Whether you create a homemade version, savor a slice at the end of a restaurant meal or take out a whole dessert for a special occasion, there’s nothing like the cool, creamy, tongue-enfolding richness of a well-made cheesecake. From the dense filling of classic New York-style cheesecake to creative variations such as mint, pumpkin swirl or lemon blueberry, this beloved dessert begs for a celebration.
And today is National Cheesecake Day, an unofficial holiday, but one most dessert lovers find worth marking nonetheless.
But making a cheesecake at home can seem a labor-intensive and time-sucking task the first time around. Creaminess and texture are among the biggest challenges to creating a successful cheesecake. Even local experts admit they have tried and sometimes tweaked a recipe multiple times before they were satisfied with the results.
“Cheesecake isn’t something you can rush, and time is one of the biggest variables,” says Anthony Accurso, the owner of Accurso’s Italian Restaurant near the Country Club Plaza. “I probably made 15 to 20 before the cheesecakes came out perfectly.”
Accurso uses a decades-old recipe for Grandma Mimi’s Cheesecake. “This recipe would be from my great-grandmother, Vivian Anch,” he says. “This is what I’ve grown up on. It’s traditional, with a sour cream topping, but a little lighter, and a little more fluffy than New York-style cheesecake.”
Accurso’s grandmother, Angel Barelli, has made cheesecake for 45 years and still crafts two a week, while Accurso makes about four. “But for Restaurant Week we made over 20 cakes at 16 slices each, using a 12-inch springform pan,” he says. “It takes three hours to make a couple of them.”
Chef Terry Mille opened Cowtown Cheesecake Co. in 2009. Mille typically makes 35 cheesecakes each week for commercial accounts, but demand skyrockets during the holiday season. Mille’s cheesecake-baking career began following a stint as a Mass Feeding Coordinator for the American Red Cross. “I started making cheesecakes after being in Baton Rouge and New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina,” Mille says. “I fell in love with the region, the people and the flavors.”
Mille eventually developed a Sweet Potato Cheesecake With Gingerbread Crust and Praline Topping, sourcing most ingredients from the New Orleans area. “I made a lot of cheesecakes before I perfected the recipe, so those practice ones were given to family and friends,” Mille says. “The business really grew from there — strictly on word of mouth.” More than 20 cheesecake varieties crowd Mille’s website, but top sellers include Kansas Cream, Lemon Blueberry and that sweet potato cheesecake.
Steve Fasano had always enjoyed baking, so when his Bible study group began bringing snacks to the gatherings he shared a homemade cheesecake that received rave reviews. Since then, the Spring Hill resident has become a passionate cheesecake baker. The density of Fasano’s version reflects classic New York-style. “It’s heavy because of the amount of cream cheese that’s used, so there’s a different feel in your mouth,” he says.
Jo Ann Klimek of Leawood says she probably started baking at least 55 years ago. She doesn’t know where her signature cheesecake recipe came from, but her family won’t let her tamper with it. “What I make is just a creamy pie,” she says. “My son calls it country-style cheesecake.”
After her husband was diagnosed with diabetes, the couple attended a fish fry at their parish, Church of the Nativity, and discovered he couldn’t eat any dessert. Because he liked cheesecake, Klimek created a sugar-free variety using Splenda. During the next Lenten season she took a traditional and a sugar-free cheesecake for the fish fry dessert table, a tradition she has continued for at least a decade.
“I started small, and people seemed to like what I baked,” Klimek says. She makes at least two cheesecakes for parish fish fries — one sugar-free — during each week of Lent. But family and friends can enjoy Klimek’s cheesecake year-round, and she makes at least two per month.
All of these cheesecake bakers agree — quality ingredients create the best texture and flavor, including full-fat cream cheese.
Fasano says he’s not too particular about which cream cheese he uses; he doesn’t see much difference between name brands and generic brands.
But Klimek won’t use anything other than Philadelphia brand cream cheese. “You may pay a little more for that, and it makes a difference,” Klimek says. “If you use light cheese in my recipe it doesn’t taste good.” Klimek also prefers Belfonte sour cream.
