I tried really hard to come up with a clever title for this post. I know there's one out there, but I just can't seem to conjure it this evening. I was going for something like "Look Ma, No Pans," but that, as they would say in West Virginia, "just ain't right."
At any rate, the point I am trying to make is that you don't need a springform or removable bottom pan to make a good cheesecake. I think one reason people don't often make cheesecake at home is because they feel they lack the proper equipment. Truth is, I gave away all my springform pans because I found that for most applications they didn't do what I needed - they leaked, or stuff would stick to the sides, or they were too tall or too shallow. So, in a (mostly vain) effort to shed excess kitchen equipment, I got rid of them about two years ago and I haven't missed them a bit.
So, what type of pan do I use to make cheesecake, you might ask? I use a plain, straight-sided cake pan. To make sure you know I'm not cheating, here's a shot of the empty pan:
It's a Chicago Metallic cake pan, I think. I bought it at Homegoods for $6.99 if I recall correctly. You could use any type of cake pan, even those with the sloped sides, since you won't be stacking them to frost (although that's an idea...) I've lined the pan with parchment, and that is a necessity. You can use waxed paper or even buttered foil if you don't have parchment. (BTW - isn't that the ugliest tile you have ever seen? There ought to be a SuperFund-type deal for people who buy houses that were "remodeled" in the 70s, so they can remediate these decorating disaster sites.)
I use a water bath to bake my cheesecake since it helps to prevent cracks from forming because it bakes more evenly across the entire diameter of the cake. It's rather like using the Magi-Cake strips for baking regular cakes, and at one point I used those with a springform pan on cheesecakes. However, a water bath allows for more even baking than the strips. I've even thought about using a water bath for regular cakes, but wonder how the extra moisture in the oven would affect the rise of the cake. (Boy, that sounds like an experiment, doesn't it?)
Another way to avoid cracks is to not over-bake the cheesecake, which is the most common problem. The center couple of inches should still wiggle just a bit when you remove it from the oven. For those of you with instead-read thermometers, the temperature should be about 145-155 degrees Fahrenheit.
Cook's Illustrated and others direct you to use a springform pan in a water bath, wrapping the pan in heavy duty aluminum foil to avoid water leaking through the springform, which doesn't form a water-tight seal. I tried this on several occasions, but it leaked EVERY TIME. Maybe I just wasn't doing the right voodoo dance first, but I swear I followed the directions exactly (for once). Then I read how many pros just use regular cake pans and I've used them ever since I tried the technique.
Observant readers will note that there isn't a crust on the cheesecake in the photo at the top of this post. (They'll also notice that I can't hold the camera still because the photo is more than a tad blurry.) The simple answer to the obvious question is that I was out of graham cracker crumbs, graham crackers and even cookies (the horror!), so I eschewed the crust. No matter how good it is the first day anyway, it gets soggy by the second, so I'm not disappointed if it isn't there. I threw some nuts on the side to add a bit of texture, and no one who ate it seemed to mind the missing crust. Or at least they didn't tell me.
Of course, you CAN use a regular cheesecake crust with this method, no changes necessary. Just prebake the crust like you normally would, throw the filling on top, and then use the water bath. Nothing else about the following method changes.
Here's the baked cheesecake, still in the pan:
Doesn't the surface of the cake look like the surface of the moon with all those craters? They are more pronounced in this photo than in real life, I can assure you. It's because of the low angle of the sun this time of year. That photo wasn't even take very late in the afternoon! I sure won't be disappointed when Spring rolls around. Is it here yet? Nope? How about now? Oh, well.
Now comes the fun part: unmolding the cheesecake. First, it needs to be covered with plastic wrap and well chilled. Then, take it out of the fridge (or around here, in from the porch, which is actually colder than the fridge), and get out a flat pan on which to unmold it. Run a thin plastic spatula around the edges of the cake to loosen it, then replace the plastic wrap and turn the cheesecake over onto the flat pan, like so:
You need to warm the bottom of the pan so that the cheesecake will release (actually the parchment is letting go). You can use hot, wet kitchen towels rubbed onto the bottom of the pan, or my favorite:
A tiny kitchen torch ;) After about 30-45 seconds of warming, you should hear the "splooch" of the cheesecake releasing from the pan. It may take longer if you are using warm towels. Once you hear the splooch, carefully lift the pan off the cake:
Peel off the parchment and reinvert onto a serving platter:
Decorate as desired. Remember, you can use your favorite crumb crust and it will still unmold just fine. You can use this method with any cheesecake recipe. This was a vanilla bean cheesecake, and it turned out right tasty, although a little on the short side - I should have used an 8-inch pan instead of a 9-inch. Oh, well, there's always next time - I need to try a chocolate malt cheesecake recipe I found the other day - if I can find it again!!