Yes, you’re not seeing things: this is a cheesecake being sliced on top of a paper bag, which is itself perched on top of a blanket, on top of some grass, on top of some dirt, and so on. Because when you think “late-summer afternoon picnic,” you obviously think “dairy-based dessert that must be refrigerated for hours before being served,” right?
You know what, though? Having brought a cheesecake to a picnic (my version of bringing a gun to a knife-fight, I guess), I can say now that the decision really wasn’t that weird—eating it at the park was sort of like eating ice cream, but, you know, ice cream made of cream cheese and bordered by crumbled graham crackers that can only be consumed using a fork or your own dirty fingers.
Fine; maybe don’t do as I did. (Especially if you, like us, forget to bring plates and are forced to eat your eat your cheesecake on makeshift ones made out of a ripped-up paper bag. Glamorous!) But do give this recipe a try, especially if you’re a baking hobbyist who’s been staying away from cheesecake specifically for years because making it just seems sort of scary. (Now, who could we be talking about here?)
It’s true that this is a little fussier than cake-cake; it’d be pretty difficult to cream the filling together properly without a hand-mixer or a stand mixer, and the baking process takes a full two hours—one hour with oven on, one with it off. (You cool cheesecake inside the oven itself as it cools off in order to prevent the cake from cracking; this dessert is a diva that might protest if moved too suddenly from a 350° environment to one that’s room temperature.)
If you endure all that, though, you’ll be left with a finished product that’s both delicious and fairly picture perfect—even when eaten off of a paper bag.
7 packages (3 oz.) cream cheese [Oh, innocent Nonnie, living in a time when cream cheese was apparently sold in teensy 3-ounce packages! In our modern, more gluttonous America, you’re much more likely to find it in units of 8 ounces. So yes, you’ll need to buy three of them, and yes, you’ll be left with a bit of leftover cream cheese. What a travesty.]
1/2 pint sour cream
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 tablespoon melted butter
Graham cracker crust (recipe follows)
Graham Cracker Crust
Mix 1/3 cup melted butter with 2 cups graham cracker crumbs in a 9″ springform pan. [You’ll make the crumbs in the food processor, from about 12 crackers total, give or take the bits you surreptitiously eat in the process. Oh, and I don’t have a springform pan, so I used a regular pan lined with foil; the cake ended up lifting right out, leaving no mess behind.] Press crumb mixture with the back of a spoon, to bottom and up sides of pan. [It’s tough to get the crust to go quite the full way up the side of the pan, though that might’ve been because of the foil; it might be worth upping the crust amount by a quarter or so to avoid this problem.] Refrigerate while mixing filling (about 1/2 hour).
Cream all ingredients for filling together until smooth. [This will take longer than you think it should, especially if your cream cheese isn’t room temperature; persevere.] Pour batter into springform pan and bake at 350 at least one hour (or until table knife comes out clean after being inserted into center of cake). [Mine took more like an hour and five minutes—at that point, it was still a little jiggly, but a tester came out almost entirely clean. I decided to stop baking at that point, which it turns out was the right call; seems a properly cooked cheesecake will always have a tiny bit of wobble at its center right out of the oven, and that over-baking it is a great way to end up with a cracked cheesecake.]
Cool in oven (with door open) for one hour. Refrigerate for several hours or overnight in pan. Remove from pan just before serving.
The verdict: Baking a cake is easy. Baking a cheesecake? Well… it’s also kind of easy, but doing it makes you feel a lot more accomplished than baking any old dessert. (Except maybe one shaped like a football.) Nonnie’s version is about as simple and unfussy as these things get; you could probably jazz it up with chocolate bits, or some kind of ganache topping, or fruit, or peanut butter, or espresso or… any number of things. But honestly, why bother? Successfully making a plain cheesecake feels like victory enough—or at least, it will until you get confident enough to try something a little fancier. (Maybe don’t try to take that one to the park.)