Cheesecake, in one form or another, has been around since the ancient Greeks. Indeed, it was given to athletes at the very first Olympic games in 776 BC. When the Romans conquered Greece, they adopted cheesecake as their own. They called their cheesecakes placenta — consisting of many layers of dough with a mixture of cheese and honey between each layer — or libum, which were used as offerings in the temples of their gods. (FYI, our modern term placenta is derived from this ancient term, apparently because the Roman version of cheesecake resembled the afterbirth of a human pregnancy. Appetizing, huh?)
As the Roman Empire spread, so did the recipe for cheesecake, and nearly every culture it touched has developed its own version, using whatever cheese is available — ricotta in Italy, quark in Germany, Neufchâtel in France. What we in America recognize as cheesecake today owes its birthright to a man named William Lawrence, who in 1875 took an old recipe for French-style Neufchâtel cheese, which uses only milk, and added cream to it. He called it cream cheese, but then a cheese distributor named Alvah Reynolds convinced him to name it Philadelphia Cream Cheese (even though it was made in Chester, N.Y.) because Philadelphia was known at the time for its dairy farms. And an iconic brand was born.
Today, cheesecake is defined as “a dessert consisting of a creamy filling usually containing cheese baked in a pastry or pressed-crumb shell.” There is some debate as to whether it should be classified as a cake, a pie, or a tart, but I think we can all agree that cheesecake, in all its cream-cheesealiciousness, is in a class by itself!
For this challenge, the bakers in the Great White Tent were asked to create a three-tiered cheesecake. It had to be sweet, not savory, but it could be any shape and decorated any way they liked. Mary Berry said the judges were “really throwing it at them this time,” with “three different cheesecakes, three different sizes, three different baking times.” Paul Hollywood added, “It’s all down to a good bake, good cheesecake, good density, and a good finish.”
For my three-tiered cheesecake, I chose three different flavors with a different cookie-crumb crust for each: Pumpkin spice cheesecake with a gingersnap crust, rhubarb ripple cheesecake with a speculoos (a.k.a. Biscoff cookie) crust, and lemon poppyseed cheesecake with a shortbread cookie crust.
Cheesecakes need to be completely cool and preferably chilled before being served, so it’s best to make them the day before. Because I also made the cookies for my crusts from scratch, this turned into a multiday bake:
- Day 1 — Made the cookie dough; let chill overnight.
- Day 2 — Baked cookies; made the crumb crusts.
- Day 3 — Made cheesecakes; chilled overnight.
- Day 4 — Topped, stacked and served cheesecakes.
To make these recipes simpler, you could certainly use store-bought cookies. And obviously, it’s not necessary to stack your cheesecakes; that was a requirement of the challenge for the GBBO bakers. Feel free to make any or all of these cheesecakes individually.
Here are a few tips I learned from watching Mary Berry make her three-tiered white chocolate and raspberry cheesecake in the Masterclass episode:
- Make sure all ingredients are at room temperature before starting out.
- Mix the cheesecake mixture on low speed so you don’t aerate the mixture.
- When done, there should still be a slight wobble in the middle of the cheesecake but, hopefully, no crack. (However, if you do end up with a cracked surface, you can always disguise it by topping the cheesecake with sour cream, fruit or whipped cream. I speak from experience.)
- Let the cheesecake cool completely before removing it from the pan.
- Don’t refrigerate the cheesecake until it’s completely cool. (Apparently this can contribute to cracking.)
Despite a cracked surface on two out of three of my cheesecakes, I’m happy to report they all tasted great. The lemon poppyseed one has some goat cheese in it, which gives it a distinctive, yet subtle, flavor. To decorate it, I brûléed some lemon slices and stacked them on top. I topped the pumpkin spice cheesecake with a whipped cream/sour cream mixture, a lighter twist on the sour cream topping traditionally used on cheesecakes. It tasted much like a richer, denser version of my Thanksgiving pumpkin pie. The rhubarb ripple cheesecake needed no topping; the ripple gave it a pretty, two-toned appearance and provided a burst of tangy, juicy rhubarb in every bite.
Pumpkin Spice Cheesecake with Gingersnap Crust
Credit for crust and filling: TheViewFromGreatIsland.com
Credit for topping: AmericasTestKitchen.com
For the gingersnaps:
- ¾ c. (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, room temp.
- 1¼ c. granulated sugar, divided
- ¼ c. lightly packed brown sugar
- 1/3 c. unsulphured molasses (not blackstrap)
- 1 large egg
- ½ t. fine salt
- 2 t. baking soda
- 1½ t. ground ginger
- 1 t. ground cinnamon
- ¼ t. cloves
- 2 ¼ c. all-purpose flour
For the crust:
- 1½-2 c. gingersnap crumbs (about 8 oz.)
