If baking a homemade pie or cake triggers holiday jitters, then why not make a cheesecake instead? It can be made easily the day before or even several days before an event because it needs be well-chilled.
Lay the foundation: Many recipes call for a thick, pre-baked graham cracker crumb crust. But to knock out that step, simply coat the sides and bottom of a springform pan with softened butter, then coat it with crumbs (crush cookies in a processor, or put them in a zipper bag and use a rolling pin to crush them). Or, line the buttered pan with soft ladyfingers trimmed to fit.
Prep the filling: Beat room-temperature cream cheese with sugar, then add eggs one at a time, frequently scraping down the sides with a rubber spatula to ensure a smooth batter. A splash of cream softens the cake, vanilla extract adds flavor, and a touch of sour cream reinforces the tanginess. If you opt for one of the fun variations on the next pages, then top with (or fold, stir or drop in) your favorite flavor.
Bake it in a bath: A water bath -- or bain-marie, as the French call the technique -- prevents the cheesecake from cracking or curdling. First, tear off two long strips of heavy-duty -- not regular -- foil (do this before you start the crust). Make sure there are no holes in the foil. Overlap foil strips in a cross pattern, and set the 9-inch springform pan in the middle. Bring the foil up the sides, crimping around the exterior top of the pan to form a tight seal. Proceed with the recipe for crust and batter. Bring a tea kettle of water to a boil. Set the unbaked cheesecake in a large pan, such as a roaster, and slowly pour hot water into the roasting pan so it comes about halfway up the side of the springform pan. Now it's ready to bake.
Go high or low: For a taller cheesecake, you can increase the ingredients by a quarter and increase the baking time to 1 hour. If cheesecake isn't your only dessert, however, it's easier to cut and serve smaller pieces from a shorter cake. Plus, there are fewer tempting leftovers after your big day of feasting.
Master Recipe for Rich and Creamy Cheesecake
1 Tb. softened butter
3 Tbs. crumbs from Famous Chocolate Wafers, graham crackers or gingersnaps, OR 1 3-ounce package soft ladyfingers (24 total) left whole, but trimmed to fit pan
3 8-ounce packages cream cheese, room temperature
1 cup sugar
3 large eggs, room temperature
2 tsps. vanilla extract
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup sour cream
Heavy-duty foil for pan
Adjust oven rack to middle position, and heat oven to 325 degrees. Brush interior of a 9-inch springform pan with butter. Add crumbs of choice and tilt pan in all directions to evenly coat, or line pan sides with ladyfingers. Tear off two long strips of heavy-duty foil, overlap in a cross pattern, and set the pan in the middle. Bring up sides, crimping around exterior top of the pan and forming a tight seal. Set it in a roasting pan large enough to hold it.
Beat cream cheese with an electric mixer until smooth. Gradually add sugar and beat on medium speed until fully incorporated. Scrape down bowl sides and beat again until smooth. Add eggs, one at a time, scraping down bowl after each addition to ensure a creamy batter. Slowly beat in vanilla, then cream and sour cream. (Meanwhile, bring tea kettle of water to a boil, then turn off heat.)
Pour batter into prepared pan. Set the roasting pan on oven rack and pour in enough boiling water to come halfway up the side of the springform pan. Bake until cake perimeter is set but center still jiggles, about 40 minutes (some flavor variations will take longer). Turn off heat and leave oven door ajar; let cheesecake sit in oven so the residual heat continues to cook it, about 30 minutes.
Remove pan from water; set on a wire rack. Let cool to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate until well-chilled, about 3 hours (can be refrigerated up to 4 days). Run a sharp knife around the edge of the pan, loosen the spring siding and serve.
Per serving: 348 calories, 7g protein, 24g carbohydrates, 25g fat (15g saturated), 152mg cholesterol, 0.1g fiber, 214mg sodium. Nutrition for each flavor is online under the recipe's title at Allrecipes.com.
Let the variations begin
Follow Master Recipe for Rich and Creamy Cheesecake on page 14, brushing 1 3-ounce package (or 24 in a package) soft ladyfingers with a mixture of 6 Tbs. strong coffee and 2 Tbs. rum. Line pan sides with ladyfingers (trimmed to fit). Stir 3 Tbs. espresso powder into the batter. When ready to serve, shave a 4-ounce bar of semi- or bittersweet chocolate with a vegetable peeler onto the cheesecake.
Snickers Cheesecake with Peanut Topping
Follow Master Recipe for Rich and Creamy Cheesecake on page 14, using ground Famous Chocolate Wafers or graham cracker crumbs for the crust and folding 9 fun-size Snickers bars, each cut into 8 pieces, into the cheesecake batter. When ready to serve, sprinkle cheesecake perimeter with 1/4 cup coarsely chopped, roasted (unsalted) peanuts.
