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How to Make the Perfect Holiday Cheesecake

Cheesecake has always been my favorite dessert—to eat and to bake. I find its smooth and creamy texture delightful, the graham cracker crust irresistible and the tanginess surprisingly refreshing. Every Thanksgiving, along with the usual pie offerings, I contribute a cheesecake as a way of putting my own spin on the traditional dessert spread. Whether it’s adding artful pumpkin swirls or a gooey praline topping, cheesecake can be a canvas for introducing a variety of flavors.

As an ultimate holiday mashup, we’ve got an exclusive recipe for an Eggnog Cheesecake with Gingerbread People from James Beard Award-winning baker Joanne Chang. Chang is best known as the founder and owner of Flour Bakery + Cafe, which has eight brick-and-mortar locations throughout the Boston area. This recipe, which is chock-full of warming spices (and even a bit of booze) comes from her latest cookbook entitled “Pastry Love,” where Chang offers up tips to becoming a better baker, personal notes from her travels, along with 125 recipes that are homebaker-friendly yet vary in difficulty. I personally cannot wait to break out my springform pan and give this one a try and I hope you’ll join me this holiday season!

cheesecake

Eggnog Cheesecake with Gingerbread People
(MAKES ONE 9-INCH CHEESECAKE, TO SERVE 8 TO 12)

A great eggnog balances spicy nutmeg and cinnamon with mellow vanilla, and all are brought into focus by deep, rich bourbon or rum. It’s creamy and strong and tastes like a party. I turn this traditional flavor into a holiday cheesecake and make it even more festive with mini gingerbread people to decorate each serving. The dough for the gingerbread people also acts as the crust, but if you want to simplify the recipe, use the graham cracker crust from the S’mores Pie (see below) and skip the gingerbread people decoration. Top instead with a generous shower of freshly grated nutmeg.

Eggnog Cheesecake with Gingerbread People is excerpted from PASTRY LOVE: A Baker’s Journal of Favorite Recipes © 2019 by Joanne Chang. Photography © 2019 by Kristin Teig. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

cheesecake

Eggnog Cheesecake

Ingredients:
3 cups / 1 ½ pounds / 680 grams cream cheese
1 ½ cups / 300 grams vanilla sugar (see below)
¾ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
4 large eggs (about 200 grams), at room temperature
½ cup / 80 grams crème fraîche
5 tablespoons / 75 grams bourbon or dark rum
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
½ teaspoon kosher salt

Directions:

1. Make the gingerbread crust and people as directed. Set them aside.

2. Pull the cream cheese out at least 2 hours before making the cheese-cake or place it in the microwave for 20 to 30 seconds at medium power to soften to room temperature.

3. Preheat the oven to 325°F and place a rack in the center of the oven.

4. In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese until it is totally soft and creamy. Scrape the bowl well and keep beating to ensure there are no lumps. Add the vanilla sugar, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Scrape well and keep beating. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing until incorporated. Scrape again and keep beating. Add the crème fraîche, bourbon, vanilla, and salt. You guessed it  — scrape and keep on beating. Strain the cheese-cake batter through a fine-mesh strainer (to catch any lumps) into the crust. Wrap the whole bottom and sides of the spring form pan in aluminum foil to prevent leaking.

5. Place the springform pan in a larger roasting pan and place the whole thing in the oven. Pour water into the roasting pan so it comes halfway up the sides of the springform pan. Bake for 1 hour 10 minutes to 1 hour 20 minutes, until the filling is set but still a tiny bit wobbly. You may need to cover the cheesecake lightly with foil if it starts to brown.

6. Turn off the oven but leave the cheesecake in the oven to cool  — this will help prevent cracking. Remove from the oven after about 1 hour.

7. Place the cheesecake in the fridge until you’re ready to serve. Top the cake with gingerbread people for garnish.

8. The cheesecake can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 3 days. Store the people separately at room temperature in an airtight container, adding them back to the cheesecake before serving.

Gingerbread Crust and People
(MAKES ENOUGH FOR ONE 9-INCH CHEESECAKE AND 10 TO 15 GINGERBREAD PEOPLE)

Ingredients:
4 tablespoons / ½ stick / 60 grams unsalted butter, at cool room temperature
¼ cup firmly packed / 55 grams light brown sugar
1 large egg (about 50 grams), at room temperature
¼ cup / 85 grams unsulfured molasses
1 cup / 140 grams all-purpose flour
1 ¼ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon baking powder
⅛ teaspoon ground cloves
⅛ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons chopped semisweet chocolate, for decorating the people (optional)

Directions:

1. In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream 3 tablespoons/45 grams of the butter and the brown sugar together on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg and molasses and beat for 30 seconds to combine well. Scrape down the bowl and the paddle a few times to make sure the butter gets fully mixed in. In a large bowl, stir together the flour, ginger, cinnamon, salt, baking powder, baking soda, cloves, and pepper. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and beat on low until totally combined. Divide the dough in half and wrap both pieces in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour so the dough stiffens enough so that you can roll it out.

