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Cheesecake How-Tos with Anna Olson

Cheesecake How-Tos with Anna Olson

We chatted with Food Network star and baking guru Anna Olson about how to make the best cheesecake, plus she answered your cheesecake questions sent via Facebook and Twitter.
Signe Langford
2012-12-18 11:35
2012-12-18 10:35

How to bake a perfect cheesecake

Anna Olson has been baking since she was a child; she learned Slovak specialities at her grandma's knee, then turned her love of baking into a lifelong career-which has included her share of flops. "I figure that's my job, to make the mistakes so you don't have to!" she says. Here, Olson shares her hard-won tips to help you make your best cheesecake ever.  

What's the secret to a crisp graham-crumb crust?
Anna Olson: Soggy isn't always a bad thing. Some people actually prefer it, and each recipe is different. Just like some folks don't like chunks in their ice cream, some want all one texture in a bite of cheesecake. But if you do like crunch in your crust, there are some things you can do: try baking the crust a little longer-say, two or three minutes more-or double the crust recipe. More crust mixture pressed into the pan means a crunchier crust.

What are some simple cheesecake ideas for hors d'oeuvres?
AO: To make cheesecake bites, start with mini muffin tins lined with mini muffin papers. Then, let your imagination run wild! You can make any favourite recipe or, if you want to go savoury, just eliminate most of the sugar-keep a couple of tablespoons in-then add your favourite flavours. Herbs, crabmeat, cocktail shrimp, grated cheese, ham, prosciutto, smoked salmon and capers, tapenade, bacon bits-anything you like, really. Just be mindful not to add anything that's going to make the mini cakes too wet. For example, don't add salsa to the mix; a spoonful on top just before serving is fine. 

How do you know when your cheesecake is done? 
AO: Testing a cheesecake for doneness is not like testing a sponge or flour cake. You don't stick a skewer in the centre. What you do is give the pan a little shake; if it's done, it will be set and solid around the edges with a slight jiggle at the centre. Remember, it'll keep cooking for a little bit once out of the oven and, as it cools, the jiggle in the centre will firm up.

Should any ingredients be at room temperature before baking? 
AO: Yes. The cream cheese and eggs should be at room temperature. We don't recommend taking the cream cheese out of the fridge overnight; one hour will do, if you unwrap the bricks, cut up into cubes and leave on the counter. Having all ingredients at the same temperature will give you smooth, creamy, lump-free results.

What are some trendy cheesecake flavours coming out now? 
AO: I'm so glad you asked! For tons of great flavour ideas, check out One of my favourites is Christina O'Brien's Pumpkin Spiced Latte Cheesecake. It combines pumpkin pie flavours with espresso. Also, sweet and salty is huge and so are the multicultural influences. I've just returned from the Philippines and made a cheesecake with the zest and juice of the calamansi lime.

Are there any more essential cheesecake-baking tips?
AO: Always use the bricks of cream cheese, never use the tubs of spreadable cream cheese; it's firmer and allows the cheesecake to set properly. Visit our website for all sorts of tips from fellow bakers. Here are a few more essential tips:

Turn off the convection fan. Blowing hot air makes cracking more likely.

Cheesecake is a make-ahead dessert, perfect for taking the stress out of holiday entertaining. Make your cheesecake the day before.

Don't rush. A rushed cheesecake will crack. Take the time to bring the ingredients to room temperature and, when it's done baking, turn off the heat and open the oven door. Let it sit in the oven until it's just warm. Then, move it to the counter and let cool completely before popping into the fridge to chill.

Don't cover with plastic wrap. If it's even a little bit warm, condensation can develop on the plastic and drip onto the top. Yuck!

For perfect presentation, immerse your knife in superhot water, then dry it off and cut. Repeat between every cut.

To dress up each slice, try serving with a warm sauce such as chocolate, rum butter, brandy butter, macerated fruit or caramel.

You had questions for Anna, too...

What's a good gluten-free crust? 
-Julia, via Facebook
Anna Olson: I like to use oats, brown sugar, butter and a bit of rice flour. It's like the topping of a fruit crisp. If you pulse the oats a bit in a food processor, it'll turn out more like a buttery cookie. A nut flour and cornmeal or corn-flour crust is also great.

Why does it always crack and how do you stop it from doing so?
-@Jemrah1, via Twitter

Anna Olson: This is the most common problem with cheesecakes. There are a few simple rules that will ensure a lovely smooth top.

1. Bake it low and slow. If it rises too fast, it may fall as it cools, then it'll crack.

2. Don't overbeat or beat too quickly, otherwise you'll whip too much air into the egg whites and the cake will soufflé, then fall and crack.

3. As the cake cools, it shrinks away from the sides of the pan. If it's stuck to the pan, it may crack. To make sure that doesn't happen, when you take the cake out of the oven, run an offset spatula or butter knife all around between the cake and pan.  

How can I make a great-tasting cheesecake that's lower in fat?
-Barb, via Facebook
Anna Olson: There are two simple and easy tricks that will save you one-third to half of the calories: use low-fat Philadelphia cream cheese, and if the recipe calls for one large egg, use two egg whites instead. And remember, don't overmix or mix too fast or the egg whites will become too airy.

How do you effortlessly get the darn thing out of the pan?
-Cori, via Facebook

Anna Olson: I like to lightly grease the pan with pure vegetable oil. Then, when it comes out of the oven, run a knife all around the edge. And never try to take it out of the pan until it's 100 percent chilled and set; wait a full six hours.

Photography courtesy Anna Olson

Do you have more burning cheescake questions? Tell us in the comments section below and we'll ask our recipe developers for the answer.