Cream cheese does not like to play nice.
I'm not sure if it thinks it's better than everyone else or if it's just shy, but it needs to be coaxed into interacting with others.
In most cases, this isn't a problem. You can stir that Buffalo chicken dip while it melts, and once you've got it stuck on the face of a bagel, it's not going anywhere.
Cheesecake is another matter. You've only got one chance to get it right, and little bits of unmixed cream cheese will mar the silky texture of such a sumptuous dessert.
That's why the mixing process is the most important part of creating a cheesecake. It's not a hard process, just a tedious one, because you can't add too much too fast.
Think about a roux, the fat and flour mixture that forms the base for gravy. If you pour four cups of stock into a pan with that paste-like mixture in it, say hello to lumps galore. With the addition of that much liquid at once, there's not enough friction between the bits of roux to break them apart and incorporate them into the gravy. They just swim past each other in their isolation.
Cheesecake works the same way. If you toss three eggs into your mixing bowl full of cream cheese and sugar, the resulting batter will never be smooth. When a recipe says to add eggs one a time, there's a method to the madness.
The other key is scraping well and scraping often. That means bowl and beater, even -- especially, actually -- those pain-in-the-neck KitchenAid paddles.
Don't think of scraping between ingredients, think of scraping during ingredients. Add, mix, scrape, mix, repeat. You've just dislodged a bunch of unincorporated batter, so give your mixer a chance to rectify that before tossing something else in to the fray.
Now that you've got the process down, what to create with it? May I recommend Lemon Cheesecake Bars?
Lemon curd is, to me, the quintessential citrus experience. It's my favorite expression of my favorite flavor. But incorporating it into a cheesecake was not a simple task.
There were several disastrous attempts at refining this recipe, including a batter that literally boiled in the pan. (The texture was atrocious, but it still tasted pretty good, for the record.)
One of the great unfortunate truths of baking: Water baths really do work. The insulating effect of the water makes sure the edges of a cheesecake don't overcook before the middle -- farthest from the conductive pan walls -- has a chance to set up. The extra moisture also helps keep the top from cracking.
This makes springform pans problematic. The separate ring and base that make unmolding a cheesecake so easy also allow water to seep into the batter, which will ruin the finished product. Wrapping the pan in foil can prevent this, but it's not foolproof.
I've heard tell of cheesecake pans (which sound like cake pans to me, but are somehow not?) but the last thing my kitchen needs is another piece of specialty equipment. The fat separator collects enough dust as it is.
So I thought inside the box -- a 13-by-9 box. The solid walls of a rectangular cake pan won't leak, while lining the pan with foil allows the finished product to be lifted out without fuss.
With the batter spread over a greater area, the cooking and chilling time also drop, getting dessert on the table faster than a traditional cheesecake.
Using some of the lemon curd as a glossy topping gives this dessert just the right touch. It's perfect for summer but delicious year round.
Lemon Cheesecake Bars
• Lemon Curd:
• 2/3 cup juice from 4 lemons
• 4 large eggs plus 2 large egg yolks
• 1 cup sugar
• 4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
• 2 tablespoons heavy cream
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• Pinch salt
Heat lemon juice in small, nonreactive saucepan over medium heat until hot, but not boiling. Whisk eggs and yolk in medium nonreactive bowl; gradually whisk in sugar.
Whisking constantly, slowly pour hot lemon juice into eggs, then return mixture to saucepan; cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until mixture registers 170 F on an instant-read thermometer and is thick enough to cling to the spoon, from 4 to 6 minutes.
Immediately remove pan from heat; stir in cold butter until incorporated; stir in cream, vanilla and salt, then pour curd through a fine-mesh strainer into a small nonreactive bowl. Cover curd surface directly with plastic wrap; refrigerate until needed.
Makes approximately 2 cups.
• 7 ounces animal crackers, crushed
• 1/4 cup sugar
• 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position and preheat oven to 325 F. Create a foil sling in a 13x9 cake pan by placing a piece of foil across the width of the pan, leaving it hanging over the edge by a few inches. Run a second piece of foil the length of the pan to line it.
In a food processor, process the cookies to fine, even crumbs, about 30 seconds. Add the sugar and pulse two or three times to incorporate.
Add the warm melted butter in a slow, steady stream while pulsing; pulse until mixture is evenly moistened and resembles wet sand, about 10 1-second pulses.
Transfer the mixture to a 13x9 pan and press evenly into pan bottom. Bake until fragrant and golden brown, 15 to 18 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.
• 3 8-ounce bricks cream cheese, softened
• 1/2 cup sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 3 eggs
• 2 cups lemon curd, divided
• 2 tablespoons heavy cream
Beat cream cheese in the bowl of a standing mixer on medium low until smooth. Scrape. Add sugar and salt and mix. Scrape. Add eggs, one at a time, scraping between each. Reserve 3/4 cup lemon curd for topping. Add remaining curd to batter in three portions, scraping between each. Add cream. Scrape.
Pour batter atop cooled crust and smooth top with spatula. Set the pan inside a roasting pan and place on oven rack. Fill the roasting pan with enough hot tap water to come halfway up the sides of the pan.
Bake for 40 minutes or until instant-read thermometer inserted in the center of the cake reads 150 F; cheesecake may be slightly jiggly in the center but will set as it cools. Chill for at least 2 hours, spreading reserved lemon curd atop cheesecake before serving.
Chef's notes: The lemon curd and crust can certainly be done in advance. The softer the cream cheese, the easier it'll mix, so be sure to leave it out to soften. Cut into 1-inch chunks and left on the counter, the cream cheese will be acceptably soft after 30 minutes or so, though longer won't hurt.
Source: Adapted from America's Test Kitchen recipes.