Sunday, April 22, 2001

Chasing the ultimate cheesecake

Retired collegiate taste-tester remembers when the simple stuff ruled

By Polly Campbell
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        When you offer opinions in the newspaper, it's nice to have some credentials. There's no national certification program for restaurant reviewers, but should anyone ever doubt me, I can whip out my I.D., which I recently rediscovered at the bottom of a desk drawer.

        I am the only cheesecake taster in town certified by the Society for the Preservation, Promotion and Uplifting of Cheesecake.

        This society was created the year I was a freshman at the University of Kansas. Notice I was licensed tester No. 2. My roommate, Elise, was No. 1. She was an art major with access to a laminating machine. There never was a No. 3. We were a small group, but with mighty opinions.

        Elise and I were from different backgrounds, and while I never understood some of her enthusiasms (she ate candy corn every day and painted a big candy corn mural on our dorm room wall), we bonded over our devotion to cheesecake.

        This was before cheesecake was on the menu of every restaurant, before Heath toffee crunch cheesecake, before Madagascar vanilla bean cheesecake with a brulee top. Then, cheesecake had an almost ethnic, New York City appeal, like bagels still did.

        But it was on the menu of several restaurants in Lawrence, Kan. And we decided that these places probably would be happy to receive the opinionated feedback of two 18-year-olds.

        We set out to rate them all, using a scale of 1-42. We arrived at the number by adding several subscales. I think it was 20 possible points for taste, 15 for texture, five for topping and two for crust. We took copies of the rating system with us, filled them out and left them for the edification of the dessert chef.

        My favorite cheesecake was served at a little juice bar right off campus called Squeezer's Palace. The cake was dense, not too sweet, very cheesy. The topping was a few sour cherries with no glaze.

        Elise and I argued over it: She thought the topping was too austere, the texture too solid and that there wasn't enough crust. (I can't believe I remember this better than anything I was supposed to learn in college.)

        Her favorite cheesecake, and my second choice, was at the Casbah Cafe on Massachusetts Avenue. It was also a classic, but with a creamier texture and a sour cream topping.

        A year later, I was working at the Casbah, cooking nightly specials and making that very cheesecake. Making a couple dozen a week changed my attitude. I didn't eat cheesecake recreationally for several years, though when I lived in New York, I liked to think I would find the ultimate cheesecake. But excellent cheesecake is rather elusive.

        It's rarely good at restaurants. Few places make it in-house, and often it's too gussied up. (Jeff Ruby's restaurants serve the best in Greater Cincinnati).

        Making cheesecake at home, though ludicrously easy, doesn't always work out the way you want. Like the membership of the SPPUC, different people like different textures.

        This classic recipe makes a firm but smooth cake, my favorite texture. To make it soft and creamier, like tester No. 1 likes it, bake the cake in a hot water bath. Wrap the springform pan in aluminum foil, place in a larger, but not deeper pan, then pour hot water in the larger pan to about 1 1/2 inches deep before baking.

Classic Cheesecake

1 tablespoon melted butter
3 tablespoons graham cracker crumbs
4 8-ounce packages (2 pounds) Philadelphia cream cheese
1 1/2 cups sugar
4 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon rind

        Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brush a 9-inch springform pan with the butter, then sprinkle with crumbs. In an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese until smooth and fluffy, then beat in sugar. Beat in eggs one at a time. It's very important to scrape down the sides of the mixer bowl between adding each egg.

        Mix in vanilla and rind, then pour into prepared pan. Bake for 1 1/2 hours, until top is firm, with a little bit of jiggle in the middle. Let cool, then refrigerate 5-6 hours. Makes at least 10 servings.

        The best possible variation is to add nuts. Toast 1 1/2 cups of skinned hazelnuts in a 350-degree oven for about 15 minutes. Cool and chop finely in food processor (do not grind to a powder). Eliminate the lemon rind, and add nuts after the eggs.

        The plain version of the recipe can be topped with drained canned sour cherries.

        Another topping: Mix 2 cups sour cream and 1/2 cup sugar and spread over the baked cake. Return cake to 300-degree oven for 5 minutes.


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