Dark Chocolate Cheesecake

I apologize that this food blog has been a bit slow getting off the ground. Around the time it was launched, I was diagnosed with throat cancer, and have spent most of the past two months receiving treatment in Houston, Texas. Now that I’m back home in Orange County recovering, it seems like a good time to try out a few recipes. Over time I have continually revised and tested my chocolate cheesecake recipe, and I think this one is probably as developed as we’re going to get. I’ve tested the latest tweaks twice this week, and am pleased with the results.

Cheesecakes are fairly simple things. The devil is in the details. Just a few slight deviations from form can ruin an otherwise perfect cheesecake. On the other hand, there is incredible latitude in what ingredients you can use to put a cheesecake together, and how you can tweak the flavor profile. Every cheesecake I make is slightly different than the one before. However, there are certain procedures I always follow.

In the baking instructions, I’m going to assume that you are not a cheesecake expert. If you are an expert, the ingredient list is probably all you need. If you are aspiring to be a cheesecake expert, I will try to share every secret you need to make a perfect cheesecake and join the ranks of those who find great pleasure in crafting beautiful cheesecakes. This post should serve as a good “cheesecake how to” or “cheesecake 101.”

Crust ingredients:
1 cup graham crackers
4 Oreo cookies (white centers removed)
¼ teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon brown sugar
½ tablespoon cocoa powder
6 tablespoons melted butter (3/4 of a stick)
10 chocolate covered espresso beans (optional ingredient – I buy mine at Trader Joe’s)

Filling ingredients: Please note the ingredients that must be at room temperature. Set these out a couple hours before starting.
3 bars cream cheese (8 oz. each) at room temperature. Do not use reduced fat!
1 tub mascarpone cheese (8 oz.) at room temperature
¼ teaspoon sea salt
1-¼ cup baker’s sugar
2 tablespoons brewed coffee (I use the boldest coffee or espresso that I have)
3/4 teaspoon dark cocoa powder
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 eggs at room temperature
3 egg yolks at room temperature
8 oz. bittersweet chocolate (I use two Ghirardelli 60% baking bars)
2/3 cup heavy whipping cream + 1 tablespoon at room temperature
¼ cup sour cream at room temperature. Do not use reduced fat.

Ganache ingredients:
6 oz. bittersweet chocolate (I use 1-1/2 Ghirardelli 60% baking bars)
2/3 cup heavy whipping cream
¼ teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon dark corn syrup
1 tablespoon Grand Marnier liqueur

The first step is to prepare your 9 inch springform pan. Take out the removable bottom piece and cover the top side of it with aluminum foil. Wrap the foil back over the lip of the bottom insert just enough to enable you to place the pan bottom piece back into the springform, with the flat piece of foil looking up at you from the bottom of the pan as you look into the top of the pan. Lock the pan in place and fold the excess foil up around the edges of the pan. I like it to come all the way to the top edge of the outside of the pan, and I just fold any excess back. Then, for extra sealing, I rip another piece of foil the same size as before, and wrap it up around the whole pan, right to the top edge again. This helps keep water from seeping into the edges of the pan during baking. Some condensation will get in anyway, but I do not like soggy cheesecakes. One tip: I buy the 18 inch wide aluminum foil, which makes this whole process easier. Also note that I do not coat my pan with butter for this cheesecake. You may if you like, but I don’t like the greasiness when it’s all done, and the crust should have plenty of butter in it already.

Preheat your oven to 350° and prepare the crust by crumbling the graham crackers and cookies into a food processor. Add the salt and sugar (and espresso beans if desired). Pulse chop ingredients in the food processor until no large chunks remain. Mix ½ teaspoon of cocoa powder in a small bowl or cup with 1 teaspoon of water. Once fully mixed, drop into the food processor along with the melted butter (I just put the butter in the microwave for 30-50 seconds to melt). Continue to pulse chop all ingredients, scraping at least once to ensure all ingredients combine. Mixture should clump together somewhat, but not be mushy. It should have both a dry look and a sheen from the butter. It is better to under-process than to over-process. Press the mixture into the springform pan, ensuring even coverage over the bottom and about 1/3 to halfway up the sides, checking to be sure there are no lumps or gaps in coverage. You may use your hands, but I prefer using the back of a large serving spoon to spread and form. Once you are satisfied with your crust work of art, place the pan in the oven for about 7 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool while you prepare the filling.

