Lemon Cheesecake Squares

The way I choose which recipes to try is by looking at the pictures. I am far more likely to make a recipe if there is an accompanying photo. It's the picture that draws me in and it is a benchmark of sorts for me. It gives me something to shoot for, something to compare my end product to. Maybe that's why I also like watching cooking shows. Besides seeing how the food looks, I get to see exactly how things come together. A good picture can really draw you in. Glance through a food magazine and look at the pictures for a bit. You can bet they are styled and spritzed and primped to make the dish look as tempting as possible… and it works.  I have purchased magazines without a second thought based on the cover photo alone. However, a photo will never tell you how the recipe actually tastes.  You could guess a picture of enchiladas will be spicy, or apple crisp will be have warm cinnamon and nutmeg flavors, but until you actually make the dish all you have to go by is the appearance. You could say the best thing about food is the way it looks.

This is where TV Chefs have a hard job, they have to create a dish that looks good enough to eat (so to speak). You need to see that finished product and decide for yourself if you want to make it. For me, the best part is when they taste the finished dish. The goal of the chef is to convince you that what you can only see, actually tastes good. The chef takes a bite, rolls their eyes back, and they say "wow... mmmm... yum". They'll continue on as they chew, proclaiming just how good everything is. Many times, they'll claim it's the best they have ever had! It’s especially great when the chef comments on individual components in the dish.  They'll proclaim: "wow you can really taste the vanilla, and the hint of lemon zest we added really shines!”  I don't doubt, in any way, that they can really taste all those things. When I taste the same dish however, though I might say the same things,  I am probably stretching the truth on how much I actually taste.

I recently made a cake that a TV chef had ooh'd and ahh'd over.  They cut a large piece of cake and placed it perfectly on the plate.  The camera moved in for a close up on the slice and the chef cut through it with a fork to prove how moist and tender it was.  The host then took a bite, looked directly into the camera and said it wasn't just good; it was “the best layer cake ever”. How could I not try to make that cake? I mean it looked fabulous! The recipe was actually pretty simple, nothing too extravagant, nothing quirky, and nothing to really mess up.  In the end my cake looked just like their cake, it had a good flavor, it had a nice texture, but overall, I was disappointed.  Don't misunderstand me; it was not a bad cake. It was decent; I liked it (there I said it). It just wasn't as good as the chef proclaimed.  I should not be surprised at their statements. It probably wouldn’t make for compelling television for them to taste the food and look into the camera and say, "meh, it's okay".

And let's be honest, we all have different tastes, different likes and dislikes.  What I think is great, might just be "okay" to someone else.  This is never more apparent then in the comments section after someone posts their recipe on the Internet.  A reader will say, "Well I don't like raisins so I subbed in dried cranberries, I will definitely make again" (That sounds all right to me).  Another commenter will say "in your potato salad, I didn't have any sour cream so I put in yogurt, and instead of cilantro, I used mint, and instead of potatoes I used turnips, I probably won't make this again" (Um, okay...).  Or how about the comments after a vegetarian dish that say, "I liked your cheese stuffed ravioli but I added some ground beef to mine and NOW it’s delicious".  Maybe it's just me, but that's no longer cheese ravioli, is it? Perhaps that "best ever" layer cake was the best the chef had ever had and perhaps it just wasn't my cup of tea. I know... I should leave a comment!  Fun fact here: I still filed the recipe in my favorite’s folder.  I couldn't just throw it out, could I?

A picture can inspire you to attempt a recipe. It might make you want to taste something new or bake something a little unusual. If our pictures made you want to try this recipe, I hope when you take your first bite your eyes roll back and you say “wow… mmmm… yum”.  I know I did. People say you taste with your eyes first and that's certainly true for me.  Right now my eyes are telling me to finish this post and grab a fork!

I found this recipe in Fine Cooking Magazine back in 2007 and I can't count the times that I have made them. And because I hate to mess with perfection the recipe I am giving you here has not been altered from the magazine, though I am passing on some tips in the instructions that have helped me. You can check out the Fine Cooking original here.

I like these because they are a perfect alternative when a whole cheesecake is just too much (is that even possible?).  They have a perfectly tart lemon curd resting on top of a silky smooth, creamy cheesecake filling. Very simple to make and there is no need for a water bath.  And I can sincerely say; you really can taste the lemon!

Like any cheesecake you’ll need to start the day before you want to eat them so they can set up in the refrigerator overnight. The wait is worth it.

