First rule of cheesecake: don't talk about cheesecake. I'm not kidding on this one. If anyone living near you finds out you know how to make it, you're screwed. You may get invited to more parties, but that's because they expect you to bring a cheesecake. Church functions will be no different. If the church ladies find out your little secret, expect a call from them any time something comes up. There is only one strategy: tell people you bought it from the store. If they ask which one, make up one just outside of driving distance, and if they try to get there anyway and can't find it, tell them that they must have closed. Do not take credit. Are we clear on this?
Okay, now that that's out of the way, here's the scoop: cheesecake is actually pretty easy. The basic ingredient list is small, and so long as you get the prep method down, you can bake almost any cheesecake that your little heart desires. There's only one problem: it isn't a quick process. You're not going to be just whipping one up for dinner that night. It must be done at least a day in advance.
I'm not going to talk about crust in this post; just filling. You can buy premade crusts for now. The basic ingredient list is as follows: 8 oz cream cheese, 1/4 cup sugar, 1 whole chicken egg. That's it! Well, okay, that's just the foundation, designed for scalability. I use a 9-inch spring-form cake pan when I make cheesecake. For this size pan, you can use 32 to 40 oz of cream cheese, which is about 4 to 5 packages. And you don't have to use just cream cheese. Feel free to swap out one of those packages with an equal weight of a creamy bleu cheese (only recommended for savory cheesecakes) or swap out any or all of it for neufchatel, or some other kind of fresh cheese. Your milage may vary when getting truly experimental, but the closer to stick to the basic cream cheese, the more accurate you'll probably be.
Now, this is all about ratios. You need to keep in mind how much sugar, fat, liquid and protein you're playing with. In playing with your ratios, I recommend changing only the ratio of sugar to everything else and/or eggs to everything else. I've seen recipes that get away with using only 2 tablespoons of sugar for every 8 oz of cream cheese, and as much as a 1/3 to 1/2 cup. Just keep in mind the sweetness level that you want to achieve. I'm not sure I've ever seen sugar in a savory cheesecake recipe, so I don't think it's even a "required" ingredient for stability, but you will generally want some at least for flavor.
Last basic ingredient: eggs. Without these, you're going to have a hard time acheiving the sort of structure you need for cheesecake. Technically, you're making a custard, which requires eggs. Eggs will set up a protein matrix which will set as a bakes, and further as it cools. They will add some moisture and some fat as well. The more eggs you add, the more liquid your cheesecake batter will be. This is important to keep in mind.
Okay, let's say you're making a classic New York Style Cheesecake. You'll want 32 oz cream cheese, 1 cup sugar, 5 to 6 eggs and 2 teaspoons vanilla extract. Why more eggs? As it turns out, the bigger the recipe, the more you can fine-tune it. Because there is more liquid in this batter, the surface will have more of a chance to flatten out, and the resulting cheesecake will have a much more custardy texture, so long as it is not overcooked. The vanilla is there in this cheesecake as a seasoning, not a flavoring. It will add some moisture, but not much. You could leave it out, but I don't think you'd be as happy.
Procedure: beat the cream cheese and the sugar together until it's nice and fluffy. The softer the cream cheese, the easier it is. Almost room tempurature is ideal. Make sure you scrape down the bowl and the mixer at least a couple of times to make sure it all gets thoroughly mixed and integrated. This is key, if you don't want chunky cheesecake. When it's nice and fluffy, add your eggs one at a time and keep mixing, waiting until there are no traces of eggs before adding the next. You will want to stop the mixer and scrape (bowl and mixer) at least once every one to two eggs. Did I mention scraping is key? Add the vanilla last. Pour into a prepared pan and move to a 260F oven. No water bath required! Okay, if you really want a water bath, just make sure to crank the oven up to 300-350F in order to compensate for the water. Now, the baking process usually takes about an hour. But don't go by time! You'll need to see how wobbly it is. Put on some oven mitts and give the pan a shake. If it looks almost set but not quite, you're ready for the next step. Turn off the oven, leave the door open a crack for one minute, and then close the door and leave it in the oven for no less than an hour. Then move to the chill chest for no less than 6 hours (overnight is ideal) before serving. You can refrigerate for up to a week, and probably freeze for up to a month, if it lasts that long.
Now, there's other tips and tricks out there. You may be saying, "but I always add cornstarch" or maybe, "isn't there supposed to be cream in there?" Those of you who are familiar with Alton Brown's recipe will probably recognize a few steps, and wonder what happened to others. I've never actually made his recipe. But I did make several dozen cheesecakes at Deer Valley, and that's where I get a lot of my technique. My recipes come from comparing several recipes, both online and off, and making up a composite recipe that's largely an average of everything else. Cornstarch isn't a bad idea. It will add stability, much the same way it does in a slurry. Flour will also add stability, but I've found it to be kind of a pain in cheesecakes. If I'm nervous about a recipe, I often add tapioca starch, which makes a darn fine replacement for corn starch almost anywhere. Cream isn't a bad idea, seeing as we are making a custard, and custards usually include some amount of cream. Note that Alton uses fewer eggs than I do, in favor of a small amont of cream. As for AB's sour cream? Take note how much less cream cheese he uses.
I love baking cheesecake, even more than I love eating it. And no, don't ask me to make you any, I don't have that kind of time these days. But what I love about it is that it can be a serious food hack. So long as you keep your ratios in check, the possibilities are almost limitless. After you've screwed up and told your friends, and subsequently made a few cheesecakes, you'll get a feel for them. More cheesecake recipes to come.