There was a brief phase—sometime in middle school—when it was extremely cool to go to the Cheesecake Factory. If you had parents who took you and your friends there for dinner, you had real currency. Everyone wanted to have sleepovers with the girls whose houses held Cheesecake Factory potential. (If you’ve read this site at all, you’ll likely guess that my household was very much not a Cheesecake Factory household. In fact, we didn’t even have fun breakfast cereal, like Cinnamon Toast Crunch—our pantry housed the wholesome trio of Shredded Wheat and Cheerios and Grape-Nuts. The injustice of it all still stings! It’s only in my wise old age that I appreciate deeply having been raised on good, nourishing, homemade food by an exceptional cook and baker. Hi mom!)
But I digress. Back to the cheesecake. The best part, and main event, of those coveted dinners out was obviously the dessert: cheesecake. (The Cheesecake Factory in Baltimore sits right on the Inner Harbor and is usually packed with tourists, all ready to shell out a whopping $30 for mediocre pasta.) When the dessert menu would arrive, my eyes would widen and I’d feel an anticipatory sugar rush before even ordering. These slices of cheesecake—which were offered in a dizzying array of novelty flavors like peanut butter fudge and Oreo supreme and toasted marshmallow s’mores—were massive. One piece could easily feed four people. I’d go for the Oreo, and you can imagine what that was like: dense and almost rubbery with cream cheese and so sugary sweet your teeth would hurt.
More than once, I overdid it on the cheesecake, groaning with discomfort and—on one notable occasion—having to actually unbutton the top button of my jeans on the drive home. (I’m not proud of this, but mostly because I now recognize the rookie mistake of not wearing sweatpants to begin with on that sort of outing.)
Because of this, I pretty much avoided cheesecake for years. I’ve had a bite here and there, but it never appeals to me. Too often, it’s one note in flavor (usually too sweet) and gummy in texture.
Thus, I was confused and mildly intrigued when I first encountered cheesecake at Japanese bakeries in New York City. This can't be cheesecake! I thought. A far cry from the dense slabs of my Cheesecake Factory past, Japanese cheesecake is like a cross between a soufflé and a cheesecake. It manages to be both creamy and airy at the same time. The texture is almost mousse-like, which you achieve by beating egg whites to stiff peaks and folding them into the batter.
There are a few different ways to make it, and if you do a quick search online (for Japanese cheesecake or cotton cheesecake, as it’s sometimes called), you’ll find plenty. Most of them are relatively similar but they differ in a few key ways: some call for cake flour and some for all-purpose flour plus cornstarch. Some call for lemon juice and some don’t. Most are baked in a bain marie, just like a typical cheesecake, but some are steamed.
Luckily for YOU, I have quickly become a little bit obsessed with the whole situation, and have tested the major variations. Here’s what I’ve found:
-Steaming is a neat technique to use, and requires less effort and fuss than baking, but it yields a less fluffy and slightly wetter cake. Caveat: I steamed my cake in the Instant Pot—which was SO FUN despite not yielding top marks compared to my other cakes. I’d highly recommend this method if you want a hands-off approach. You add your batter to a parchment-lined cake pan, place it on top of the metal trivet included with your Instant Pot, add 1 1/2 cups of water, and set the timer for manual, 17 minutes, high pressure. You let the pressure naturally release, then remove the cake. Mine had a lot of moisture, so I dried it out in a low oven (300 degrees F) for about 10 minutes.
-Keeping your egg whites very cold is extremely crucial. Once you beat your egg whites with sugar into a stiff meringue, you’ll fold them very gently into your batter. The colder your meringue, the fluffier the batter remains, which will give you the airiest, most delicate texture in your cheesecake.
-I liked adding a little lemon juice—I find it brightens up the sweetness without adding a discernible lemon flavor. Japanese cheesecake is typically always made plain, or with a thin layer of apricot jam, but I’m quite curious to try it with a little flavoring. Lime zest, perhaps, or some raspberry powder folded into the batter?
