The best cheesecake you'll ever have
I know it seems brash to claim one’s cheesecake is the “best you’ll ever have”, but I will make such a bold claim. Cheesecake has been a part of my family since the 1970s, and while my father was not able to beat bigger players like Eli’s, I’ll still say he had the better product.
The cake is a very global dessert with varieties spanning most of Europe, South America, Eastern Asia, Australia, and several varieties in the US. Its origin though goes back to Ancient Greece where the physician Aegimus wrote a book on making cheesecake. Later, the ancient Roman statesman Marcus Porcius Cato wrote recipes in ancient Latin. One of them was for a cake called, of all things, placenta. The cake supposedly was most like modern cheesecake, although his and Aegimus' cakes had a taste and consistency far different than we know now.
It wasn’t until 1872 when a failure at recreating the French soft cheese Neufchâtel gave birth to the modern cream cheese. William Lawrence can take credit for that, but it was James Kraft who developed and marketed a form of pasteurized cream cheese, now known as Philadelphia Cream Cheese.
Now where my father came into all this was in the 1970s. He and my uncle had a restaurant in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago, a typical Greek-owned snack shop. My father wanted to serve what was known as the Hollywood-style Cheesecake, a multi-layer dessert where you have a graham-cracker crust, a layer of cheesecake, and a topping made from sweetened sour cream. He perfected his recipe and it was a hit.
Unfortunately, his restaurant didn’t last, as the neighborhood went downhill. He and my uncle took a chance and opened a wholesale bakery, starting with that one cheesecake. Through the 1980s and 1990s, they grew the business to sell twenty varieties of New York-style Cheesecake, Carrot Cake, the Hollywood Cheesecake, Spanakopita, and even blintzes. While it might seem like they were prospering, it was some shady Chicago politics that ended up killing their business.
Bad memories aside, the Hollywood Cheesecake has always been my favorite, and I was beyond happy to finally learn how to make it. It stands apart from the more richer New York Style Cheesecake in that the cake is topped with a sweet and tangy topping made of sour cream, sugar, and an added secret weapon to make it sit solid.
Let’s get started now shall we?
For the crust:
- 2 cups of graham cracker crumbs
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) of butter
For the cheesecake:
- 2 lbs of cream cheese, softened
- 1 tsp of vanilla extract
- 1 tsp of orange peel
- 1 tsp of lemon peel
- 1 1/2 cups of sugar
- 1/2 cup of milk
- 4 eggs
For the topping:
- 16 oz of sour cream
- 1 tsp of vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup and 2-3 tsp of sugar
- 1 packet (1/4 oz) of gelatin
- 4-5 tbsp of water
Directions for crust:
- Melt the butter over a low heat.
- Place the graham cracker crumbs into a cake pan with decently-sized walls.
- Pour the butter on the crumbs and mix.
- Flatten the crumb/butter mixture into a crust roughly 1/4" thick only on the bottom, not the sides.
- Set aside and move on to making the cheesecake.
Directions for cheesecake:
- Pre-heat your oven to 350°
- In a mixing bowl, blend the cream cheese with the vanilla, orange peel, and lemon peel.
- While continually blending, add in the milk, then the eggs, and finally the sugar.
- Continue blending until the mixture has a batter-like consistency.
- Pour the batter into your pan with crust. Make sure you only fill the pan 1/2 to 2/3 full so you have room for the topping.
- Bake the cake in the oven for one hour. Do not turn off the oven when finished.
- Place the cake in the refrigerator to cool and move on to making the topping.
Directions for topping:
- In a mixing bowl, blend the sour cream with vanilla and the 1/2 cup of sugar. Set aside.
- In a small saucepan, warm up the water on low heat. Do not boil.
- Mix in the gelatin and the 2-3 tsp of sugar.
- Quickly add the gelatin/water/sugar mixture to the sour cream/vanilla/sugar mixture and stir thoroughly.
- Pour the topping mixture on top of your cooled cheesecake.
- Place the topped cake back into the oven for 5 minutes.
- Remove the cake from the oven and place it into the refrigerator overnight.
An electric mixer is ideal for this recipe to thoroughly combine the ingredients.
Do not overmix the cheesecake batter. If you do it will become more liquid. There is no flour in this recipe, so you have to be careful.
It might seem strange to only fill the pan 1/2 to 2/3 full, but the cake will rise a bit in the oven, and you'll need room for the topping. The ideal pan for this is one with a removable side.
When you cool the cheesecake, leave it on a cooling board for 10-20 minutes after pulling it out of the oven, then place in the refrigerator. Start making the topping once you place the cake in the refrigerator.
The gelatin is necessary to make the topping solid, but you have to move quickly and carefully. Have all the ingredients ready to move so once you combine the gelatin with the water and sugar, you can get it into the sour cream/vanilla/sugar mixture and then on top of the cake. Like any Jello mold, it will solidify in the refrigerator. Hence the long cooling time. The 5 minutes in the oven is only to finish the topping on the cake before cooling.
Variations can come to your heart's content. Feel free to flavor the cheesecake batter any way you choose, but make sure it doesn't liquify the batter too much. If you wish to do a chocolate swirl into the cake, pour some chocolate syrup into the batter once you place it into the pan and then swirl it with your finger before baking. I personally though like to leave a Hollywood cheesecake in its original form.
If you wish to get more chocolately, try Oreo cookie crumbs instead of graham cracker crumbs.
The chocolate swirls in the topping came from my father. He simply swirled chocolate syrup into the topping before the final cooling period in the refrigerator.
Healthy It Up
Easiest way to "healthy up" this cheesecake is to use fat free cream cheese, fat free sour cream, and skim milk. The cheesecake in the picture was actually made this way, despite my father preferring full-fat ingredients.
Best way to serve Hollywood Cheesecake is with fresh fruit like strawberries or cherries. You could also try making a blueberry compote or use some kind of berry topping/pie filling.