- 5 T. butter, melted
- 3 T. brown sugar
For the filling:
- 32 oz. (4 8-oz. packages) cream cheese, room temperature
- 1¼ c. granulated sugar
- 1 c. canned pumpkin puree
- 1 t. ginger
- 1 t. cinnamon
- ½ t. allspice
- ½ t. cloves
- ½ t. nutmeg
- 1 T. vanilla extract
- ½ t. salt
- 4 large eggs
- 3 T. flour
For the topping:
- 1 c. heavy cream, chilled
- ¼ c. sour cream, chilled
- ¼ c. brown sugar, packed
- 1/8 t. vanilla extract
- To make the cookies: In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to cream the butter, ¾ cup granulated sugar and brown sugar until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add molasses and egg, and beat until well combined. Add salt, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, cloves and flour, and mix until combined. If desired, refrigerate dough overnight.
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Place the remaining ½ cup sugar in a shallow dish. Roll the dough into 1-inch balls (about the size of walnuts) and roll in sugar before placing on baking sheets lined with parchment paper, about 2 inches apart. Bake for 15 minutes or until the cookies are spread and the surface is crackled.
- Let cookies cool on baking sheets for 5 minutes before removing to cooling racks to cool. Store in an airtight container for up to seven days. (You will only need about one-third of the cookies for the crust. Save the rest for snacking!)
- To make the crust: Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly butter a 10-inch springform pan, and line the bottom and sides with parchment. If gingersnaps are not crisp, place them back in the oven on a baking sheet for about 5 minutes.
- Process gingersnaps in a food processor until they are the consistency of fine crumbs. (Alternatively, seal cookies in a heavy-duty ziplock bag and crush with a rolling pin.)
- Place crumbs in a medium-size bowl, and stir in butter and sugar, then press mixture into the bottom of the prepared springform pan. Bake for 8 minutes. Remove from heat and cool completely on wire rack. Then refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or overnight.
- To make the filling: Using an electric mixer, blend the cream cheese and sugar together until well-mixed and lump-free. Blend in the pumpkin, spices, extract and salt. Beat in eggs, one at a time, incorporating each one before adding the next. Scrape down the sides of bowl as necessary. Fold in the flour.
- Pour the batter over the crust, smoothing the surface with a spatula. Place the pan on a rimmed baking sheet, and put in the oven on the middle rack. Immediately turn down the heat to 300°F. Bake for about an hour, until cheesecake is almost set in center but still a bit wobbly. Turn off the heat and leave cheesecake in the oven with the door slightly ajar for another hour or so. Then remove cheesecake from the oven and let it cool to room temperature. Cover and chill for 6 hours or overnight, then remove from pan.
- To make the topping: Whip all topping ingredients together with an electric mixer on medium-low speed until foamy, about 1 minute. Increase speed to high, and whip until soft peaks form, 1-3 more minutes. Pipe or spread on top of cheesecake and dust with nutmeg.
Rhubarb Ripple Cheesecake with Speculoos Cookie Crust
Credit for crust: TheGoldLiningGirl.com
Credit for filling: BestRecipes.com.au
Credit for topping: BonAppetit.com
For the speculoos (Biscoff) cookies:
- 1 c. all-purpose flour
- 1 t. ground cinnamon
- 1/8 t. ground nutmeg
- 1/8 t. ground ginger
- 1/8 t. ground allspice
- 1/8 t. ground cloves
- 1/8 t. baking soda
- 1/8 t. baking powder
- ¼ t. salt
- ½ c. (1 stick) butter, room temperature
- ¼ c. granulated sugar
- 2 T. brown sugar
- ½ t. vanilla extract
For the crust:
For the rhubarb ripple:
- 1/3 c. granulated sugar
- 2 t. cornstarch
- 1½ c. rhubarb, finely chopped
- 1 T. water
For the filling:
- 16 oz. (2 8-oz. packages) cream cheese, room temperature
- ½ c. superfine (baker’s) sugar
- 2 T. cornstarch
- 3 large eggs
- 1½ t. vanilla extract
- 1 c. sour cream, room temperature
- To make the cookies: In a medium-sized bowl, mix together flour, spices, baking soda, baking powder and salt. In the large bowl of an electric mixer, cream together butter, granulated sugar and brown sugar on low speed. Add vanilla. Gradually blend flour mixture into butter mixture until well-combined.
- Form dough into a rectangle about 2 inches wide by 1 inch thick; cover and chill for at least an hour or overnight.
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Cut dough into slices about ¼-inch thick and transfer to the prepared baking sheets. Bake for 12-15 minutes until golden brown. Remove from oven and transfer cookies to cooling rack to cool. Keep in an airtight container for up to 10 days.