Fasano buys his spices at Penzeys Spices. “You don’t need as much when you have good-quality spices,” he says. Fasano also prefers unflavored graham crackers and a quarter teaspoon of cinnamon over prepared cinnamon graham crackers, and he uses Oreos rather than chocolate graham crackers for other crusts.
For Mille, quality ingredients equal freshness. “I get everything (locally) except the cream cheese — because of its cost — including farm-fresh eggs, Shatto cream and their butter if I need it.”
When it comes to making the cheesecake filling, Fasano and Mille say bringing all of the ingredients to room temperature is essential. In fact, Mille pulls out cream cheese the day before he makes a cheesecake.
Hand vs. stand mixers
Not everyone agrees whether a stand mixer or hand mixer creates better texture.
Klimek thinks her cheesecake tastes so good because of the air her stand mixer adds while beating the filling. “It goes while I’m doing other things, and that makes it creamy,” she says.
Accurso also prefers a stand mixer. “I imagine it would take much longer to get your consistency (of texture),” he says. “I use die-cast steel with a rubber-edge scraper on it. If you want to make a 12-inch pie you’ll need a 6-quart KitchenAid mixer and an incredible amount of patience.”
But it can be a fine line: “If you don’t whip long enough you won’t have the creamy texture you’re looking for,” Accurso says. “If you whip too long you may get too much air and you might get cracks.”
Fasano chooses his mixer based on how many cheesecakes he is making at a time. He typically uses a hand mixer if he is making one or two, but chooses a stand mixer for larger quantities. “As soon as everything incorporates I switch to a wire whip for the stand mixer,” he says. “The batter has to be smooth, pour easily and be free of lumps.”
When Mille uses his Viking stand mixer he chooses metal blades or a beater bar, but he pulls out a hand mixer if he’s making a no-bake cheesecake; and he always stirs in heavy cream rather than beating it in. “I incorporate ingredients in batches, slowly working the sugar into the cream cheese,” he says. “Overwhipping — putting too much air in the batter — is the biggest cause of cracks.”
Unexpected and unsightly cracks that open up across the top of a cheesecake are perhaps the most frustrating aspect of making this creamy, decadent dessert. “It frustrates me because I tend to be a perfectionist in everything I do,” Fasano says. “It has to look right and appetizing.”
A traditional springform pan does not guarantee a smooth, crack-free surface. In fact, Mille uses a cake pan: “I think it forms the cake much better — there’s always a chance of moisture getting in (with a springform pan).”
Klimek uses a pie pan for cheesecakes, which she believes is part of the reason she rarely gets cracks, but Fasano prefers tart pans with a flat metal bottom. He uses a spatula to release the bottom, and a giant cake lifter to remove the cheesecake.
Lack of moisture can also increase cracking, which explains why most cheesecake recipes include directions for baking in a water bath. The cheesecake is surrounded by warm water as it cooks.
“A steam bath is essential,” Mille says. “It doesn’t allow the cheesecake to overcook or start breaking down.”
Fasano places a water bath on the lower oven rack during baking, which he finds particularly helpful for cheesecakes with swirls. “When I do swirls, particularly with a jam that I mix into part of the batter, there tend to be weak spots in the surface (which may result in cracking),” he says.
A cheesecake that cools too quickly may also crack on top. Fasano lets each cheesecake cool in the refrigerator for four to six hours before trying to release it.
Mille’s method calls for shutting the oven off, opening the door and letting the cake sit inside for one hour. He then lets it sit another hour out of the oven, and finally tightly attaches plastic wrap on top before freezing it. “Cheesecakes should be kept frozen,” he says. “They’ll keep for up to three months, and you should slice from the freezer.”
“I can understand why people may feel a little intimidated (about making cheesecakes),” Fasano says. “You’re going to break a few before you get it right. But broken cheesecakes taste just as good as cheesecakes that aren’t broken.”
At one time, most cheesecakes had crusts along both the bottom and the sides. Today, Accurso is the only baker in this group who still makes a full crust, and Klimek’s cheesecakes have only a bit on the side. But Fasano has done away with side crusts altogether.
“To me it’s all in the appearance, and it’s hard to get a side crust even all the way around,” Fasano says. “I find it’s easier not to deal with it.”