2. Preheat the oven to 325°F and place a rack in the center of the oven. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set it aside.

3. To make the crust: Remove both pieces of dough from the fridge. Generously flick flour over the work surface and roll out one piece of dough until it is about 1/8 inch thick. Place it on the prepared baking sheet and bake for 18 to 20 minutes, rotating the baking sheet midway through the baking time, until it is baked through and firm. Remove from the oven and let cool completely on the baking sheet on a wire rack. When cool, grind the cookie in a food processor into fine crumbs. You should get about 11/2 cups/190 grams of crumbs.

4. Butter and flour a 9-inch spring-form pan or spray it with pan spray. Melt the remaining 1 tablespoon butter and add it to the cookie crumbs. Stir together until the cookie crumbs are well coated with butter. Press the crumbs evenly over the bottom of the prepared pan. Turn the oven back on to 325°F. Bake the crust for about 20 minutes, rotating the pan midway through the baking time, until set. Remove from the oven and set aside.

5. The crust can be stored, well wrapped, at room temperature for up to 3 days.

6. To make the gingerbread people: Preheat the oven to 325°F and place a rack in the center of the oven. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set it aside.

7. On a well-floured surface, roll out the second piece of dough until it is about 1/8 inch thick. Using a 2-inch gingerbread person cutter, cut out people; lay them on the prepared baking sheet. Reroll the scraps and keep cutting out people. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, rotating the baking sheet midway through the baking time, until the people are baked through and firm to the touch. Remove from the oven and let cool on the baking sheet on a wire rack. If you like, melt the chocolate in the microwave or in a bain-marie and spoon it into a parchment cornet (see below). Pipe eyes and mouths onto the people.

8. Gingerbread people can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 week.

TIPS:

Making a Cornet: A cornet is a small parchment paper cone that you fill with melted chocolate, caramel, or piping icing that you use to write on cakes and cookies. To make a cornet, fold a piece of parchment paper on the diagonal and cut through the fold with a small paring knife so you have two triangles. Position one of the triangles so the longest edge is facing away from you on an angle from lower left to upper right, the shortest edge is on the right, and the middle-length edge is facing down (toward you). Now eyeball the mid-length edge to find the halfway point. Place your left hand at this point and hold it down with your forefinger and thumb. Bend down the top corner, then twist it under so that the point is approximately at the midpoint of the shortest edge and poking out about an inch. You will see the beginning of a cone forming. Slowly roll the parchment down with your right hand while anchoring the opposite tip with your left hand. After you’ve rolled the whole triangle into a cone, tuck the extended point of the open top inward to hold everything in place. Fill the cornet about halfway (don’t overfill or you will end up with a mess) and roll the top of the cornet closed like a tube of toothpaste, making sure to roll the cornet with the seam on the bottom. Snip the point with scissors or cut it off with a small paring knife to make a tiny opening for the filling to come out.

Making Vanilla Sugar: When you split a fresh vanilla bean and scrape out the seeds, you are left with a vanilla pod that is most definitely not trash. Instead, use the pod to make vanilla sugar: Fill an empty container with a few cups of sugar and bury the pod in the sugar. Close the container; check back in a few days. The vanilla pod will perfume the sugar with its unmistakable scent, and you’ll be left with vanilla sugar that you can use in baking and to sweeten drinks. The pod keeps indefinitely in the sugar, so keep adding pods and refilling the container with sugar regularly, and you’ll always have vanilla sugar at the ready.

Graham Cracker Pie Shell
(MAKES ONE 9-INCH PIE SHELL)

Ingredients:
16 squares / 130 grams graham crackers
2 tablespoons / 25 grams sugar
⅛ teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons / 45 grams unsalted butter, melted

Directions:

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F and place a rack in the center of the oven.

2. In a food processor, grind the graham crackers, sugar, and salt into fine crumbs. Pour the crumbs into a large bowl and add the melted butter. Stir with a wooden spoon until the mixture comes together. Press the crumb mixture evenly over the bottom and up the sides of a 9-inch ceramic, glass, or aluminum pie plate. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, rotating the pie plate midway through the baking time, until the shell is golden brown and baked through. 

3. The shell can be made up to 1 week in advance and stored, well wrapped, at room temperature.

Photography by Kristin Teig