At Christmastime, there are cookies galore, but true dessert lovers still crave something more substantial after a festive meal. Pie can seem passé post-Thanksgiving, and while snowy Christmas Coconut Cake is a great option, it’s a little bit labor-intensive and is best made no more than three days ahead, if that. Homemade truffles are wonderful, but still seem a little snacky compared to a true dessert course. Cue cheesecake—it can be made up to half a year ahead and frozen in the interim (although you’d probably prefer not to plan quite that far in advance), and it’s eminently adaptable to holiday flavors, making it a perfect Christmas (or Hanukkah!) dessert.
Cheesecake is also, of course, delicious: sweet and tangy, rich and creamy, fluffy and smooth. There are lots of different styles to suit you, including super easy no-bake options. It’s perfect plain, but its simplicity can serve as a sort of blank canvas for your holiday decorating ideas, if you enjoy expressing your inner Martha Stewart. And no matter what kind you make, if you’re too full to eat more than a tiny sliver after dinner, cheesecake keeps like a champ in the fridge for about a week, assuming it lasts that long.
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First Things First: What Kind of Cheesecake Should You Make?
You’ve no doubt heard of New York style cheesecake, but maybe you’re not sure how it’s different from regular cheesecake. And what about no-bake? Or cotton cheesecake? Here are the most noteworthy types to choose from:
New York Style Cheesecake
Since it’s probably the most popular and beloved kind of cheesecake (at least by name), let’s start with New York cheesecake. We have an entire article devoted to it here, but in summary, New York cheesecake is ultra dense and rich, firm yet creamy, and relies on lots of cream cheese for tang and texture, bolstered by heavy cream, eggs, and sugar. Purists shun any added flavorings. Eastern European Jewish immigrants brought the dessert to America, so it’s no surprise that’s it’s sometimes also known as Jewish cheesecake, and often found in Jewish bakeries and delis. Some New York cheesecakes use sour cream instead of heavy cream, either incorporated into the filling or added in a distinct (lightly sweetened) layer on top. Recipes with sour cream incorporated tend to freeze and thaw better than those with heavy cream.
Lots of cheesecakes that purport to be “New York style” are not really; they’re lighter, fluffier, sweeter, and often flavored with all manner of different ingredients, from chocolate to fruit. Think The Cheesecake Factory and you get the idea. There’s nothing wrong with these at all, and they do have a lot in common with New York style: they’re both baked in spring-form pans, usually in a water bath, although a riskier method that yields puffier, more deeply browned edges involves starting in a 500 degree oven before dropping the temperature dramatically (because there’s no steam from a water bath and because not all ovens hold heat as long or as evenly as others, you might get cracks and fissures if you go this route). Both styles most often have a graham cracker or cookie crumb crust, though sometimes there’s a thin sponge cake base instead. But if you call any old cheesecake “New York” cheesecake, you’re playing fast and loose with culinary definitions, and potentially with hearts and stomachs too.
As the name implies, this kind of cheesecake doesn’t require any cooking, just mixing and chilling. It’s much more homogenous in texture, utterly smooth (as long as you allow your cream cheese to fully soften and properly bend it with the other ingredients, which you should always do, no matter what kind you’re making, unless you want tiny little cheese lumps in your filling); by contrast, baked cheesecakes tend to be creamier toward their centers and bottoms with firmer tops, and a drier, slightly puffy, almost grainy texture around the edges. Another difference is the lack of eggs in no-bake cheesecake, for obvious reasons. Their cream cheese filling is often stabilized with gelatin, but there are also versions that use condensed milk instead, or even whipped cream or sour cream, for a far softer and more delicate result. These don’t hold up at room temperature as long as baked cheesecakes, which is good to know if you plan to travel with one.
Ricotta (and Other Non-Cream Cheese) Cheesecake
Mascarpone yields a result quite similar to cream cheese cakes, but the more distinct Italian version uses ricotta (as did ancient Roman recipes for the dessert, which also included honey and often bay leaves). These cheesecakes are drier and a bit less creamy, even a little granular. When it comes to ricotta, there’s no mass-produced analogue to the bricks of Philadelphia cream cheese that are so ideal for “regular” cheesecakes; if you use fresh ricotta, the taste and texture of the dessert will be far better than if you use any store-bought brand—luckily, making homemade ricotta is relatively easy, and just need to plan a day ahead. There are numerous other variations on cheesecake that use similar soft, farmer’s style cheese, like German quark, and even cottage cheese. Portuguese queijadas are individual cupcake-sized tarts with deeply caramelized tops and a filling made of requeijão, a runny ricotta-type cheese.
Japanese “Cotton” Cheesecake
Japanese cheesecake isn’t called cotton-soft for nothing. It’s incredibly light and airy, like an edible cloud, thanks to lofty whipped egg whites folded into the batter. It has no crust. Sometimes known as soufflé cheesecake, “angel food cheesecake” would also be an accurate moniker.
Vegans and other non-dairy folks can still enjoy a delicious cheesecake-esque dessert, usually made from softened, soaked cashews blended with coconut milk. (I was deeply skeptical the first time I made “cheesecake” bars via this method for a party, and they ended up being my favorite dessert—the non-vegan dark chocolate ganache tarts were awesome, so that’s really saying something.) Sometimes these so-called cheesecakes are made with silken tofu instead. The addition of citrus can help evoke the tang of regular cheesecakes, but this style also takes well to other flavors.
