What Is Vanilla Cheesecake?

C. Mitchell

Vanilla cheesecake is a type of dessert, typically made as a pie or cake, that is composed primarily of soft cheese, egg, cream, and vanilla extract or flavoring. Most of the time, vanilla cheesecake is characterized by a sugary crust or base; a dense, sweet, and vanilla-flavored filling; and some sort of topping, usually fruit. Vanilla cheesecakes popular in the United States and Canada are usually made with cream cheese as a dominant ingredient. Specific ingredients vary by region, however, and also by cook. Variations are extremely popular, and the range of different vanilla cheesecakes can be extremely broad.

Vanilla beans can be used to flavor cheesecake.
Vanilla beans can be used to flavor cheesecake.

Cheesecakes have been around for quite awhile, likely since the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Of course, processes and recipes have changed dramatically since that time, but the concept has more or less remained consistent. Creamy, local cheeses are combined with fresh milk or sweet cream and poured into a crust or dough. More modern cheesecake recipes have added eggs, which typically requires baking, and often incorporate flavorings like vanilla. Vanilla desserts are popular around the world.

Eggs and cottage cheese are common ingredients in vanilla cheesecake.
Eggs and cottage cheese are common ingredients in vanilla cheesecake.

The specifics of what goes into a vanilla cheesecake is largely region-dependent. In Italy, for instance, the cakes are predominantly made with ricotta cheese. Other parts of western Europe, particularly France and Belgium, favor Neufch√Ętel cheese, while Polish and German recipes often call for sour-tasting quark cheese. Each culture typically has a recipe for cheesecake crust, as well, which is usually made of crumbled cookies or biscuits and spices like cinnamon and clove.

In the United States and Canada, vanilla cheesecake is typically made with cream cheese and sour cream. Some recipes, particularly those labeled as New York cheesecakes, are made with cottage cheese, as well. The most common cheesecake crust is made from crushed graham crackers and butter.

Before a cheesecake can be a specifically vanilla cheesecake, it must have vanilla flavoring. Vanilla extract is the most common vanilla flavoring agent and is usually added in teaspoons to the egg and cheese mixture before baking. Imitation vanilla extract is a lower-cost alternative to achieving a similar flavor. More gourmet cheesecake chefs often use actual vanilla beans, both for flavor and as garnish.

Cooks typically make vanilla cheesecake in one of two ways: as a cake or as a pie. When made as a pie, the crust is formed into a pie dish, and is usually pre-baked in order to keep its shape. Cake recipes usually call for crust to be flattened into the bottom of a springform pan.

If a vanilla cheesecake is made with eggs, as most are, it must be baked for a certain period of time. A proliferation of no-bake cheesecake recipes have emerged in recent years, promising busy cooks a way to make a quick and easy vanilla cheesecake that needs only a certain amount of time in the refrigerator to set. The taste of a no-bake cheesecake is often similar, but the baking adds a certain texture that is hard to replicate. For a vanilla cheesecake particularly, baking gives the flavors a chance to soak in and mature in a way that cannot always be achieved with refrigeration alone.

Basic vanilla cheesecake can be served on its own or with a simple garnish. Fruits, either fresh or in compote form, are popular accompaniments. Depending on the deepness of the vanilla flavor, a simple garnish of honey, sliced almonds, or a sprig of mint may best bring out the vanilla essences without overpowering or masking them.

In the United States and Canada a vanilla bean cheesecake is typically made with sour cream.
In the United States and Canada a vanilla bean cheesecake is typically made with sour cream.

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