Cheesecake & How to Learn to Cook


When I first started learning how to make pastries, I promised myself that I would make cheesecakes if strawberries ever went on sale. Well, here it is.

In previous installments of Food in Mind, I have always presented an item, its ingredients, and the cooking process. For this installment, however, my main goal is to share the learning process of how I approach learning to cook a new dish. I will do this using this attempt at making cheesecake as an example.

In a Day9 Daily-esque fashion, this blog will detail my research and thinking process during my first attempt to make cheesecake. Total time for prep, cooking, and waiting is about 4-5 hours.

Step One: The Idea

The first step to learning to cook is to picture in your mind how you wish for the dish to turn out. This is much easier if you are trying to learn to cook a dish you’ve eaten before. You should try be as specific as possible when you attempt to identify all of the salient features of the finished dish that you wish it to have: the taste and texture of the various components, which ingredients you might need, the effect you are trying to achieve with the combined ingredients, and the colors and smells your finished dish will have.

You missed out bro

I first tried blending cheddar cheese and a regular cake together in a blender, but that didn't work.

When I first tried to make bread pudding, I had never tasted bread pudding in my life, so it was a blind venture where I had to first simply follow a recipe I found online just to find out what it might look and taste like. Fortunately, I have had cheesecake a few times in my life. For my first attempt, I wanted to make something simple: a classic cheesecake flavored with vanilla, a golden graham cracker crust, and topped with a bright red strawberry sauce. Three isolated components, none of which I have ever made before.

Step Two: The Research

When you are truly trying to learn a dish, simply finding and following a recipe is not enough. You must dig deep into the components to find out why each ingredient is used, and what effect do these ingredients have in the dish. There are many, many cheesecake recipes out there, each with their own slight differences in ingredients. It is important to identify these differences.

First, I googled around and read through a bunch of recipes. Be careful when you look for recipes online! There are many sites where your average cook can post their own recipes which often contain errors or things you are not supposed to do. Even on Youtube there are hundreds of cooks far worse than I am skill-wise who confidently put up video walkthroughs for dishes when they in fact have no idea what they are doing. Generally, recipes posted on Food Network are decent, since they are crafted by established cooks and chefs. I have also recently come across the food blog Smitten Kitchen, where all the recipes, underneath layers of housewife babbling, reveal very lucid descriptions of the cook’s reasoning process behind her cooking procedure and choice of ingredients. Finally, Good Eats has hundreds of episodes uploaded on Youtube, which is always a good source of knowledge for whatever you may want to cook.

Ultimately I reduced by search down to four main recipe sources which I found most helpful:
http://smittenkitchen.com/2008/01/key-lime-cheesecake/
http://smittenkitchen.com/2010/04/new-york-cheesecake/

http://simplyrecipes.com/recipes/perfect_cheesecake/
And of course,

From these four sources I could craft a recipe that meets my own needs for all three components of my cheesecake: a graham cracker crust, strawberry compote, and cheesecake filling. Of course, I still lacked a proper pie tin, so I will be falling back on that old muffin tin to make mini-cheesecakes. I will have to guestimate the bake timings and temperatures for my cooking process.

Step Three: Planning the Ingredients

Who the fuck ever came up with the phrase "when life gives you lemons"? Lemons are fucking expensive, nobody's going to give anybody fucking lemons. See that half-grapefruit there? That's lemon substitute. At 3 for a dollar they're about six times cheaper than lemons.

Here is the ingredients list I compiled, and my reasoning for them below:

Crust:

16 graham cracker squares, crushed*
3 tbsp butter**
1 tbsp sugar
pinch of salt

*You need about 32 squares for a full-sized cheesecake crust. But since I’m using a muffin tin, I estimated I only needed half. Also, no parchment paper is involved, since I plan to “wall off” the filling from the muffin tin using the crust.
**5 tbsp for standard crust. Again, this number is adjusted for my muffin tin.

Filling:

8 oz (one block) of cream cheese*
8 tbsp (1/4 cup) of sour cream**
6 tbsp sugar
salt
1 egg + 1 egg yolk***
vanilla extract
1 tbsp flour****
1 tsp vanilla extract

*You need anywhere between two to five blocks of cream cheese for a full-sized cheese cake, depending on the recipe. The reduced amount takes into account the reduced amount of filling muffin mold crusts can hold.
**New York style cheesecakes do not use sour cream, but many other recipes do. Sour cream makes for a lighter, tangier filling. Exactly what I am looking for.
***You need about three eggs to three eggs plus five yolks for a standard cheese cake, depending on the recipe.
****Some recipes call for flour, some do not. Some also call for heavy cream. Since I did not have heavy cream but did have flour, I decided to add some to see what happens. It wasn’t until later that I learned what purpose flour serves in cheesecakes; more on that below.

Strawberry Compote:

1 cup fresh strawberries, diced
juice of 1 lemon OR 1/2 grapefruit*
1/3-1/2 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt

*Lemon juice is traditional. The acid is supposed to prevent sugar from re-crystalizing after melting. At first I was afraid that the fragrance of grapefruit juice would overpower the strawberries, but that did not happen.

Step Four: Planning the Execution

The ingredients list has been assembled. Now is the time to plan how the cheesecake will be made. No detail is too small to be unaccounted for. From a combination of the four source recipes, here is the amalgamated process:

Crust:

And so I says to the terrified graham cracker, I will crust you with my bare hands.