Lower the oven to 300°. Separately, start a tea kettle to boil water, or boil a small pot of water separately. The boiling water will be used for the water bath when the cake goes in the oven. Also, set aside a large empty roasting pan. Finely chop the bars of bittersweet chocolate and place in a small mixing bowl, flattening out the top of the mixture. Slowly heat 2/3 cup of heavy whipping cream in a small sauce pan just until starting to boil around the edges. Immediately remove from heat and pour over the chocolate bits. Use only enough cream to just cover the chocolate. Any additional cream may be discarded. Allow chocolate mixture to sit for 5 minutes, then thoroughly mix with a fork or whisk. Set aside to cool. In a large mixing bowl (I use a 6 quart stand mixer), place the cream cheese and mascarpone cheese. Mix at medium low speed until somewhat creamy, probably about 2 minutes, stopping once to scrape bowl and beater to ensure ingredients combine. Add salt and about half the sugar and continue mixing, stopping once to scrape bowl and beater. Add the remaining sugar and mix until fully combined, stopping once to scrape bowl and beater (you’re going to start seeing a theme here..). Once mixture looks nice and smooth, add the vanilla. In a small bowl or cup, mix the dark cocoa and coffee together, adding to the mixing bowl and mixing until fully combined. Add each of the 3 eggs one at a time, stopping to scrape the bowl and beater thoroughly after each egg to ensure no lumps and thorough combining of the mixture. After the eggs, the 3 egg yolks may be added at once, again ensuring thorough mixing. When complete, thoroughly scrape bowl and wash both the beater bar and your spatula to ensure there are no lumps. Resume mixing another minute or two to ensure a smooth mixture. Add the chocolate mixture that you previously set aside and thoroughly combine, stopping at least once to scrape down the bowl and beater. Once everything looks smooth, remove the mixing bowl from the mixer and add the sour cream and tablespoon of heavy whipping cream. Fold in by hand with a clean spatula until thoroughly combined, with no white spots or lumps.

Pour the mixture into the springform pan, but do not use a spatula. If you scrape the bowl with a spatula, you will introduce lumps into the cheesecake that have instead chosen to stick to the mixing bowl. I’m sorry, but you’ll just have to lick part of the bowl and discard the remaining batter. It’s the price of maximizing the quality of your cheesecake. Place the springform pan gently in the center of the roasting pan and pour boiling water around the outside of the springform pan, being careful not to splatter water into the cheesecake batter. The water should be about 1 inch up the side of the springform pan, approximately halfway. Carefully slide the roasting pan with cheesecake into the oven and bake for 70 minutes. After 70 minutes, shake the roasting pan slightly. The cheesecake should jiggle in the center but not on the outside edges. If it looks too jiggly overall, bake for another few minutes. Do not over-bake! Turn the oven off and prop the oven door open about 3 inches or so, just enough to let the cheesecake cool down very slowly. Let sit for 60 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool for another 60 minutes. Remove cheesecake from roasting pan and peel back excess foil from the sides. I usually set it on a folded kitchen towel to help absorb some of the water and melted butter that has accumulated around the outside bottom of the pan. Once the cheesecake is sufficiently cooled, place it in the refrigerator overnight. Note that during this time, any excess jiggliness will firm up.

Okay, our cheesecake has sat in the refrigerator overnight. Let’s take it out of the fridge and make the ganache. Chop up the chocolate and place in a small mixing bowl. Slowly heat the heavy whipping cream in a small sauce pan until it just starts to boil around the edges. Immediately remove from heat and pour over the chocolate. Allow to sit for 5 minutes, and then thoroughly combine using a fork. Add the salt, dark corn syrup, and Grand Marnier, and thoroughly combine until smooth and a single color throughout. Pour mixture evenly over cheesecake. Quickly tilt cheesecake by hand to fill in any spots along the edge of the pan. Note that because cheesecake is cold, mixture will harden quickly. Once the ganache is cooled, place cheesecake back in refrigerator.

Cheesecake may now be served, or may sit in the fridge up to one or two days before serving. At least an hour before serving, remove cheesecake from refrigerator, and gently start releasing latch on springform pan. As cake is starting to release, gently go around edge of pan with a paring knife or other thin non-serrated knife to cut the cheesecake away from the pan. Once fully released, push the cheesecake up and out of the springform and set cake down on a serving platter, with any loose foil tucked back underneath the pan. At this point, you might be disappointed that a few bits of cheesecake have stuck to the inside of the springform pan. You can gently scrape these pieces from the springform and push them back onto the cheesecake with a knife. If you want to clean up the outside of the cake, a slightly wet knife will shape cheesecake and crust nicely. Just don’t get any drops of water on the top of the cheesecake, as it will leave a water stain (it won’t affect the taste though!). Nothing major, but be careful if perfection is your goal. You may now slice your cheesecake for your guests that are tingling in anticipation to taste your work of culinary art. Use a long non-serrated knife to slice the cake, and wipe the knife down with paper towel between each slice. If you don’t wipe the knife down, the cheesecake on the knife will grab and ruin the edge of the next slice. Not pretty.

Dark Chocolate Cheesecake

Well, those are the details needed to make a perfect chocolate cheesecake. Once you understand most of these methods, you can vary the ingredients and make just about any kind of cheesecake. The cheesecake techniques described in this article will provide a smooth velvety texture. If you are considering a New York cheesecake, keep in mind that is a whole different animal, with a drier texture and utilizing a different baking technique. We’ll attack that in another episode. In the meantime, happy baking (and eating!!).