My cheesecake obsession was launched a very short couple of years ago. My beautiful bride had always expressed a craving for the Dulce de Leche cheesecake we would eat at The Cheesecake Factory, and it was a favorite of hers when celebrating her birthday. Being a semi-competent cook but with little to no baking experience, I eventually decided it was time to attempt making a cheesecake on my own for my wife’s birthday. I did extensive research on the internet and pulled out any cookbooks I had that covered the subject, discovering there are many approaches to making a cheesecake. I took the combined wisdom I collected and put it to work in the kitchen in attempting my first cheesecake. When a beautiful and delicious dulce de leche cheesecake emerged, I was amazed and delighted. My wife said it was wonderful, my sons said it was wonderful, my friends said it was wonderful, and my cheesecake obsession was born! Since then, I have experimented with many variations of cheesecake and have developed a basic method that I use for most of them. Once you have a method, you can play endlessly with the ingredients and extras.
For this posting, I made the dulce de leche cheesecake again for my wife’s birthday (she’s 27 again, in case you were curious..). I decided to make it a bit taller than my original recipe, which basically meant making ingredient adjustments to accommodate three bars of cream cheese instead of two. I’ve decided that two-stick cheesecakes are too thin and I like thicker cakes. I didn’t attempt any fancy extras, as there is a certain flavor purity to the basic dulce de leche cheesecake. The cheesecake itself doesn’t even have any added sugar, as the dulce de leche is generally sweet enough. Just like my beautiful bride..
The good news is that dulce de leche cheesecake is not only delicious, but is one of the easiest cheesecakes to make. There are no complexities other than following the basic cheesecake method. This is a great choice if you’ve never made a cheesecake before. Follow the instructions closely and your friends and family will think you’ve been baking these for years!
1 box (10 oz.) shortbread cookies, such as Lorna Doone
1/4 cup blanched almonds
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
3 8-ounce packages regular cream cheese, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 large eggs plus 2 large egg yolks, all at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 can dulce de leche
1/4 cup heavy whipping cream, at room temperature
1/4 cup regular sour cream, at room temperature
Boiling water, for baking
Before you begin, it is important that you prepare by setting out the cream cheese, eggs, heavy cream, and sour cream a couple hours ahead of time to bring them close to room temperature. Then, right before you start mixing ingredients, using a tea kettle or pan, start boiling water that will be sufficient to reach about a half inch up the outside of the springform pan when placed in the center of a roasting pan. One full tea kettle is usually about right, but you will want to at least have this queued up or you will slow down the process before the cheesecake can be placed into the oven.
The first step is common to all of my cheesecakes. Prepare your 9 inch springform pan by wrapping the removable bottom piece with aluminum foil. Cover the flat part and wrap it back over the lip, pinching it tightly over the curve so you can then insert the piece back into the springform. When you look straight into the springform pan, the foiled bottom should be flattened and shiny. Take the foil that is sticking out the bottom of the pan and carefully stretch and wrap it up the sides of the pan. Don’t stretch it too hard or the foil will rip. As the foil will be used to seal water out of the pan, ripping is not a good thing. Take another sheet of foil and wrap it over the bottom of the pan and up the sides, helping to basically make a double seal. I bring it all the way up the side and then I just crimp the excess into a kind of rim at about the same level as the top edge of the pan. You can fold back the excess or just crinkle it up. Your pan is now ready and can be set aside.
Now let’s make the crust. First pre-heat the oven to 350˚. Spread the blanched almonds on a cookie sheet and bake for around 8-10 minutes, just until toasted. Watch them closely, as you don’t want them to burn. Place the almonds into a food processor along with the shortbread cookies, brown sugar, and salt. Process just until there are no large cookie chunks remaining. Add the melted butter and pulse until the butter is mixed in well and ingredients appear moist and start clumping. Dump the cookie mixture into your prepared springform pan and spread out evenly to form the crust.
Form the crust about a half inch up the walls of the pan, and then flatten the remainder out evenly across the bottom of the pan. Some people just use their fingers to do this, but I like to use the back of a large stainless serving spoon, which helps me carve and form a nice flat surface to the crust. Bake until set, around 12 minutes. Set aside to cool while you mix the cheesecake ingredients.