You'll find my printer friendly recipe here to download or print.

Here is how I put them together:

What you’ll need equipment wise

To make these bright yellow squares of tarty goodness (!) you will need a food processor, some parchment paper, a fine mesh strainer, and an 8 x 8 straight sided square pan.  If you have a rasp style grater, an instant read thermometer, and an offset spatula, that would be great but you can manage without. 

Here is the full list of ingredients you’ll need. Have them at room temperature before you begin.

For the Cheesecake:

  • 9 graham crackers (about 5 oz.)

  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

  • 1 pound cream cheese, at room temperature, cut into approximately 1 inch cubes

  • ¾ cup granulated sugar

  • 1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest (from 1 or 2 lemons)

  • 3 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice (from 1 or 2 lemons)

  • 2 large eggs

For the Lemon Curd:

  • ½ cup fresh lemon juice (from 2 to 3 lemons)

  • ½ cup granulated sugar

  • 2 large eggs

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into about 8 pieces

Not too many things, right? 

Prep:

1. Start by preheating your oven to 325°F with the oven rack in the middle position.

2. We’ll prepare the pan next by making a sling by cutting two 8 x 15 inch pieces of parchment paper and placing them crisscrossed in an 8 x 8 square baking pan allowing the excess to hang over each side. These sheets will help you lift the entire cheesecake out of the pan at the end which is a great help, otherwise its very difficult.

3. Set the pan aside while you make the crust.

To Make the Crust:

1. The crust is a basic graham cracker crust, so I had no issues with making this part. Simply break up the graham crackers and process them in a food processor until they are finely ground. 

2. Now add the melted butter and process until the mix resembles damp sand, then pour the crumbs into the lined pan and press them firmly to form an even layer along the bottom. I use the bottom of a flat glass or one of my measuring cups to help pack it down.  Be sure to get all the way into the corners. You should end up with something like this picture.

Now we make the cheesecake:

1. Wipe out the food processor bowl so no crumbs remain, crumbs in the cheesecake = not so good. Still edible, just not as good.

2. In the cleaned bowl, drop in the cream cheese, sugar, lemon zest, and lemon juice and process for about 15 seconds. The mix may not be completely smooth at this point, and that's okay.

3. Scrape down the bowl, and process another 10 seconds. Now the mix should be relatively smooth, but if there is a lump or two don't sweat it, as we're going to mix it some more in the next step.

4. Add eggs and process 15 - 20 seconds, until the mix is perfectly smooth, scraping the bowl down as needed. I have found that as soon as the mix is nice and smooth, Stop! The more it's mixed, the higher the cheesecake will rise on the sides of the pan when cooked. It's not too much of an issue but spreading the lemon curd into an even layer gets a bit more tricky.

5. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake until the sides are slightly puffed and the center is dry to the touch. which takes about 35 - 40 minutes.

When the cheesecake is a little more than halfway done (about 25  minutes in…) prepare the lemon curd.

1. Set a fine mesh strainer over a medium sized bowl.

2. In a nonreactive saucepan, whisk the lemon juice, sugar, and eggs until thoroughly combined and most of the sugar has dissolved.

3. Cook over a medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon or heatproof spatula, until the curd registers 175°F on an instant read thermometer (the curd will be thickened and steaming at this point). Take care not to let the curd boil. This can take between 3 and 7 minutes, just watch it carefully as you cook and stir.

4. Remove the curd from the heat and add the butter, stirring until the butter has completely melted. 

5. Now pour the curd through the strainer to get rid of any lumps and bits of egg white and set aside. It will pour best if it is still warm when added to the cheesecake.

Finishing Up:

1. When the cheesecake comes out of the oven. Allow it to rest 5 minutes (this lets the sides deflate and settle so the top is a little more even) then pour the curd onto the cheesecake and spread it evenly over the top with an offset spatula.

2. Set the whole thing on a wire rack letting it cool to room temperature and then refrigerate overnight.  I didn't believe it when I read it but it is true, there is no need to press plastic wrap on top of the lemon curd, as it will not form a skin.

To Serve:

1. After the cheesecake is completely chilled carefully lift it out of the pan using the parchment paper sling. 

2. Slide the parchment out from the bottom and cut the cheesecake into 16 squares (that's one square for your friends to share, and 15 for you!). 

Tip:  Wipe your knife between cuts with a damp paper towel for cleaner cuts.

Comment below if you try these, or just want to say hi (or anything else), either way I would love to hear from you.