Give that cheesecake a warm bath
Baking with a water-bath technique may bring to mind a delicate egg custard, a soufflé,; cheesecake, pate or terrine. However, the technique is quite versatile: It can also be used to keep cooked foods warm without continuing to cook them, and for melting ingredients such as chocolate without burning.
The French call this cooking technique "au bain marie." The name bain marie originated in the 14th century, when it denoted a utensil first used in alchemy.
Of course, the name also referred to the Virgin Mary, a symbol of gentleness -- because the term implies a gentle method of cooking.
Water-bath baking consists of placing a container (for example, a pan, bowl or soufflé; dish) of food in a large, shallow pan of warm water. The water surrounds and protects delicate foods during cooking by maintaining an even, low-moisture heat. Foods may be cooked in a water bath either in an oven or on a range top.
The water bath's even heat at a constant temperature allows even baking, and also prevents crust formation and rapid expansion which can lead to cracking of surfaces.
This technique is ideal for cooking delicate dishes, including custards, sauces and savory mousses. It keeps items such as a caramel custard from overheating and guarantees a smooth texture.
"When I am confronted with an unfamiliar or uncooperative oven, I rely on the forgiving heat of a water bath to enhance and protect the subtle textures and rich flavors of my finest custards, soufflés,; cheesecakes and flourless chocolate cakes," says chef George Higgins, lecturing instructor at the Culinary Institute of America.
To bake with a hot water bath, choose a pan with sides at least as high as the sides of the mold. Set molds in the pan as they are filled, leaving about 1 inch around each mold so hot water can circulate.
When the molds are in the pan, take the pan to the oven and rest it securely on a deck or rack. Add enough boiling water to the pan to come up to about two-thirds of the mold's height. Avoid splashing or pouring water into the molds.
The following recipes use the water-bath baking technique. Cheesecake is not often thought of as a custard, but should be treated in the same fashion during the baking process to achieve a similar consistency.
Graham cracker crust (recipe follows)
Melted unsalted butter for the pan
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/3 cup cornstarch
1 1/2 pounds cream cheese
5 large eggs
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
5 fluid ounces heavy cream ( 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons)
Preheat oven to 350 F. Coat a 10-inch pan with a light film of softened butter and line with parchment paper. Press graham cracker crust into an even layer. Bake at 350 F for about 7 minutes, or until light golden brown. Sift together sugar and cornstarch.
Cream together sugar mixture and cream cheese using an electric mixer with a paddle attachment on medium speed until smooth. Combine eggs, egg yolks, vanilla and lemon zest and add one-fourth of mixture at a time, fully incorporating and scraping down sides of the bowl after each addition.
Add heavy cream, scraping down sides of the bowl as necessary. Pour batter into pan. Bake in a water bath in a 300 F oven until center is set, 60 to 90 minutes. Refrigerate cakes overnight. Unmold and serve. Makes 12 servings.
Variation: To make a marble cheesecake, prepare batter and fill pan as directed above, reserving 1/2 cup of batter. Add 2 ounces melted chocolate to reserved batter. Pipe chocolate batter into cake and swirl in.
Graham cracker crust
8 ounces graham crackers
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter, melted
Process graham crackers and sugar in a food processor until crackers are finely ground. Add melted butter and pulse until just incorporated. Makes crust for one 10-inch cake.
Nutritional information per serving (1 slice): 550 cal., 9 g pro., 50 g carbo., 36 g fat, 190 mg chol., 400 mg sodium.