Chocolate Orange Cheesecake
Follow Master Recipe for Rich and Creamy Cheesecake on page 14, using ground Famous Chocolate Wafers for the crust and stirring 4 tsps. finely grated orange zest and 1/2 cup of orange marmalade into the cheesecake batter. While cheesecake is cooling on the cooling rack, slip a piece of wax paper or foil under the rack to catch drips. Microwave 1/2 cup heavy cream and 4 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl until cream is hot enough to melt chocolate, about 1 minute. Whisk to make a smooth glaze. Pour over warm cheesecake, continue to cool cake, then refrigerate as directed.
Simmer 1 29-ounce can of 100% pure pumpkin along with 2 tsps. ground ginger, 1 tsp. ground cinnamon and 1/4 tsp. each ground nutmeg and allspice in a 10-inch skillet, stirring often, until the purée starts to stick to the pan's bottom, about 8 minutes. Follow Master Recipe for Rich and Creamy Cheesecake using gingersnaps for the crust, dark brown sugar for granulated and adding 1 additional large egg to the batter. Gradually beat the warm pumpkin into the batter. Increase baking time 5 to 10 minutes.
Follow Master Recipe for Rich and Creamy Cheesecake using ground Famous Chocolate Wafers for the crust and folding in 8 regular-size Reese's peanut butter cups, cut into sixths, into prepared pan of batter. When ready to serve, garnish cooled cake perimeter with 3 quartered peanut butter cups.
Follow Master Recipe for Rich and Creamy Cheesecake using ladyfingers for the crust and stirring 4 tsps. finely grated lemon zest into the cake batter. Spread 1/2 cup of a good brand of lemon curd (sold in jars near the jams and jellies) evenly over the top of the cooked, cooled cake.
Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Cheesecake
Follow Master Recipe for Rich and Creamy Cheesecake using ground Famous Chocolate Wafers for the crust. Pour a third of the filling into the pan. Slice off 8 cookies' worth of refrigerated chocolate chip cookie dough, then break it into smaller chunks and distribute it evenly over the batter. Top with remaining batter.
Apple Spice Cheesecake
Follow Master Recipe for Rich and Creamy Cheesecake, using ladyfingers or graham cracker crumbs for the crust and stirring 2 tsps. ground cinnamon into the cheesecake batter. Top cooled cheesecake with 1 20-ounce can of apple pie filling spiced with 1 tsp. ground cinnamon and 1 Tb. brown sugar. Or, look for Comstock brand apple pie filling: The apples are tender, sweet and already cinnamon-spiced, so you won't need the spice and sugar additions as suggested above.
Rocky Road Cheesecake
Follow Master Recipe for Rich and Creamy Cheesecake, using ground Famous Chocolate Wafers and folding 3/4 cup mini marshmallows and 1 cup chopped semisweet or bittersweet chocolate into the batter. Garnish the cooled cake with 1/2 cup toasted walnuts and a 4-ounce bar of semisweet or bittersweet chocolate shaved with a vegetable peeler.
Black Forest Cheesecake
Follow recipe for Rich and Creamy Cheesecake, using ground Famous Chocolate Wafers for the crust and dropping 1/2 cup hot fudge sauce, 1/2 Tb. at a time, into prepared pan of batter. Top cooled cheesecake with 1 20-ounce can of cherry pie filling.
Online Bonus: Pumpkin Pie with Hazelnuts
Adapted from French Women for All Seasons. The pie will keep a few days in the refrigerator. Always take out 15 minutes before serving.
2/3 cup unsifted flour
Pinch of salt
1 tablespoon sugar
6 tablespoons chilled butter
1 1/2 tablespoons ice cold water
1/3 cup ground hazelnuts
1/4 cup granulated brown sugar
2 tablespoons softened butter
2 eggs, plus 1 egg yolk
1 cup unsweetened canned pumpkin purée
1 tablespoon flour
2/3 cup granulated brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup heavy cream
First, make the dough: Put flour, pinch of salt, and sugar in the bowl of a food processor and pulse to combine. Cut the chilled butter into small pieces and add to the bowl. Add the water and process for 15 seconds. If the dough is too dry, add water by droplets. The dough should just hold together. Wrap dough in waxed paper and refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Roll out the pastry and fit it into a 9-inch pie plate, 2 inches deep. Prick the pastry with a fork all over the bottom. Bake for 10 minutes with pie weights.
Increase the oven to 450 degrees. Combine hazelnuts, 1/4 cup granulated brown sugar, and butter. Work into a paste and spread over the partially cooked pastry shell. Bake for 10 minutes.
Mix together the eggs, egg yolk, pumpkin purée, flour, 2/3 cup granulated brown sugar, spices, salt, and heavy cream. Pour into the pastry shell. Turn the oven down to 325 degrees and bake for 45 minutes.
Serve pie at room temperature or cold. Optional: Serve with unsweetened whipped cream on the side.
Makes 1 pie
Per serving: 309 calories, 4.2g protein, 24.7g carbohydrates, 22.5g fat (11.9g saturated), 121mg cholesterol, 1.8g fiber, 278mg sodium
Pam Anderson is the author of four cookbooks.