My Favorite Cheesecake

In the spirit of busting through more deep, life-altering questions (such as "Is a brownie made without melted chocolate really a brownie?" and "Are baked doughnuts really doughnuts?"), I bring you two more doozies. First, is a cheesecake without a graham cracker crust actually a cheesecake? And second, will you all brutally force me into solitary confinement to a terrifying windowless cell festooned with Sandra Lee-designed tablescapes if I tell you that my very favorite cheesecake is not only crustless, but contains Bisquick?

Well, dear readers, I have answers to these new questions. To the first I say unto you, abso-flippin'-lutely, it is EVER a cheesecake!, and about the Bisquick, don't hate--participate!

Like I recently said about my beloved homemade marshmallows, I sort of can't believe I've never told you about this cheesecake before. This cheesecake has been with me for my entire life. As in, it is my earliest memory of dessert. So since babyhood, this cheesecake and I have known each other. And while others may track their personal timelines in terms of annual family vacations or grades in school, I tend to remember flavors of birthday cakes and what kind of cookies I made for Christmas in a given year. This cheesecake is my Book of Genesis, people. I am very serious about this cheesecake.

It is also an important recipe because it is one of the very few things my mother ever baked. Which is not to say that my mother is no longer with us--she is very much still with us and I have to fight her off with a stick ever since giving birth to her first grandchild. My mom is an excellent cook, the intuitive type that rarely cooks with recipes, and can make a meal out of any random combination of items that you may have in your pantry right this minute. But my mom has never been much of a baker--it's just not her thing. However, there are two things that I remember her baking when I was little, and one of them was this cheesecake.

Back in the late 70s/early 80s, General Mills released a gloriously kitschy slew of sweet and savory pie recipes called "Impossible Pies" that were all the rage. And my mom, being on the cutting edge of all things trendy, like Jazzercising, shoulder pads and hair perming, fully embraced the Impossible Pie. The basic idea was that a master list of ingredients (including milk and Bisquick) plus a few various additions could all be thrown into a blender and poured into a bare baking dish, and during baking a sort of thin "crust" would magically form on the top, bottom and sides of the pie, no pre-formed crust required. Impossible, you say? Exactly. Except it's true! Magic!

My mom confirms her famous cheesecake recipe is a riff on Bisquick's "Impossible Cheesecake", but she eliminated the milk and cut down significantly on the Bisquick, which really makes the cream cheese the star, and added a punch of lemon that truly makes the whole thing shine. She also always used an electric hand mixer instead of a blender, which incorporates a bit more air into the batter. The whole thing takes less than 10 minutes to get into the oven. No fussy water bath or springform pannery involved. It's a beautiful thing.

Even if you are a die-hard cheesecake fanatic who scoffs at anything without a graham cracker crust being called a cheesecake, I don't think you can deny that this particular cheesecake is absolutely delicious--tangy, creamy, not too sweet, a perfect balance of richness and light. The killer is the slick of sour cream topping. Oh mah gah. It's a two-slicer situation. Get excited.

Mom's Cheesecake

Use Philadelphia brand cream cheese, for this recipe and all other recipes calling for cream cheese. It's actually the standard brand that most recipes use in testing because it's the creamiest and has the least water content of any brand out there. Spend the extra buck for the good stuff--it absolutely makes a difference. And yes, you can use light cream cheese and light sour cream and it will still be completely edible, but don't do fat-free anything, please, I beg of you.

Serves 8-10

For the cake:

2 8-ounce packages Philadelphia cream cheese, at room temperature
2 eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 tablespoon plus one teaspoon fresh lemon juice
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup Bisquick baking mix

For the sour cream topping:

8 ounces sour cream
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Position a rack to the center of the oven and preheat it to 350 degrees. Spray a 9-inch ceramic or glass pie plate with nonstick cooking spray.

In a large bowl, place the cream cheese, eggs, vanilla, lemon juice, sugar and Bisquick. Start mixing on low speed with an electric mixer until everything is incorporated, then raise the speed to medium-high and beat for 3 minutes, scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl as necessary. Pour into the prepared baking dish and bake until the cheesecake is slightly puffed and golden brown on top and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 45-50 minutes. Set on a wire rack to cool for 20 minutes (it will deflate a bit during this time).

Meanwhile, make the topping: stir together the sour cream, sugar and vanilla until well-blended. Pour over the warm cheesecake and smooth with a small spatula. Refrigerate until chilled and set, at least 2 hours, before serving. Cover any leftovers tightly with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.

CakeShauna Sever