Cheesecake Heaven


Finally, a cranberry dessert I like. Could that be because it’s mostly cheese?
I’ve been waiting for the right occasion to share the recipe for this fluffy cheesecake, and in the meantime the berry season has slipped by. But wait: we have cranberries. They wouldn’t have been my first thought as an accompaniment, but they do make a gleaming ruby sauce that really does cut the richness.
I got the cheesecake recipe from Berkeley food stylist George Dolese, who made it for the first day of the photo shoot for my forthcoming yogurt book. There’s no yogurt in the cheesecake; George just wanted the crew to have a nice homemade snack. (Note to self: Remember that tactic when starting a new project with strangers.) I thought it was one of the silkiest, lightest cheesecakes ever.
George attributed the recipe to Martha Stewart, but he did change one key parameter: the baking method. Martha bakes her cheesecake in a water bath. George has an easier technique, but you must follow it exactly. I’m a believer.
I was glad to see that he insists on top-quality sour cream. (He likes Straus organic.) But I just couldn’t be seen buying Philadelphia cream cheese. That’s the brand George uses, and I can vouch that it works, but it’s not welcome on Planet Cheese. I wanted to use a more natural product, with no gums or stabilizers.

I’m a fan of the natural cream cheese from Sierra Nevada Cheese Company in Willows, a tiny burg in Northern California. The creamery uses organic milk for its Farmhouse Cream Cheese, conventional milk for its Gina Marie brand, but the process is otherwise identical.
Here’s how they make it, which is not how the big guys do it: They add enough cream to cow’s milk to bring the fat up to 13.5%. (Cow’s milk is typically about 3.5% fat.) They add a slow-acting culture and let the milk acidify slowly, for about 16 hours. This is an eternity in an industrial dairy, but it allows for flavor development. Other creameries use faster cultures or even add acid to hasten coagulation.
The curds are salted and then agitated mechanically for 12 hours, while being heated and cooled. Finally, the curds are gathered in muslin bags, pressed lightly, and allowed to drain in the bags for 36 hours. That’s a much gentler process than large plants use; the industrial process roughs up the curd enough that stabilizers have to be added. And that’s why Philly cream cheese is so dense and sticky.
George’s cheesecake with cranberry sauce would make a sumptuous Thanksgiving dessert. Sliced thinly, it will serve 24.

George Dolese's Cheesecake with Cranberry Sauce


Cranberry sauce:
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
2 cups whole cranberries
Cointreau or Grand Marnier, optional

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, plus more for coating the pan
2 cups graham cracker crumbs
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch of kosher or sea salt

1 pound cream cheese, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 pound sour cream, at room temperature
3 large eggs
Grated zest of 1 lemon or Meyer lemon
2 teaspoons Madagascar vanilla paste (George’s preference) or pure vanilla extract
Pinch of kosher or sea salt

Make the cranberry sauce: Put the sugar and water in a saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Add the cranberries and simmer, stirring occasionally, until they pop open, 2 to 3 minutes. Crush the berries with the back of a wooden spoon. Simmer until the sauce is ruby-red, about 3 minutes longer. Transfer to a wire-mesh sieve set over a bowl and press the sauce through the sieve with a rubber spatula; get as much of the flesh through the sieve as you can, leaving only the skins behind. Cover and refrigerate until chilled. It will firm up like jelly.

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Lightly coat the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan with butter.

Make the crust: In a bowl, stir together the melted butter, graham cracker crumbs, sugar, cinnamon and salt. Press the mixture firmly and evenly onto the bottom of the pan and about 2 inches up the sides. Work carefully to be sure the crust is not too thick in the corners. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

Make the filling: Using a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese at medium speed until fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes. Reduce the speed to medium low, and add the sugar gradually. Reduce to low and add the sour cream, eggs, lemon zest, vanilla and salt. Beat until blended, about 3 minutes.

Pour the batter into the chilled crust and place the pan on the middle rack of the oven. Immediately close the oven door and turn the temperature down to 250°F. Bake for 1 hour. Turn the oven off and leave the cheesecake in the oven for 2 hours longer. DO NOT OPEN THE OVEN DOOR AT ANY TIME DURING THE COOKING OR RESTING PERIOD. Transfer the cheesecake to a rack on the counter and let cool for another hour. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

At serving time, whisk enough water into the cranberry sauce to make it pourable. Add a splash of Cointreau if you like. Transfer to a small pitcher and pass with the cheesecake. Alternatively, you can leave the sauce jelly-like and spoon it over the cheesecake like a glaze. Use a thin-bladed knife to cut the cheesecake, rinsing it with hot water between each cut.

Makes 16 generous or 24 thin servings