Graham cracker crusts are very common among cheese cake recipes. They are generally a mix of graham crackers, melted butter, and a little sugar. I added a pinch of salt because salt adds a nice balance to sweet things.

First I stuck all the graham crackers into a ziploc bag and crushed them into small pieces with my hands. You do not need the pieces to be as small for a full-sized cheesecake; but for mini-cheesecakes, the pieces of crust must be smaller.

Then, I combined the crushed graham crackers with melted butter, salt, and sugar, and mixed everything together. Do not worry if the crumbs appear to be dry when all the butter is absorbed; all is as it should be.

Construction in progress, wear a hardhat.

I preheated the oven to 300F. Meanwhile, I took out my muffin tin and lightly buttered the insides. I poured about 3 tablespoons of crumbs into each mold and used a tiny butter bowl to press the crumbs into the sides of the bowl. This was more difficult than anticipated, since the crumbs preferred to stick to the small bowl than the sides of the muffin pan. I was worried that the crust would simply fall apart during the blind baking process.

Once the oven reached target temperature, I blind baked the crusts for 8 minutes, which is 2 minutes shorter than the time it takes to blind bake a full-sized cheesecake crust. The graham cracker crusts came out golden and perfect.

Murphy’s law states if I don’t fuck up here, I’ll definitely fuck up somewhere later on.

Filling

Here’s the tricky part. As someone who has only tasted cream cheese and sour cream maybe only once or twice in my entire life, I am far from comfortable with the ingredients required for the filling. All recipes I found online called for the use of a mixer to combine sour cream and cream cheese; I have a plastic container, some forks, and some spoons.

First, as per instructions from Good Eats, I measured out the sour cream and spread it around the container to prevent the impending arrival of cream cheese from sticking to the walls. Then, I put the cream cheese in…. and discovered why people recommended using a mixer. Mashing cream cheese into sour cream is fucking hard work. Oh well, time to lose some calories since I’ll soon be gaining a lot of it. Using a combination of fork and spoon, I slowly worked the cream cheese into the sour cream, and added sugar and salt and flour.

In a separate container, I beat together an egg and an egg yolk with some vanilla extract and just a splash of milk to aid the beating process. I then dumped this mixture into the sour cream/cream cheese mixture.

The most unappetizing photos of food before it's cooked, just for you.

Everything eventually came together nice and smoothly, except there were still small lumps of cream cheese within the mixture. I found out later from here that the cream cheese must be at room temperature before you use it in order to prevent lumps. It just shows that some things you’ll only learn by doing, and not from reading alone.

When I removed the crust from the oven, I reduced the temperature down to 250F, and placed a pan full of water into the oven. I planned to cook the cheesecake in a water bath as per Good Eats’ instructions. Meanwhile, I let the crust cook for a few minutes before spooning my filling into each crust. I then lifted the muffin tin about an inch off the tabletop and let it drop a few times to even out the filling and let the air bubbles surface from the filling. Then, I put the cheesecakes into the water bath. My estimated reduced cooking time for mini-cheesecakes was about 45 minutes; I checked first at 35 minutes, and the filling had already solidified, which signified slight overcooking, but there were no cracks on the top of my cheesecakes, which meant I was still doing okay.

Cheesecakes, in your future is only death, destruction, and the gnashing of teeth.

I shut off the heat for the oven and left the oven door open for a minute after baking, then closed it with the cheesecakes inside for another hour. This is the process of gently letting a water-bath baked cheesecake finish cooking. Once the hour is up, I chilled the cheesecakes in the refrigerator for another hour. Onto the compote.

Strawberry Compote

Some of the red pieces might have been the spleens of small children.

Finally we come to the easiest part. I combined diced strawberries, sugar, grapefruit juice, and salt in a small pot over medium heat. Then I simmered everything until the sugar was melted and enough water evaporated to create a glossy, slightly thickened sauce, which took about half an hour. Then I shut down the heat and let the sauce cool.

Step Five: Assembly, Consumption, and Post-Mortem

Can't believe you missed this picture, brah.

Urgh, at this time of writing I've already eaten three of these things trying to get a decent photo.

I ran a knife around the edge of each cake and removed them from the muffin molds. Just before serving, I topped them with the strawberry compote. They came out pretty good, despite all the small mistakes I’ve made along the way. But you can be sure that the next time I make cheese cakes, they will turn out even better.

Here are the things that I will take note of the next time I make cheesecake:

-Bring sour cream and cream cheese to room temperature before mixing.
-For water bath cheese cakes, no flour is needed.
-I should start checking mini-cheese cakes at about 25 minutes.

A relatively short list overall, thanks to all the research done ahead of time. Through this single process of making cheesecakes, and in taking the time to read through multiple recipes, I have gathered all the information I need to create fantastic cheesecakes of any type I wish in the future.

Conclusion

Thus concludes this demonstration of my approach to learning how to cook. I hope this will help some of the readers who are also serious about learning how to cook, and learning how to cook well. The general steps are to 1) construct a clear idea in your head of what you want the dish to be like, 2) do research on various recipes for the dish, 3) craft your own recipe based on these other recipes, 4) plan your ingredients and execution), 5) follow through on your plan, and 6) analyze what you have learned after the cooking process.

The next installment will return Food in Mind to its regularly scheduled programming of how to make random food items from whatever ingredients I have on hand.

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