The first thing I should tell you about this cheesecake is that I vociferously rejected it the first time I thought about making it. When I got my copy of Heavenly Cakes, I told Jim he could choose the maiden recipe. He took this assignment seriously, and carefully paged through the book, coming up with this recipe. I looked at it and asked him if he was out of his mind. "Jim, did you look at the instructions? First I have to make a crust, which isn't so bad, but then I have to make a custard, which entails splitting a vanilla bean and straining the custard with a fine-mesh strainer and being very careful that the gelatin doesn't set. And then I have to make an Italian meringue, whatever that is, and then I have to make a cherry coulis." I believe that he asked me something like why I bothered to ask him if I wasn't going to listen to him, and the conversation deteriorated from there.
But my point is that when I looked at the recipe this time, it didn't seem so crazy-complicated. And then I decided that the benefit of going through a cookbook like this one is that it's a lot like taking a personal cooking class from a great baker, only the great baker isn't evaluating your knife skills so you don't get all nervous while you're cooking.
Case in point: graham cracker crust.
When I originally read the recipe, I wasn't cowed by the thought of the graham cracker crust--I've made hundreds of them. They're kind of boring, but not at all hard. When I served this cake, though, several of the tasters remarked about how good the crust was. And I realized that even in this simple step, Rose takes great painsto make it perfect, including explicit directions about how to press the crumb mixture into the bottom of the springform pan.
Like pressing the crumbs through a piece of plastic wrap, for example.
Cutting a vanilla bean? A breeze.
Custard? Well, custard always presents the possibility of going awry, but it helps when the instructions are explicit about how to tell when to remove it from the heat.
This custard is made with creme fraiche, by the way, which is scalded before it's added to the sugar-gelatin-egg yolk mixture.
Then comes the straining that so unnerved me when I looked at this recipe way back in May. I can't remember why it seemed so traumatic.
And once I had the custard finished, and covered with plastic wrap so it wouldn't develop a skin, I felt like I was almost home free.
While I was waiting for the custard to cool, I tackled the Italian meringue. If you know what Italian meringue is and why it's different than American meringue, you're a lot smarter than I was. But I know now that it's made with a sugar syrup rather than with plain sugar, and that it's not just a fancy-pants, foreign-sounding creation--there's a reason for revving up the complication level. The sugar syrup makes the meringue much more stable, and it won't deflate like non-Italian meringue.
Again, this is not really hard, although it is a good idea to have a candy thermometer around, especially if you don't intuitively know when you hit the "firm-ball stage."
This method makes a lovely meringue--not all weepy and unreliable, like our native meringue.
Almost done now--just have to add sour cream, whipped cream cheese, and fresh lemon juice to the custard, fold in the meringue, and then pour it in the graham cracker crust.
Smooth it out, cover it with plastic and refrigerate it for at least four hours.
You would be done--except for the cherry coulis that you still have to make.
This cherry coulis almost sent me round the bend. Or at least, looking for cherries did. I spent most of Saturday looking for fresh tart cherries. If anyone would have them, it would be the Minneapolis Farmer's Market, the largest open-air market in the Midwest, so we headed there, making a single-minded foray up and down the aisles, and ignoring the heirloom tomatoes, bok choy, cantaloupe, and patty pan squash. Finally, after a dispirited pass through the last building, I bought some nice-looking sweet cherries. (After I got home, I Googled sour cherries and discovered that they have a very short season, which is about two weeks in June or July). I could have used frozen cherries, but it seemed sinful to even think about it in the season of bounteous produce.
I used half the sugar and a bit of lemon juice left over from the cheesecake make up for the difference in tartness.
I don't know what the sour cherry coulis would taste like, but this one was quite delicious. In fact, people liked it so much that I ran out after eight slices.
Now I really was done, so it was time to round up a tasting panel. I called our neighbors to the south, and summoned them for dessert. Good sports all, they ambled over.
Perfect--except that the plastic wrap that had been on top of the cheesecake marred the top. And my photographer, busy pouring glasses of wine and making a pot of coffee, forgot to take a picture of the sliced cheesecake served with the coulis alongside. This is a fabulous dessert--both rich and light. The flavors and textures vie for your mouth's attention, as you taste creaminess, tartness, smoothness, and lush sweetness at the same time. I would definitely make this one again. Although it does take a while to put together--it's not something you can whip up just before the guests arrive--but it's all perfectly doable. And your guests will love it. In fact, your guests will have seconds. And will leave your house feeling generally pleased with life.
Betty: "It's very light for a cheesecake. The cherries are wonderful, and the graham cracker crust is perfect. Why do my graham cracker crusts never taste this good?"
Fred: "You can eat two pieces without guilt."
Laurel: "I wouldn't have known it was cheesecake--it's un-cream cheesy. It's very, very good!"
Jan: "Damn good!"
Mary: "I've never had a cheesecake this light."
Doug: "It's worth a second helping."