“One of her [Mercedes Brighenti ] favorite research subjects is cheesecake. She likes to place a 2-millimeter slice of cream cheese in a machine that heats it to 170 degrees Fahrenheit. This so-called rheometric test gauges viscosity and serves as a mathematical and scientific substitute for taste-testing a cake. By evaluating various cream cheese formulations, Brighenti is able to determine which types create brittle, firm, grainy, or sticky cakes. It may not win her a Nobel Prize, but it could give the world a better-tasting cheesecake.” (Joshua Davis, “Smear Campaign,” Wired 14.6, 2006)
We have to appreciate the research Dr. Brighenti does: scientific enquiry that might lead to a better-tasting cheesecake. Although most cheesecakes taste delicious, the idea that we can improve upon what’s already nearly perfect is both intriguing and exciting. Toward that cause I unite with Dr. Brighenti. Well, ok. Truthfully Dr. Brighenti is using cheesecake as a means to an end, in her quest to find a more perfect cream cheese. She and I may have diverse goals, but our end result is the same: better cheesecake.
I recently had a cream cheese epiphany, actually. As many years as I’ve been cooking and baking, and as many changes as I’ve made in the products that I use (trending toward natural, unprocessed, and of necessity gluten-free), I never before thought to switch to a brand of cream cheese other than that made by Kraft. The reason is understandable, I suppose. I grew up knowing only Philadelphia brand cream cheese. Other than generic store brands (such as Hill Country Fair), I never saw any other brand during my formative years. Even these days, with people maturing and evolving out of loyalty to familiar, traditional name brands, Kraft Philadelphia brand remains the ubiquitous cream cheese in grocery stores. Joshua Davis, in his article “Smear Campaign,” reports that Kraft controls 70% of the $800 cream cheese market. What’s more, cream cheese with a stable shelf life is difficult to produce, and Kraft closely guards its secret cream cheese recipe to prevent other companies from reproducing it. With one company controlling the majority of the cream cheese market, other companies have a difficult time developing competing brands of cream cheese. No wonder we lack a ready variety of cream brands from which to choose! One day while passing by the dairy case in Whole Foods, I suddenly saw the cream cheese brands that I had somehow been blind to all these years: Horizon, Organic Valley, and Whole Food’s private label 365 cream cheeses, right there in the dairy case where they’ve been all along. They’ve been present for a while; I had been looking at them without really registering the significance of their existence.They offer an alternative to Philadelphia cream cheese!
My cream cheese epiphany led to my cheese cake epiphany: a better cream cheese would make a better cheese cake! I wasn’t sure these cream cheeses tasted better than Kraft cream cheese, though I suspected they might taste better. I had to try them out, to see if one of these cream cheeses could produce a more luscious cheesecake than the one brand of cream cheese I’d been using all my life. Before I committed to a new brand of cream cheese, I did extensive and diligent research. Yep, that’s right. As soon as I got home from the store that day, I went straight to chow.com on my computer and typed the search term “cream cheese” into the site’s search engine. The people on the discussion boards there either still use Philly or they use brands I can’t find in Austin or San Antonio (Nancy’s or Sierra Nevada). I did a little more research – but not much. I had an important birthday looming (our oldest son’s), for which I had to bake a gluten-free cheesecake. I found that the taster’s choice folk over at SF Gate voted Whole Foods 365 brand the winner in a taste test that included eight different brands of cream cheese. Since Organic Valley cream cheese costs nearly twice as much as 365 brand, I made an economic decision at the margin and tried the 365.
When I first opened the packages of cream cheese, I didn’t notice much difference between the 365 brand and the familiar Philadelphia brand. The color, the aroma, and the texture seemed similar. When I started creaming the cheese, however, a clear difference between the two emerged. The 365 brand cream cheese is much creamier than the Philly brand. It is smoother and silkier. I tasted a little of the 365 cheese. It tastes smoother, richer, and creamier than Philly brand. As I continued to beat the cheese with the remaining ingredients, no little, tiny lumps of cheese remained in the cheesecake batter as I poured it into the spring-form pan. When I used Philly brand, the cheesecake batter seems to have little tiny lumps of cream cheese: it doesn’t beat that smoothly. A definite difference between the two brands of cream cheese exists. I will use 365 from now on, when I need cheesecake for a recipe.
For the cheesecake I baked with 365, I modified a recipe for a deep dark chocolate cheesecake I found at Epicurious.com. I substituted gluten-free chocolate cookies for the crust, I used a ganache topping instead of a whipped cream topping, and I added Kahlua to the batter and the ganache. The cake turned out wonderfully. Our family members and friends who ate the cake pronounced it the best cheesecake they’ve ever eaten. I’m sure the quality of the cream cheese enhanced the quality of the cake.
1 pkg Pamela’s Gluten-Free Extreme Chocolate Mini Cookies
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, melted
10 oz 70% bittersweet chocolate, chopped
4 (8-ounce) packages 365 cream cheese, room temperature
1 1/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/3 cup Kahlua
4 large eggs
4 oz 70% bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1/3 cup heavy whipping cream
1 tsp unsalted butter
1 tsp Kahlua
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch-diameter springform pan with 3-inch-high sides. For easy removal of the cheesecake from the bottom of the springform pan, wrap the bottom tightly with aluminum foil. Butter the foil.
Blend cookies in a food processor until finely ground. Blend in sugar. Add melted butter and process until well blended. Press crumbs evenly onto bottom (not sides) of prepared pan. Bake just until set, about 5 minutes. Cool while preparing filling. Keep the oven temperature at 350 degrees.
Stir chopped chocolate in metal bowl set over saucepan of simmering water until melted and smooth (or microwave it in 20 second increments, stirring after 20 seconds, making sure not to over microwave). Remove bowl from over water (or microwave). Cool the chocolate until it’s lukewarm but still pourable. Blend together the cream cheese, sugar, and cocoa powder in processor until smooth. Blend in eggs 1 at a time. Mix in the lukewarm chocolate. Mix in the Kahlua. Pour the filling over crust, smooth the top with a rubber spatula, if necessary. Bake until the center is just set and just appears dry, about 1 hour. Cool 5 minutes. Run knife around sides of cake to loosen. Chill for about two hours.
Heat the cream and butter in a pan (or microwave in a bowl) until the butter is melted and the cream is hot, but not boiling. Remove from heat and add the chocolate. Allow the chocolate to sit in the hot liquid for a minute or two, then stir until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth. Add the Kahlua and mix well. Pour the ganache over the cooled cheesecake and refrigerate over-night, or for several hours.
To remove the cheesecake from the pan, loosen the sides of the cake by carefully running a rubber spatula around the edges, between the cake and the pan, immediately after removing the cake from the refrigerator before serving. Spring open the sides of the pan. Unwrap the foil from the bottom of the springform pan. Lift the cake from the foil and place it immediately on a serving platter. The bottom of the cake should easily lift off the buttered foil.
Slice the cake and serve the slices with dollops of whipped cream.