I’m going back to basics this Shavuot with my mother’s classic cheesecake recipe.
It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t love a good, old-fashioned cheesecake. There are a lot of different recipes floating around in my family, but this is the one that was made for special occasions.
There is never a bad time of year to eat cheesecake, but it’s an expectation for Shavuot. This has a beautifully dense yet creamy consistency that’s scented with lemon, and I can’t get enough of the graham cracker crust. It also has a sour cream layer on top which makes it look and taste divine.
You don’t need to be a talented baker to get a great result from this recipe — it’s easy to follow and has easy-to-find ingredients. I can’t bake this too often because we can’t stop eating it. There are three distinct steps in this recipe, which are outlined below.
Graham cracker crust:
1 cup finely crushed graham crackers (1 sleeve of crackers makes 1 cup)
¼ cup melted butter. You can use salted butter. (If you have unsalted butter, add a small pinch of sea salt to the mixture.)
3 tablespoons sugar
⅛ teaspoon cinnamon
3 8-ounce bricks of cream cheese, full fat
¾ cup sugar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon lemon zest
Sour cream top layer:
1 cup (8 ounces) full-fat sour cream
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
This recipe requires a 9-inch springform pan. It’s also imperative that all of the dairy is at room temperature. Room temperature doesn’t mean warm per se, but if the cream cheese is too cool to the touch it won’t mix correctly. I usually put all of the dairy products and the eggs on the counter 2 hours before I bake.
Prepare the crust first. You can hand crush the graham crackers by placing them in a large plastic food storage bag and going over them with a rolling pin. I throw them in the food processor. If there are any larger pieces left intact, crumble them with your fingers.
Place the crushed graham crackers in a small bowl, and mix in the melted butter, sugar and cinnamon. The cinnamon does something special for this cheesecake. It’s so light that you don’t really taste it, but the crust doesn’t taste as good if you omit it. I think that the cinnamon plays well with the lemon.
Mix the ingredients — the consistency will be very light and almost sandy. You can make this ahead of time and leave it on the counter until you’re ready to bake.
Preheat your oven to 325 F and place the rack in the center of the oven.
Pour the graham cracker crumbs into the springform pan. Gently press the crumbs down with your hands, spreading them evenly across the bottom of the pan to create a crust.
Bake for 8-10 minutes and remove from the oven.
While the crust is baking you can mix the cheesecake batter. Using either a whisk or a paddle attachment, add the cream cheese to the bowl and mix it on medium-low for 2 minutes, until smooth.
Add the sugar, lemon juice and lemon zest, and mix for another minute before adding the eggs, one at a time. As soon as the yellow of the egg yolk looks mixed into the batter, it’s time to add the next egg.
Once blended, turn the speed up to medium and mix it for another minute.
Stop the mixer, scrape the bowl and mix it again on low speed for one more minute. You may see some small lumps even if it’s well mixed; they will bake into the cheesecake, so don’t worry about them.
Gently pour the batter over the graham cracker crust.
Reduce the heat of the oven to 300 F and bake for 55 minutes. Don’t open the oven door during this time.
I don’t use a water bath, or bain-marie, with springform pans; I don’t want to add the extra layers of tinfoil or plastic bags that are needed to prevent water from seeping into the cake pan. As an added precaution against cracking, you can place a large baking pan or wide pot with hot water onto the lower shelf of the oven. I often choose a pan that is larger than the springform pan in case there are unexpected leaks; that way, any mess falls into the water instead of all over my oven.
I’ve been giving myself some grace when cheesecakes crack. I make the same recipe consistently and have been doing so for decades. I think that weather has a lot to do with the outcome. Sometimes they crack and sometimes they don’t. If it cracks, let it go. Embrace it and fill it with a special sauce like a berry coulis or fresh berries, chocolate sauce, etc.
The last step is to mix the sour cream, vanilla and sugar in a small bowl by hand. The top of the cheesecake has this beautiful, creamy layer, and it won’t sweat like some cheesecakes can. Remove the cheesecake from the oven immediately when the timer goes off.
Using a rubber spatula, pour the sour cream mixture over the cheesecake and gently spread it across the top.
Return the cheesecake to the oven and bake for an additional 10 minutes.
I have had good results taking this cheesecake immediately out of the oven to cool on my stovetop, but out of precaution I usually let cheesecakes cool in the oven for at least half an hour. If you do this, turn the oven off, open the oven door and leave it in a cracked position. You can let the cheesecake cool completely in the oven, or you can take it out after half an hour and let it rest on your counter.
Once it’s cool, run a sharp knife around the edges and release the spring on the pan. I prefer to leave the springform sides around the cake while refrigerating to support it and protect it from anything that may fall onto it. I place a dinner plate over the pan and refrigerate overnight. Avoid plastic wrap at this point; it will ruin the finish.
It is essential to let this rest overnight. You put in effort and you want to have the best result. Wishing you an inspiring holiday of Shavuot. We should all feel connected to God — learning Torah — and to our communities. Enjoy and bless your hands! PJC
Jessica Grann is a home chef living in Pittsburgh.