Say “Cheese(cake)!”…

Okay, here it is, your choice…it’s simple, her or me, and I’m sure she is really great. But Derek, I love you, in a really really big ‘pretend to like your taste in music, let you eat the last piece of cheesecake, hold a radio over my head outside your window’, unfortunate way that makes me hate you, love you. So pick me, choose me, love me. – Grey’s Anatomy

It’s a fact: If you are human, you are hardwired to like cheesecake.

Gill Elvegren Pin Up, c.?

No, not *that* kind. (OK, probably that kind. Too.)

This kind:

When you think about it, cheesecake is the Marilyn Monroe/Sophia Loren/Helen Mirren of desserts. What I mean to say, is that it’s smooth, sweet(ish), and made with (a lot) of wholesome ingredients.

It’s tempting, and has that indescribable “something” that (when done correctly) makes it less of a transgression (against an ideal that more than likely belongs to someone else) and more of a moment in time that makes you believe in hugs. And schoolgirl crushes.

But then there is this…

Which makes you believe in something a bit more than that crush. It makes you believe in “extra”. And “meaning”. And “more”. And that when you combine a few simple ingredients, you can have something bigger than that schoolgirl fantasy. You can have “it”, with a capital “L”.

And it’s a little messy. But in a good way.

I’m here to tell you, it’s not hard to do. After all, it’s just a custard, baked in a cookie shell. No water baths or thermometers required (unless you really want them, that is). Nothing to be afraid of.

Especially when you combine it with a little citrus and top it off with (just a tiny bit) of sour cream.

So when you are presented with a formula, and a method, and the know-how, you find yourself obligated to have a go. To find your first attempt unsatisfactorily gummy, coming on too strong with the dairy, and not backing it up with enough sass. It makes sense that you would then tinker with the formula, flirt with it, tease out its secrets. Back off the flour, increase the butter, and play with the flavor profile.

You find yourself sleepless, thinking of this cake. You commit to stirring (not whipping) the dairy and eggs. You press, and pour, and bake, and finally, chill (for an excruciating 24 hours) so that all those lovely things you put together can do their work. Over, and over again. And eventually, you find it. The balance between sweet/tang, crisp/supple, like/love. And just when you think it won’t happen, the ring comes off, and…

there she is, in the morning light, ever so slightly tousled, looking for all the world like a good girl (gone bad).

Tangerine Cheesecake

Adapted from The Perfect Cake by Susan G. Purdy

You will need:

  • 1 9″ springform pan
  • 1 large bowl
  • 1 sheet tray
  • 1 medium bowl
  • 2 saucepans
  • Standup mixer with paddle attachment (if available)
  • 1 offset spatula (big or little, it doesn’t matter)

Ingredients for the crust:

  • 1 cup graham cracker crumbs
  • 1 cup lightly toasted and ground pecans (not chopped – you want the nuts to be a similar texture to the graham crumbs so that your crust has a nice, even texture)
  • 8 tbsp (1 stick) butter, melted
  • 1/4 cup sugar

Melt and cool butter in small sauce pan. Mix crumbs, nuts, sugar, and salt in the medium bowl. Pour butter over the mixture, and use your hands to combine until it looks like wet sand. Tip mixture into the springform pan, and press down evenly (I like a little bit to come up the sides, the trick is to make sure that the mixture is ultra-firm in the pan). Put pan into fridge to set while you make the custard.

Ingredients for the (custard) filling:

  • 4 8oz. packages of cream cheese at room temperature (don’t get fancy with natural cream cheese – it’s too dry, and don’t even think about reduced fat)
  • 1 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 1/4 cup tangerine juice, reduced in a saucepan (just cook it over high heat) until it measures just shy of 1/2 a cup (it’s OK to eyeball this) and cooled to room temperature
  • 2 tbsp orange liquor (Triple Sec, Grand Marnier, etc.)
  • 1 tbsp tangerine or orange zest (either is fine)
  • 1 tbsp vanilla extract
  • 2 tbsp all purpose flour
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 5 large eggs at room temperature
  • 2 large egg yolks at room temperature

Preheat oven to 325.

Place cream cheese in bowl of mixer (or beat by hand) until soft and creamy on low speed. Keeping the mixer on low, add sugar, and beat until fully combined. Add juice (reserving 2 tbsp for the topping), liquor, zest, extract, salt, and flour and mix until fully combined, stopping the mixer frequently to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add eggs and yolks, one at a time, until fully combined, again, stopping the mixer a couple of times to scrape down the sides and catch anything lurking on the bottom. The custard should be completely smooth and without lumps. This, along with using a low speed on your mixture (so as not to add air) are key to a successful cheesecake.

Remove pan from fridge, and pour custard into the shell. Place pan onto sheet tray, and bake until cake is jiggly (but not solid) in the middle (like jello, with a matte finish). This takes about an hour, so set a timer (or alert, or whatever you need to get yourself up off the couch) for 45 minutes. If the cake isn’t done, let it keep going and check it every 5-10 minutes until it looks right (again, jiggly in the middle but not “wavy” and with a matte finish).

Remove from oven, and let cool on the counter while you make the topping. By the way, the cake might be a little brown around the edges, and that’s OK. It’s not burned, right? Plus, you are about to put it’s crowning glory on, which covers a multitude of cheesecake sins, so no worries.

Ingredients for the topping:

  • 2 cups sour cream (no yogurt here, please – it’s too wet, and will fall into any cracks your cake might have developed and your final cake, while still delicious, won’t be very pretty)
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 2 tbsp reduced tangerine juice

Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl, and whisk until fully combined.

Gently pour topping over cooling cake, spread evenly with your offset spatula all the way to the edges, and return to oven for 10 minutes.

Once topping is baked (it should not have any color – really, 10 minutes will do it), remove from oven and place on cooling rack. Once cake has cooled, place in refrigerator overnight. I know, I know, this is the hardest part. Leave it the hell alone. Really, don’t mess with it. The custard needs time to set up, and the flavors need time to combine. Trust me, it’s totally worth it.

Once cake has chilled overnight, remove ring from springform, and admire that gorgeous gal for all she’s worth.

To serve, place a knife in a deep bowl of hot water. Once knife is warmed, remove from water and dry with a towel. Slice firmly and with conviction right down the middle. Return knife to bowl of water and repeat until requisite number of slices is achieved. Plate slices, and garnish with additional zest or a drizzle of tangerine juice (if you have any leftover).

Enjoy (preferably with reckless abandon).

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