We can’t get enough of Japanese cotton cheesecake

Recently, I’ve been surprised to see Japanese cheesecake-themed social media posts from my friends, who live all around the world, as I had no idea it was known outside of Japan. From Toronto to Taipei, I often see delicious-looking snapshots of the (now) ubiquitous concoction, so I decided to dig deeper and find out more about this little slice of heaven.

Creamy, light and fluffy —

what more could you ask for?
While Japan and cheese are two terms that usually don’t go hand-in-hand, cheesecake is a very popular and beloved dessert in Japan, and has been for a long time.

Before coming to Japan, my cheesecake knowledge was limited to the heavy, rich New York-style type. The type that is so scrumptious, but one tiny slice feels like the equivalent of a meal. Japanese cheesecake is much lighter—so light, in fact, that it’s known as Japanese cotton cheesecake, or soufflé cheesecake, so you can imagine how light and fluffy it is even if you’ve never tried it.

Japanese cheesecake differs from its American-style counterpart. Even though they both share a creamy, tangy flavor, the Japanese recipe is lighter and less sweet (and thankfully lower in calories). The egg whites are whipped into a meringue, which give the cake its fluffy texture. In addition, Japanese cheesecake is baked using a bain-marie method (inside a bath of hot water, which I’ll describe in detail later), which makes it even creamier. Japanese cheesecake has a soft, chiffon-like consistency, and it is sometimes smeared with a bit of apricot jam.

How do you like your Japanese cotton cheesecake?
For the sake of research, I went on a month-long cheesecake quest. I wanted to not only try every variation of the Japanese cotton cheesecake, but to also find the best places to buy it. Turns out, the list is endless, and even after eating cheesecake for several weeks, I still haven’t ended my quest.

Turns out, Japanese cheesecake is available pretty much everywhere in Japan, so I didn’t have to go very far. In fact, I could just walk out of my house and go next door to the convenience store to find an array of individual slices, all carefully packaged. Although the convenience store version was delicious and hit the spot for a late-night craving, the one I tasted from a department store in central Tokyo was even better. In Japan, most department stores have exquisite food halls in their basement floors, where everything from pickles and grilled meats to baked goods and fruits can be found. I purchased a small cotton cheesecake from a prestigious Japanese patisserie, and enjoyed a slice at home one evening with a cup of tea. The texture was airy, yet it was very creamy and did not feel too heavy. However, the best overall experience I had was at a café in Shibuya specializing in cakes. The slice was also very light and fluffy, and I could taste a hint of lemon zest. It was served with a dollop of raspberry jam on the side, which was a perfect match and a great way to end my lunch at the café. I personally think the cozy environment of the establishment helped me focus on and appreciate the taste of the cheesecake.

Cotton cheesecake can be found so easily in Japan, and for every budget, which shows how much people here love this dessert—especially as it’s been adjusted to the local taste with its lightness and reduced sweetness. Thankfully, nowadays people outside Japan can also enjoy this type of soufflé cheesecake, as shops have been popping up in numerous major cities around the world.Bake your own Japanese cotton cheesecake!

If you can’t easily access a shop or bakery that sells Japanese cotton cheesecake (or if you love it so much that you want to make it), you can easily bake it at home. There are many recipes available online; just search for “Japanese cotton cheesecake” and you’ll see a long list of links. You will notice that most of the recipes use similar ingredients and methods, like the aforementioned bain-marie cooking technique. I decided to try this recipe from the JAPANESE FOOD website.

Don’t be intimidated by this technique, even if you’re a beginner baker. It’s very simple, and you can also adjust some parts: for example, I did not have the recommended size round pan on hand, so I just used a smaller, rectangular bread pan, which gave my cake a different shape but the taste was just as good.

The ingredients are very basic and easy to find in most parts of the world: cream cheese, butter, eggs, sugar and milk are the main ingredients. I followed a recipe that called for sour cream, but you can easily substitute that with heavy cream or Greek yoghurt. My recipe also suggested making a graham cracker crust (although not all soufflé cheesecakes have such a crust). I made mine by simply crumbling a pack of graham crackers. Most recipes will also mention adding a bit of lemon juice, and I used lemon zest as I had fresh fruit on hand.

I think there are two key techniques for a successful Japanese cotton cheesecake. The first one is the meringue, which was easily created by whipping the egg whites and sugar together until peaks form. The second one is the bain-marie cooking technique: the cake pan containing the mixture is simply baked in a water bath inside the oven. In other words, just fill a tray with hot water, put the pan in it, then put it in the oven. The hot water creates a gentle and uniform heat around the cake and provides moisture inside the oven. This technique is used to bake delicate desserts such as soufflés and custards.

As with all baked goods, it’s important to carefully measure out the ingredients and follow the recipe steps, but it’s very easy and I was able to create a delectable Japanese cotton cheesecake in less than an hour. I served mine with a bit of strawberry jam and a tall glass of milk. Now, it’s your turn to try!