wait about a minute, then sprinkle on the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons of sugar and repeat the torching process.
8 To Serve: Serve the cake within 20 minutes once the top has been brûléed. To remove the cake from the base of the springform pan, gently run a long knife between the crust layer and the bottom of the pan. Then slide it carefully to your serving platter.
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