And Mille has dropped traditional graham and cookie crusts for many of his cheesecakes, making cakeor brownie crusts instead.
“Where’s the cake part of (cheesecake)?”he says. “And I rethought it and thought, ‘Why don’t I put the cake into cheesecake?’”
Flavors and toppings
While purists prefer creamy, unadulterated cheesecake, flavorful toppings, swirls and chunks have become increasingly common. Klimek typically prefers only a traditional sour cream topping, but she made some adjustments for the fish fry crowd. “People at the fish fry eat with their eyes, so I add cherry pie filling on top,” she says.
Fasano keeps his cheesecakes simple, too. “I’m partial to cherries and blueberries, but I would do it only on a plain cheesecake,” he says. “With the pumpkin swirl I only add whipped cream on request. To me, it’s a condiment.”
At the restaurant, Accurso frequently serves Grandma Mimi’s cheesecake with homemade strawberry sauce and fresh strawberries. “I juice a couple pints of strawberries and make the sauce from strawberry juice,” he says. For a special event, Accurso created cheesecake bites with a red velvet cookie-crumble crust and brown sugar, chocolate ganache and raspberry on top.
Mille considers his Kansas Cream cheesecake a blank canvas for customers who want to choose their own topping. “Everything goes with Kansas Cream,” he says. “On minis I’ll add cherries jubilee — strictly for presentation. (For) LemonBlueberry, at first I would put a blueberry topping on. But now I incorporate it into the batter so it’s not a lemon cheesecake topped with blueberries.”
Whether you decide to make an unadorned cheesecake or dress it up with extra flavors and textures, there’s a learning curve involved. But the satisfaction of sharing luscious, creamy homemade cheesecake with friends and family can’t be beat.
Lisa Waterman Gray is a freelance writer based in Overland Park. She specializes in food and travel writing.
Cheesecake Around Town
If you’re craving cheesecake and would rather order a slice than make your own, multiple local restaurants offer signature flavors to tempt your taste buds:
Accurso’s Italian Restaurant, 4980 Main St.: Grandma Mimi’s light and fluffy cheesecake is a family recipe.
The Cheesecake Factory, multiple locations: Locally popular flavors include Oreo Dream Extreme (cheesecake filling layered with Oreo cookies, topped with chocolate mousse and chocolate icing), as well as Mango Key Lime, White Chocolate Raspberry Truffle and Red Velvet.
Cowtown Cheesecake Co., cowtowncheesecake.com: 913-523-6191: A wide variety of gourmet cheesecake flavors, including owner Terry Mille’s signature sweet potato cheesecake.
Gordon Biersch, multiple locations: New York-style rules the house and is topped with strawberry sauce and made-in-house fresh strawberry sauce.
O’Dowd’s on the Country Club Plaza, 4742 Pennsylvania: The menu includes Chef’s Choice cheesecake selections.
The Classic Cup Cafe, 301 W. 47th: Try the vanilla New York-style cheesecake with blackberry drizzle or warm chocolate sauce.
A History of Cheesecake
During the first Olympic games in 776 B.C., athletes ate the original baked cheesecake — made from flour, wheat, honey and cheese — because it was considered a good energy source. Greek bridal couples also ate cheesecake at their weddings. By 230 A.D. a writer named Athenaeus had crafted the first recipe, using the same ingredients.
After the Romans conquered Greece, they added eggs to the recipe and served it on special occasions. First century politician Marcus Porcius Cato is credited with the first Roman cheesecake recipe, and conquering Roman armies introduced cheesecake to Great Britain and Western Europe around 1000 A.D. England made a more dessert-like cheesecake.
By the 18th century, Americans added cream cheese after a farmer who was trying to re-create French Neufchatel cheese developed this new cheese variety instead. New York City restaurateur Arnold Reuben created classic New York-style cheesecake in the 1900s.
Today, Chicagoans often add sour cream to their cheesecakes, and Philadelphia’s cheesecake is typically lighter and creamier than its New York cousin. St. Louis residents prefer an additional cake layer on top. Savory cheesecakes may include blue cheese, seafood, spicy chilies or tofu.
