At its simplest, cheesecake needs nothing more than cream, cheese and fresh eggs. A proper creaming technique -- the combining of eggs and fat -- creates enough aeration to lift the cake, while the protein in the cheese and albumen provide the structure. Crusts are optional and, if you want something extra, the flavorings and garnishes are limited only by inspiration. You can take the cake in a sweet or savory direction and you don't need any special equipment.
A well-prepared cheesecake filling has a texture best likened to custard -- which is precisely what it is. Follow a ratio of 1 egg per cup of cheese and you can make a sweet or savory cheesecake with just about any type cheese you like. You have to combine firm and semi-firm cheeses, such as Roquefort and cheddar, with an equal amount of cream. For example, to make a 9-inch savory cheddar cheesecake, use 3 cups each heavy cream and finely shredded cheddar.
Sweet cheesecakes do best with supple, rich cheeses, such as whipped ricotta, Neufchatel and the ubiquitous Philadelphia-style. The same ratio applies to sweet cheesecake fillings -- 1 egg for every cup of cheese -- plus 1 tablespoon of sugar per egg. You also need to add cream -- heavy cream, sour cream or creme fraiche -- on a 1-to-1 basis. For a 9-inch cheesecake, use 6 eggs, 6 tablespoons of sugar and 3 cups each cheese and cream. For a honeyed cheesecake, replace 2 tablespoons of sugar with 1 1/2 tablespoons of honey.
Technique and Garnishes
Hard cheeses need to be finely grated; coarsely grate semi-hard cheeses. Separate the eggs, and mix the cheeses with the cream and yolks. Stir in secondary ingredients, such as fresh herbs and spices, to taste. You can flavor savory cheesecakes as you would a quiche. Consider liqueurs, zests and a touch of flavorful liquor, such as bourbon, for sweet cheesecakes.
In a separate bowl, whip the whites until foamy with a mixer using low speed. Increase the speed of the mixer to high and add the sugar 1 tablespoon at time. Whip the egg whites to the hard-peak stage, about 3 or 4 minutes. Gently fold the egg whites into the cheese mixture in thirds.
Cheesecake crusts are optional, but if you crave the crumbly contrasting texture, make your own. The basic ratio for a cheesecake crust is 2 parts crumbs, such as cookie, chocolate wafers or graham cracker, and 1 part butter by weight. For example, you need 6 ounces of graham-cracker crumbs and 3 ounces of butter for a 9-inch cake. For a nut crust, mix crushed nuts with just enough egg whites to bind, or 1 white for every 2 cups. Add sugar to the crust mixture to taste and pack it in the pie pan; bake the crust in an oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 minutes.
Pour the batter in a greased pie dish if you're not using a crust. Bake the cheesecake in a 225 F oven until the center reaches 165 F, or about 25 minutes.