Step 2: For the Cheesecake Filling
1 pound (2 blocks) cream cheese, at room temperature
1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons heavy cream
1 teaspoon lemon zest (optional)
While the crust cools, in the bowl of an electric stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat together cream cheese and granulated sugar. Make sure that you scrape all the cream cheese off the wrappers, or the inside of the tub so you have enough cream cheese. Beat until light and fluffy, about 3 to 5 minutes. Beat in salt and vanilla extract until well incorporated. Add eggs, beating one at a time between each addition. You may need to scrape down the inside of the beater and sides of the mixer as you go along, so that everything is completely incorporated. You don’t want raw egg bit in your cheesecake. Once creamy and smooth, slowly beat in the cream, beating on medium high until creamy and luscious. Add lemon zest if using, it will add a nice little zing to the cheesecake mixture.
Pour cheesecake mixture into the prepared cheesecake crust.
Place 9×13-inch pan in the bottom shelf of the hot oven. Carefully pour in hot water, and fill to 1/2 full. Push into oven. If you have chosen to leave the pan in the oven earlier, carefully pour in some water from a glass into the hot pan – it will bubble and hiss, then push the pan back into the oven.
Place cheesecake on the upper oven shelf. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, until cheesecake is browned and puffed. When cheesecake is puffed and doesn’t have a loose jiggle in the center, turn the oven off and use a towel to prop the oven open slightly. Let cheesecake rest for another 45 minutes in the cooling oven. Remove from the oven and cool completely, for at least 4 hours. Overnight is best, as this will allow everything to coagulate and firm together completely. The less time you allow the pie to cool, the more it will fall apart when you cut it.
While the cheesecake cools, make the caramel so it can cool as well.