- To make the crust: Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly butter an 8- or 9-inch springform pan, and line the bottom and sides with parchment paper. Process the cookies in a food processor until they are the consistency of fine crumbs. (Alternatively, seal cookies in a heavy-duty ziplock bag and crush with a rolling pin.)
- In a medium-size bowl, stir together cookie crumbs, sugar and butter until well-combined. Press crumbs into bottom of prepared pan. Bake for 8 minutes. Remove from heat and cool completely on wire rack. Then refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or overnight.
- To make the rhubarb ripple: In a small saucepan, mix together sugar, cornstarch, rhubarb and water. Heat over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until mixture starts to bubble. Reduce heat and simmer for 5-6 minutes until rhubarb is softened. Do not burn. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature.
- To make the filling: Preheat oven to 320°F. In a large bowl of an electric mixer, mix cream cheese, sugar and cornstarch until smooth. Mix in eggs at low speed, one at a time. Add vanilla and sour cream and mix just until smooth.
- Pour half the cream cheese mixture over the crust, then spoon half the rhubarb mixture in dollops over that. Use a knife to swirl the rhubarb through the cream cheese mixture, being careful not to hit the crust. Repeat with remaining cream cheese mixture and remaining rhubarb, then swirl again.
- Place the springform pan on a rimmed baking sheet, and put in the oven on the middle rack. Bake for 50-60 minutes or until cheesecake is almost set in center but still a bit wobbly. Turn off the heat and leave cheesecake in the oven with the door slightly ajar for another hour or so. Then remove from the oven and let cheesecake cool to room temperature. Cover and chill for 6 hours or overnight, then remove from pan.
Lemon, Poppyseed and Chèvre Cheesecake with Shortbread Cookie Crust
Credit for crust: CrazyForCrust.com
Filling recipe adapted from FoodAndWine.com
For the cookies:
- 10 T. unsalted butter, room temperature
- ½ c. powdered sugar
- ½ t. vanilla extract
- 1½ c. all-purpose flour
- ½ t. kosher salt (opt.)
For the crust:
For the filling:
- ¼ c. + 2 T. sugar
- 8 oz. cream cheese, room temperature
- 6 oz. soft, fresh goat cheese, room temperature
- 2 t. finely grated lemon zest
- 1 t. fresh lemon juice
- ½ t. vanilla bean paste (or 1 t. vanilla extract)
- ¼ t. salt
- 1 c. sour cream
- 3 large eggs, room temperature
- 1 T. poppy seeds
- To make the cookies: Cream together butter and vanilla with an electric mixer. Add powdered sugar and salt; mix until combined. Scrape bowl down and add flour, beating on low. Scrape bowl once more and mix until well-combined.
- Shape dough into a 2-inch wide by 1-inch thick rectangle. Wrap in plastic and chill at least an hour or overnight.
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Cut dough into ½-inch-thick slices. Place slices about an inch apart on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a silicone mat. Use a fork or skewer to poke holes in the top of each cookie.
- Bake for about 10 minutes, rotating baking sheet halfway through. Transfer cookies to wire rack to cool.
- To make the crust: Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly butter an 8-inch square springform pan, and line the bottom and sides with parchment paper. Process the cookies in a food processor until they are the consistency of fine crumbs. (Alternatively, seal cookies in a heavy-duty ziplock bag and crush with a rolling pin.)
- Place crumbs, sugar and butter in a large bowl and stir with a fork until mixture looks like wet sand. Press into bottom of prepared pan. Bake for 8 minutes, then remove from oven and let cool completely. Then refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or overnight.
- To make the filling: Preheat oven to 325°F. Cover the outside of the springform pan with heavy-duty aluminum foil. Place springform pan inside a large roasting pan.
- In the large bowl of an electric mixer, mix cream cheese, goat cheese, and sugar until smooth. Mix in zest, lemon juice, vanilla and salt. Beat in sour cream. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each. Mix in poppy seeds.
- Pour mixture into springform pan and set the roasting pan in the oven. Carefully add enough hot water to the pan to reach halfway up the sides of the cheesecake pan. Bake for 50-60 minutes or until cheesecake is almost set in center but still a bit wobbly. Turn off the heat and leave it in the oven with the door slightly ajar for another hour or so. Then remove cheesecake from the oven and let it cool to room temperature. Cover and chill for 6 hours or overnight, then remove from pan.
- To make the decoration: Lay lemon slices on a paper towel. Add another paper towel on top and let dry for 5-10 minutes. Dab the fruit to remove excess moisture. Line a baking sheet or heatproof surface with parchment paper. Transfer lemon slices to the parchment. One at a time, sprinkle slices with sugar to coat and use a kitchen torch to melt the sugar until it turns amber-colored and some edges begin to blacken. Arrange on top of cheesecake.