-You don’t need to bake yours on a sponge cake base, but I really liked the way it looked and tasted. It’s definitely extra work so go ahead and skip that part if you prefer.
-Don’t bother sifting the flour. Lots of recipes tell you to, but I didn’t have any issue with lumps in my batter, so I don’t think it’s worth the trouble.
-I did come across one very different recipe which uses only three ingredients: white chocolate, eggs, and cream cheese. I tried this one too, and miraculously it does yield a fluffy and delicious cheesecake! It’s not on the same level—texture- and flavor-wise—as the O.G. cheesecake recipe I’m included below, but if you want something simpler, I’d highly recommend it. If you’re interested in trying it, let me know in the comments and I can post the recipe here.
-This recipe is all done by weights. SORRY GUYS. But if you haven’t invested in a digital scale (and by invested, I mean just bought one because they aren’t expensive! I recommend this Escali one or this OXO one), you really should. With this sort of baking, precision really matters and without a digital scale, you’re likely to not get reliable results. Also, using a scale is so much faster and easier!
Makes one 9” cake
For the Sponge Cake Base
4 eggs, separated
100g granulated sugar, divided
100g all-purpose flour
50g unsalted butter, melted
For the Cheesecake
6 eggs, separated
300g cream cheese
60g (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter
200g heavy whipping cream
160g granulated sugar, divided
80g all-purpose flour
juice of 1 lemon
To make the sponge base: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
In a large bowl, vigorously whisk together the yolks and 20 grams of the sugar until pale in color.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, whip the egg whites for about 2 minutes, until foamy-looking. With the mixer running, slowly stream in the remaining 80 grams of sugar and continue to whip until the whites are glossy and form stiff peaks.
Gently fold the egg whites into the yolk mixture, then fold in the flour.
Gently stir in the melted butter and pour the cake batter into a greased and parchment-lined 9” round cake pan. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until lightly golden brown. Remove from the oven and let cool entirely. Once cool, slice a 1/2 horizontal layer of sponge cake (you only need to slice it if you wanted a thinner base, which I like).
Line a 9” springform cake pan with parchment—you want to line the base with parchment and then line the sides with a parchment “collar” so the parchment rises at least 3” above the pan. Place the sponge cake layer in the base of the pan.
To make the cheesecake, place the butter, cream cheese, cream, and 60 grams of the sugar in a double boiler over simmering water. Cook, whisking as you go, until the butter and cream cheese melt. Remove from the heat and whisk until smooth.
Whisk in the egg yolks, one at a time, whisking to mix thoroughly between each one. Whisk in the flour, cornstarch, and lemon juice. Set aside while you make the meringue.
Place the egg whites in a clean bowl of a stand mixer. Whip for 2 minutes, until foamy. With the mixer running, slowly stream in the remaining sugar, then beat on medium-high speed until stiff, glossy peaks form.
Spoon 1/3 of the egg white mixture into the rest of the batter and fold gently to incorporate. Add the next third of the egg whites, fold carefully, then add the remaining third and fold it all together gently until the batter is evenly mixed.
Scrape the batter into your prepared pan lined with the sponge base.
Place a rimmed baking sheet (it needs to have at least a 2” lip) in the oven. Open the oven door and carefully pour water onto the baking sheet so there’s a least a 1” layer of water in the pan.
Very carefully place the cake pan in the center of water-filled baking sheet.
Shut the oven door, reduce the oven heat to 320 degrees F, and bake for 70 to 75 minutes. The top should be golden and the cake should puff considerably. At this point, reduce the oven heat to 300 degrees F and bake for another 10 minutes, then turn the oven off and open the door slightly. Let the cake sit in the oven for about 15 minutes while the oven cools. This helps the cake to cool down slowly so it won’t shrink quite as much, which can happen if it’s exposed to rapid changes in temperature.
Remove the cake from the oven and let it cool. It’s best if you let it cool fully at room temperature, then refrigerate it overnight. But it’s hard to wait that long so GO AHEAD and slice into it if you want!