Chef Terry Mille’s No-Bake Key Lime Cheesecake
Makes 6 to 8 servings
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
1/3 cup cane sugar
1/2 teaspoon grated lime zest
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup key lime juice
2 (8-ounce) containers whipped topping, divided
1 (9-inch) graham cracker pie crust
Beat cream cheese with an electric hand or stand mixer until smooth. Slowly add in sugar, lime zest and vanilla. Pour in key lime juice, blending until smooth, then gently fold in one container whipped topping. Blend well.
Using a rubber spatula, spoon the mixture into the graham cracker crust and smooth out. Chill until firm, about four hours. Top with additional whipped topping.
Per serving, based on 6: 614 calories (57 percent from fat), 37 grams total fat (25 grams saturated), 41 milligrams cholesterol, 59 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams protein, 359 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Steve Fasano’s Cheesecake Squares
Makes 9 to 16 servings
1 cup all-purpose flour
1⁄2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
5 tablespoons butter, melted
1⁄2 cup chopped pecans
2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened at room temperature
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons milk
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1⁄2 teaspoon vanilla
Adjust oven racks to middle position. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle or a hand mixer in a large mixing bowl, combine flour, brown sugar and butter. Beat at low speed, scraping often until mixture is crumbly, about two to three minutes. By hand, stir in pecans. Reserve 1 cup of mixture for topping; press remaining mixture on bottom of 8- by 8-inch baking pan. Bake crust for eight to 10 minutes, or until lightly browned.
In a small mixing bowl, combine the filling ingredients: cream cheese, sugar, egg, milk, lemon juice and vanilla. Beat at medium speed, scraping sides of the bowl often until mixture is smooth, about three to four minutes. Spread over hot crust. Sprinkle top with the reserved crumb mixture; continue baking for 23 to 30 minutes or until golden brown.
Cool and cut into bars. Chill at least four hours before serving.
Per serving, based on 9: 390 calories (66 percent from fat), 29 grams total fat (16 grams saturated), 96 milligrams cholesterol, 27 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams protein, 227 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Lisa Waterman Gray’s Low-Fat Limoncello Cheesecake
Makes 12 to 16 servings
1⁄2 cup plus 2 to 3 tablespoons of limoncello, divided
1 cup graham crackers, finely crushed
1/8 cup walnuts, finely crushed
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 1⁄2 pounds low-fat cream cheese, softened to room temperature
1⁄2 cup granulated sugar
1⁄2 cup packed brown sugar
5 large eggs
1⁄2 cup prepared lemon curd
Shots of limoncello, if desired for serving
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Remove zest of lemons (you should have 3 tablespoons); set aside. Cut lemons in half and section. Place lemon segmets and 1/2 cup limoncello in a measuring cup or small bowl; set aside to allow to steep for 45 to 60 minutes.
Using a food processor fitted with a metal blade, pulse crushed graham crackers and walnuts to combine. Stir in melted butter. Press crust onto bottom of a 9-inch springform pan, to just above the lower lip of the pan; refrigerate until filling is made.
Using a hand-held electric mixer on medium speed, beat cream cheese until smooth. Beat in sugars, a little at a time, until mixture is light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition. Beat in reserved lemon zest and steeped lemons with limoncello. Pour filling into pan and bake the cheesecake in the middle of the oven for 11⁄2 hours (times may vary with individual ovens), until barely brown on top or the center is slightly firm to the touch.
Allow cheesecake to cool in the oven for one hour with the heat off. Cool for another hour on a wire rack. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate until completely cool.
Over medium-low heat, cook lemon curd and remaining 2 to 3 tablespoons limoncello in a saucepan to create a smooth sauce that will drizzle easily, about seven to 10 minutes. Drizzle across top of cheesecake and allow topping to also drizzle down cheesecake sides. Serve immediately with a shot glass of chilled limoncello, or refrigerate until ready to serve.
Per serving, based on 12: 310 calories (48 percent from fat), 16 grams total fat (9 grams saturated), 128 milligrams cholesterol, 28 grams carbohydrates, 10 grams protein, 519 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.