The earliest historical reference to cheesecake involves an ancient Greek physician, Aegimus, who wrote a book on the art of making the luscious dessert of cream cheese, sugar and eggs. That Dr. Aegimus also was the first to write a treatise on the pulse is, we're sure, mere coincidence.

Cheesecake gets a bad rap when it comes to dessert, a reputation fueled partly by the veritable cornerstones served by some restaurants, further troweled with rich sauces, fruit compotes, or chopped-up candy bars.

Diners who are incautious (or freshly jilted) could finish a full meal, only to polish off another thousand calories without missing a beat.

But cheesecake, enjoyed in moderation, is a great gustatory pleasure. Better yet, it requires no tricky techniques, or even gear, although an electric mixer and springform pan (a high-sided round pan with a removable bottom) makes serving easier.

First, though, a definition of terms: There are several styles of cheesecake, most made with cream cheese. New York style traditionally incorporates heavy cream into the cream cheese. Italian cheesecakes use ricotta cheese, while Germans use a variety of cheese called quark.

Chicago-style cheesecake is baked to be firm on the outside and creamy inside. The lighter Pennsylvania Dutch tradition uses a cheese that's more like cottage cheese. (There's even a recipe floating around that starts with a box of white cake mix.)

Crusts are all over the place, as well, running the gamut of crushed graham crackers, shortbread cookies, chocolate wafers, gingersnaps, or nothing at all.

For our purposes, sour-cream-style cheesecake with graham cracker crust is the best of these several worlds. Sour cream replaces New York's heavy cream, which also gives this cake the advantage of freezing well without loss of texture.

Basic steps for cooks

When making cheesecake, heed two key concepts:

Start with room-temperature cream cheese and beat it at the slowest speed possible. The goal is to beat all the lumps out of the cheese without incorporating a lot of air into the mixture. Once you begin adding eggs, any lumps will be almost impossible to eliminate. And, unlike with a "cake" cake, where beating at high speed creates thousands of air bubbles for a tender texture, cheesecake batter shouldn't be airy. The problem is that once in the oven, it will rise like a soufflé, only to fall and crack as it cools.

Now, cracks are not the end of the world (and probably were the inspiration for the sour cream topping favored by some recipes). But to help prevent this, employ the other key concept:

Bake the cheesecake in a water bath. This is nowhere near as fussy as it sounds. Simply place the filled springform pan in the center of an X of two sheets of aluminum foil, bringing the foil up the sides to keep any water from seeping into the pan's seam. Place the pan in the middle of a 9- by 13-inch pan or a broiler pan -- anything that will enable you to then pour hot water to a depth of an inch or so around the springform pan.

Place the pan in the oven, then carefully pour the hot water into the larger pan. The additional moisture helps the batter bake slowly and evenly, lessening the chance of cracks forming.

Bake until the center looks glossy, but still a little wobbly. This will take at least an hour, and up to 75 minutes. It will firm as it cools. Let a cheesecake cool completely before refrigerating and, ideally, let it chill overnight before serving.

Here's a slicing tip: Hold taut a length of dental floss and gently pull it down through the cheesecake. You'll still need a knife to cut through the crust, but the floss makes that initial cut more cleanly.

This cheesecake also freezes well. Cool completely, then remove the sides of the springform pan. Wrap in several layers of plastic wrap, then in a final layer of aluminum foil. Defrost overnight in the refrigerator. This is best used within a month.

Simple, right?

A lesson in history

Yes, yes, we know; there's still one answered question: How did "cheesecake" come to describe sexy images of women?

Again, there are several versions of the story, but they agree that a New York photographer in 1912 (or 1915) took a photo of an actress (or a Russian opera singer). In either case, the photo showed a bit more leg than anticipated, causing the photographer (or his editor) to express his enthusiasm by referencing the most luscious thing he could think of, exclaiming, "That's real cheesecake!"

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185