If you want to throw your guests a curveball, you can serve a savory cheesecake, which makes a lovely first course during a sit-down dinner, or a great addition to a buffet or appetizer style party spread, sort of a more refined version of the beloved cheese ball. The one above is made in an Instant Pot, but you can bake savory cheesecakes in your oven too.
Now How Do You Make It More Festive?
No matter what kind of cheesecake you choose, there are lots of easy ways to make even a basic recipe a bit more glitzy and holiday-appropriate (although these mostly only apply to the sweet versions), or to change the flavor profile so it’s more wintry.
Finesse the Filling
Add seasonal flavor in the form of extracts; peppermint is the obvious choice to sub in for the usual vanilla extract. Straight-up eggnog makes another great wintertime addition to cheesecake. For very merry flavor and appearance, you could swirl a homemade cranberry sauce throughout the filling, or if you’re not averse to more texture, mix in crushed candy canes or even brandy-soaked fruit. Conversely, if you want a super-smooth and classically flavored cake with a bit more visual pop, divide the filling and mix a bit of red and green food coloring into two portions so you can make a tri-colored swirl effect, or make red velvet cheesecake.
Change Up the Crust
Swap out the usual graham cracker or vanilla wafer crumbs in the crust for crushed gingersnaps, Biscoff cookies, sugar cookies, Oreos, shortbread, or snickerdoodles. A peanut butter cookie crust would be great for a chocolate cheesecake. If you’re making no-bake cheesecake, you can opt for more delicate cookies like coconut macaroons or ladyfingers, which also happen to be good choices if you’re celebrating Hannukah and keeping kosher. Pulverized nuts like almonds, pecans, and pistachios make great crunchy bottom layers. For something chewier, try gingerbread or brownies.
Decorate for Christmas (or Hanukkah, or Winter in General)
This is where you can really get creative, whether you want to transform the entire cake or just add a little sophisticated touch of holiday flair. You can do something as low-key as placing a few artfully arranged holly sprigs on top (à la Christmas pudding), scattering some crushed pistachios and dried cranberries around the perimeter, or get way more elaborate.
Christmas sprinkles are an obvious and effective choice, whether you make a plain cheesecake or something a little…extra festive:
Garnishing with crushed candy canes is another classic move:
A spill of sparkling sugared cranberries is elegant:
Shredded coconut or grated white chocolate can stand in for fluffy drifts of snow:
While strawberries aren’t in season, they do make fetching Santa hats on cheesecake bites (or you can make a ring of strawberry Santas around a full-size cheesecake):
There are several different ways to make adorable edible Christmas trees to plant in your cheesecake. You can fashion them from candy melts, pretzel rods, and sprinkles…
…or green-tinted spun sugar…
…or even fresh rosemary and savory, which works for both sweet and savory cheesecakes! If you use it on a savory cake, of course, be sure to dust the trees with finely grated Parmesan instead of powdered sugar, but either way, it’s lovely and not necessarily Christmas-specific so much as charming winter forest:
If you really dig that natural look, you could also go with fully edible chocolate pinecones:
Christmas stencils make for an appealingly minimal seasonal look. You can use regular powdered sugar or cocoa to make designs, or if the flavors work well with your chosen cake, use green matcha powder, red freeze-dried fruit powders (raspberry, cherry, strawberry), or make your own tinted powdered sugar for neutral sweetness in any shade you desire:
A uniform shiny mirror glaze (red, green, or otherwise) covering the whole cake is impressive and not nearly as difficult as the end result suggests. For a similar stunning but surprisingly easy-to-achieve effect, you can make a glossy gelée layer, and stud it with candied citrus slices for extra oomph:
If you really want to decorate but all this is making you a wee bit antsy, you could just embrace the ugly Christmas sweater aesthetic and arrange all sorts of cookies and candy on top of your cheesecake, the brighter the better! Think rows of gumdrops and teddy bear graham crackers and candy canes and those red-and-white-striped Hershey kisses and…well, you get the idea:
Or totally change the shape of the cake itself: bake it in a Bundt pan and call it a wreath. You can even tint it with a little green food coloring or matcha powder if you’re so inclined:
That’s best suited to the Japanese cotton cheesecake style since they’re more likely to unmold without issues, but there are some recipes out there for creamier cheesecakes made in Bundt pans. You can also just make a standard spring-form cheesecake and decorate it to resemble a wreath. Cheesecake is all about options!
Cheesecake bars might require careful cutting if you want perfect squares—and if you do, it might seem obvious and/or too fastidious, but you can literally use a ruler to measure them out and lightly score where-to-cut marks with a small paring knife before breaking out the big blade (running said blade under hot water for a few seconds also helps with clean, even slices):
As for decorating them, just use icing, melted chocolate, or candy melts to pipe a couple lines (one horizontal, one vertical) and a little bow on each, and voila, they’re miniature gift boxes to present to your guests!
Individual cheesecakes are perfect for parties since no one has to cut a cake; people can just pick one up whenever they want to eat dessert. Plus, they evoke Christmas ornaments, especially when they’re brightly colored:
If you’re celebrating Hanukkah and aren’t up for frying dessert, you can still take inspiration from sufganiyot: make a New York style cheesecake with a donut crust and fruit jam topping. Or make a chocolate cheesecake, cover the entire thing with edible gold luster spray, and say it’s a giant piece of gelt!
Another entirely appropriate choice is to embrace the general excess that—for better or worse—accompanies the holiday season, and make the most decadent cheesecake you care to, like so:
Your options are honestly almost limitless. And whether you go all out or stick with something simple, cheesecake is always welcome on the table, all year round.