2 cups graham cracker crumbs (about 16 whole crackers)
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
3 tablespoons firmly packed light brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
2 pounds cream cheese, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1 1/3 cups Creole Cream Cheese (see below)
1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste
2 eggs, at room temperature
3¾ tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1½ tablespoons honey
4 cups peeled, cored, and evenly chopped Granny Smith apples (about 7)
1½ teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/3 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/3 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Make the crust:
Make the crust. Preheat the oven to 375°F. In a medium bowl, stir together the graham cracker crumbs, granulated sugar, brown sugar, salt, and butter to combine. Pat the mixture into a 10-inch springform pan, pressing the crumbs firmly in an even layer on the bottom and making sure they come at least halfway up the side of the pan. Bake for 7 to 10 minutes, until the crust is fragrant, dry, and toasty. Let cool, then wrap the entire outside of the pan tightly in two layers of foil, all the way to the top.
Make the filling:
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or in a large bowl using a handheld mixer, cream the plain cream cheese and sugar on medium-high speed for about 4 minutes, until incredibly smooth and light. Stop the mixer and scrape down the bottom and sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Add the Creole Cream Cheese and vanilla paste and beat on medium-high speed for about 2 minutes, scraping down the bowl once more. Decrease the speed to medium and beat in the eggs, one at a time, incorporating each one before adding the next. Mix just until the batter is smooth and uniform. Continuing to mix past that point, even though the batter won’t look different, only incorporates extra air, which will cause the cheesecake to bubble excessively and the surface to crack as that air tries to escape during the baking process.
Decrease the oven temperature to 350°F. Pour the batter into the prepared crust and tap the pan gently on the counter a few times to remove any large air bubbles. Place the springform pan in a large baking or roasting pan (just big enough for the springform pan to fit in) and set the pan on the middle rack in the oven. Fill the pan with enough hot water to reach the rim of the springform pan. Bake for about 1 hour, or until the sides of the custard are set and the middle is still just slightly wobbly. Generally, if the entirety of the custard is fully set, your cheesecake is overbaked. Don’t panic—it’ll still be delicious, and you’ll do better next time!
Let the cheesecake cool in the water until it is about room temperature. (You don’t want to have to try to grab the pan out of hot water if you can help it.) However, if you’re worried that your cheesecake might be slightly overbaked, you’ll want to pull it out rather quickly, and let it cool at room temperature. Refrigerate for at least 3 hours before slicing. The cake can be refrigerated, covered, for up to 4 days.
Make the topping:
In a large heavy-bottomed sauté pan, heat the butter until melted. Stir in the granulated sugar, brown sugar, and honey and let cook until bubbling. Add the apples and toss to coat. Stir in the lemon zest, lemon juice, salt, cinnamon, cardamom, and ginger; stir to combine. Cook for about 4 minutes, or until the apples just start to soften. Remove from the heat, stir in the vanilla, and transfer to a bowl to cool completely before use. The filling can be made up to 3 days ahead of time and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
Creole Cream Cheese
2 quarts skim milk
1/4 cup buttermilk
1 rennet tablet
In a large heavy-bottomed saucepot over medium heat with a kitchen thermometer attached to the rim, warm the milk and buttermilk to 85°F. Add one-quarter of the rennet tablet and transfer the mixture to a plastic container or bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and then poke a few holes in the plastic to allow the steam to escape. Let stand at room temperature in a cool spot in your house for 48 hours.
Use a slotted spoon to transfer the solids to a double layer of cheesecloth set over a bowl and discard the liquid. Wrap the solids in the cheesecloth and hang it over the bowl (to catch the whey) in the refrigerator for 24 hours.
Discard the whey. Pack the cheese into an airtight plastic container and store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
You can substitute 1 cup sour cream mixed with 1/4 cup buttermilk for the Creole Cream Cheese.