If you haven’t started boiling the tea kettle full of water, now is the time to get it going.
Lower the oven temp to 300˚. Using an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese until softened, about two minutes. I use a low speed on my Kitchen-Aid mixer, the second speed from the bottom, using the same speed throughout the entire process. If chunks of cream cheese are sticking to the mixer, stop and scrape down the beater and continue until the cream cheese looks somewhat smooth. Add the salt and the flour and mix until combined. Add the eggs and egg yolks one at a time, stopping to scrape down the sides and the beater after each. The goal here is to ensure each egg is fully mixed in prior to moving on to the next one.
Yes, I admit that I actually take the beater paddle off and wash and dry it and the spatula between each egg. Overkill perhaps, but my cheesecakes turn out pretty decently, so I see no reason to cut corners. I just look at it as an extra dose of love that goes into each cheesecake! You will notice that the mixture becomes very creamy as the eggs are added to the process. Add the vanilla and empty the contents of the can of dulce de leche into the mixture and continue to mix until fully combined and smooth with no lumps. If you are not familiar with dulce de leche, it is basically caramelized sweetened condensed milk and is very popular in many Latin American cultures. It is found in most grocery stores packaged in small cans on the shelf next to the condensed milk. The last step is to stop the mixer and add the heavy cream and sour cream. Continue to mix until everything looks incredibly beautiful and you have this sudden urge to stick your finger in and taste it. Don’t do it, as your hand might get mangled by the mixer. Just saying..
The next step is to pour the batter into the prepared springform pan. I will interject here that my one pet peeve about cheesecakes is that I want them to look perfect, but frequently during baking, air bubbles will rise to the surface and make tiny craters. No one has ever complained, but in the interest of perfection, after I remove the bowl from the mixer, I raise it about an inch from the counter or floor and let it drop it gently to release some of the bubbles. I do this several times and let it rest a few moments in between dropping to allow more bubbles to rise to the surface. Pour the mixture into the springform pan and let it spread evenly. I tend to pour it all in a single stream in the very center so the waves radiate out evenly across the pan. As much as your brain screams at you that you’re wasting batter, do not scrape the excess that won’t pour naturally into the cheesecake pan. If you do, you will scrape the lumps that were hiding on the side of the bowl directly into your perfect cheesecake. Don’t do it. Besides, your family is usually more than willing to lick some of what’s left in the bowl. You can now tilt the pan a little to spread any batter did not spread evenly during the pouring process. At this time I go through my little drop test again, but this time with the cheesecake pan itself, once again to get out a few more bubbles as they rise to the surface. I warned you I was anal retentive, so leave me alone. Thanks.
Place the cheesecake pan in the center of a large roasting pan and pour boiling water around it. The water should reach about an inch up the outside of the cheesecake pan. The exact depth is not important, but you want at least a half inch of water. The water bath will help the cheesecake to bake evenly and will help prevent cracks. Loosely cover the springform pan with aluminum foil (I fold a sheet in half and make a little tent like a carport over the pan) and slide the roasting pan into the oven, being careful to not slosh water into the cheesecake. Bake for about 65 minutes, until the cheesecake is set at the edges but still slightly wobbly in the center. Turn the oven off, but leave the cheesecake in the oven (you can remove the foil tent if you wish, but don’t let any water drip into the cheesecake). Prop the oven door open about two or three inches and let it cool for another hour. Then remove from the oven, lift the cheesecake pan from the roasting pan, and let it cool on a rack or sitting on top of the stove for an additional hour. Slow cooling is the key here. Making cheesecakes requires more patience than any great culinary skill.
After the cheesecake is completely cool to the touch, place in the refrigerator for 24-48 hours to finish the setting process. I usually remove the excess aluminum foil before placing in the refrigerator, but I don’t think it will hurt anything if you leave it until you are ready to serve. Prior to serving, remove from the outside of the springform pan and let sit at room temperature for about an hour before serving. Slice the cheesecake with a smooth-edged knife and wipe off the blade with paper towel after every slice.
For some additional Cheesecake 101 tips, you might want to review my original posting for Dark Chocolate Cheesecake.