A Cook's Diary

What Makes a Cake a Cheesecake?

You come across a question like “What makes a cake a cheesecake?” and you automatically form your answer based on all the cheesecakes you have eaten in your entire life. For most of us, that means a sweet dish made with a thin bottom layer of crust topped with a creamy custard-like “cake” that does not even remotely resemble a bread-y cake.

Is cheesecake even a cake? Some say it is a pie but that is plausible only if the cheesecake’s side is enfolded in crust too. Some argue that the sheer amount of eggs in a cheesecake essentially makes it a torte.

If we go by the definition of the ancient Greeks (yes, that is how old the cheesecake is), cheesecake is a cake. If we consider the modern variations of cheesecake (think red velvet cheesecake), then, it is even easier to resist any argument that the cheesecake is not a cake at all.

So, what is a cheesecake?

It is a layered cake with the dominant layer consisting of a thick and dense custard-like sheet made with eggs, sugar, cream and cheese. A cheesecake may be baked or unbaked or have some baked layers combined with unbaked layers. Probably the only exceptions to this definition are the Japanese cheesecake and the Swedish ostkaka.

If we go by the products of The Cheesecake Factory, then, we come up with a definition of a cheesecake? Partly. The Cheesecake Factory’s products are New York-style cheesecakes. There are cheesecakes that don’t look like nor taste like New York-style cheesecakes that have a much longer history.

Is cream cheese essential in baking a cheesecake?

No, it is not. Most modern cheesecakes (especially in United States and Canada) are made with cream cheese. German cheesecakes are made with quark; mascarpone and ricotta are used in Italian cheesecakes; unbaked French cheesecakes have Neufchâtel cheese and the Greeks use Mizithra. And those are only a few examples.

Do all cheesecakes have a crushed Graham cracker crust?

No. Some cheesecakes don’t even have a crust. For those that do, crushed Graham crackers mixed with melted better and sugar pressed into the bottom of the pan may be the most common crust used for baking cheesecakes but it is by no means the only choice.

Personally, Graham cracker crust is the cheesecake crust I like the least. I prefer a shortbread crust. I use a basic shortbread recipe and, depending on the flavor of the cheesecake, I add other ingredients to the shortbread to make the flavors blend nicely. Nuts, chocolate morsels, desiccated coconut and grated lemon zest are some of these additional ingredients that I have used.

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