This is only the second cheesecake I’ve ever made, and the first one that’s vegan.
Give me a pie or a cake to tackle any day, and I’ll do it without hesitation. But cheesecakes have always intimidated me. I think it’s because their simplicity raises the stakes: With fewer components, there’s more pressure to get them exactly right. It’s somehow more annoying to have an almost-perfect cheesecake with a couple of tiny cracks than to have one that’s a total mess.
I’m also a perfectionist, a symptom of my generalized anxiety disorder that can sometimes ruin any enjoyment I get from baking. A hobby that usually relaxes and centers me will turn into a spiral of self-loathing if I’m not careful. I’ve gotten better about this, but I still have high standards for things I bake for other people. I used to worry what Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood would say about my bakes — now I mostly just want people to enjoy eating them. I still make notes on things to improve, but I don’t beat myself up over tiny mistakes. Progress!
I faced my fears a couple of years ago when I made my first cheesecake, also a lemon one, which came out of the oven mostly unscathed. When I decided to go vegan last year, cheesecakes were far from my mind. I was more worried about figuring out day-to-day meals than special occasion treats.
And then my coworker moved, and she gave me a mostly full bottle of limoncello from her liquor cabinet. I knew I wanted to bake with it, and I remembered that my girl Ina has a recipe for Limoncello Ricotta Cheesecake. Vegan-izing it seemed like a fun challenge, so I just decided to bake the damn cheesecake, not worrying about a perfect product.
Guess what? It’s amazing! It’s decadent and has a wonderful lemon flavor without being overly sweet or heavy. I think the swirls of curd really take it to the next level — I want to try it with raspberry curd soon. It doesn’t look perfect, and I got some cracks on the top, but nobody cared. Imperfections are just an excuse to call something “rustic” and get away with it. ;)
Vegan cheesecakes are often raw and frozen to set, but I knew I wanted to bake one for that classic texture and appearance. I also love a graham cracker crust, so I wanted high edges for a better crust-to-filling ratio. Some people like silken tofu in their vegan cheesecake, but I went with a combination of soaked raw cashews, coconut yogurt and coconut cream, plus cornstarch to help the filling thicken.
Some tips before I get to the recipe:
Invest in an oven thermometer. These are great for any baked goods, but they’re especially good for cheesecake. If a recipe says to bake for 45 minutes, an oven that runs hot could mean your cheesecake is done after 35-40 minutes. Don’t risk it! You should be able to find one at any store that sells cooking gear, including Target or Home Depot. You don’t need anything fancy; mine was less than $10.
Resist the temptation to check the cheesecake too early. Ovens release so much heat when they’re opened and can mess up the little science experiment you’ve got going on in there. Be patient.
A higher-powered food processor or blender will get the smoothest results. I have a $40 Hamilton Beach food processor, so my soaked cashews weren’t as smoothly blended as they could have been, but the filling still turned out great. As long as you don’t have grit in your filling, you’ll be fine.
Think about your crust. Do you like a thick layer of graham cracker at the bottom, with nothing on the sides? It’s easier to make, but it will raise the risk of the cheesecake’s edges sticking to the pan. I like to pat the graham cracker crumbs flat with the bottom of a measuring cup. After that, I push the sides up gradually with the edge of the cup. This filling will reach about halfway up an 9-inch springform pan.
If you can’t or don’t want to use limoncello, lemon juice works just fine.
Vegan Lemon Cheesecake with Limoncello Curd
8- or 9-inch springform pan
Food processor or blender
For the crust:
15 plain graham cracker sheets
2 tbsp. organic cane sugar
1 stick or 1/4 lb. vegan butter, melted (I used Earth Balance)
For the filling:
1 1/2 cups raw unsalted cashews (soaked in warm water and covered at least 4 hours, preferably overnight, then drained)
3/4 cup coconut cream (not coconut milk!)
1 cup vanilla non-dairy yogurt (I used coconut, but soy or almond milk would also work)
1/3 cup maple syrup
juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup limoncello
4 tbsp. cornstarch or arrowroot starch
1 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
For the curd:
1/2 cup organic cane sugar
2-3 tbsp corn starch
1/2 cup nondairy milk (I used cashew, but almond or soy is fine)
juice of 1 lemon
zest of 1 lemon
1/4 cup limoncello
1/8 tsp. turmeric (optional, for color)
Make the crust.
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease a springform pan with vegan butter or cooking spray.
2. Place graham crackers in food processor, blender or plastic bag and pulse, blend or smash into a fine crumb.
3. Mix crumbs, sugar and melted butter in a medium bowl. Pour into springform pan and press mixture evenly onto bottom, then carefully up the sides, making sure there are no gaps.
4. Bake for 8-10 minutes and set aside to cool. Keep the oven on.
Make the filling.
1. Reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees.
2. In a food processor or blender, add all ingredients: soaked cashews, coconut cream, coconut yogurt, maple syrup, lemon juice, limoncello, cornstarch, vanilla extract and sea salt. Blend until completely smooth, stopping occasionally to scrape down the sides. This will take a while, depending on the power of your machine.
3. Keep filling in food processor or blender while you make the curd.
Make the curd.
1. In a small saucepan, whisk sugar and 2 tbsp cornstarch. Add milk, lemon juice, limoncello, lemon zest and turmeric, again whisking to combine.
2. Set over medium medium-high heat and whisk frequently until the curd is thickened. When it starts to thicken, whisk constantly to make sure it’s completely smooth. Set aside to cool. (You’ll probably smell the alcohol burning off during this part — the final product is less boozy than it smells. You can adjust the lemon juice/limoncello ratios if you’re worried about this.)
Assemble and bake cheesecake.
1. Pulse filling one last time to ensure ingredients are smooth and combined. Pour into cooled crust, smoothing the top with a spatula. Add slightly cooled curd, swirling with a butter knife until it’s evenly distributed through filling.
2. Tap the pan on the table or counter to get rid of any air bubbles. You’ll probably have some crust pieces fall into the filling — this is fine!
3. Careful transfer to oven and bake at 325 degrees for 45 minutes. Check the cheesecake at this point — if the edges are set about 1 1/2 to 2 inches from the pan and the center jiggles just slightly, it’s done baking. If not, continue baking another 10-15 minutes.
4. Once the cheesecake is mostly set, turn off the oven and leave the pan inside. Keep your oven door open just slightly and let the cheesecake cool like this. Remove the pan from the oven after 45 minutes to an hour. Place in the refrigerator until completely cool, at least one hour more, but preferably longer for a better texture.
To store the cheesecake, tightly wrap and keep in the fridge for up to a week.