Say cheese(cake) … and smile

Susan Watkins, owner of the Clifton Park bakery J & S Watkins with her husband, Jack, remembers enjo

People around the world have always loved cheese, and as a result, they have found a myriad of ways to make it and use it, including baking cakes with it.

Historical references to cheesecake go back to 776 B.C., where purportedly, athletes at the first Olympic Games indulged in it. First-century Roman politician Marcus Porcius Cato wrote about it, and by the first millennium, cheesecake had made its way to western Europe courtesy of conquering Roman armies. Immigrants brought it across the pond centuries later where purely by accident, an American — a New York state resident, better still — invented the main ingredient of modern cheesecake: cream cheese.

In 1872, William Lawrence, a dairyman from Chester, was trying to duplicate the French’s Neufchatel cheese when he stumbled upon cream cheese, which was even richer and creamier than the Neufchatel. By 1912, Kraft was producing cream cheese en masse, which is why we have the now famous Philadelphia cream cheese.

While you can make cheesecake from ricotta cheese and sour cream, cream cheese is by far the most popular ingredient for cheesecake.

Foundation for a business

Susan Watkins, owner of the Clifton Park bakery J & S Watkins with her husband, Jack, remembers enjoying a slice of cheesecake as a special treat after a dinner out in her Midwest hometown. Little did she know that decades later, cheesecake would launch a whole new career for her.

It started when Jack was managing a restaurant whose baker abruptly stopped making cheesecakes for the restaurant. He called his wife, who was a stay-at-home mom of two young kids and asked her if she wouldn’t mind making a few cheesecakes for the restaurant. Susan phoned her mother and asked for a recipe. Before they knew it, the couple converted one bay of their garage into a commercial bakery. When they outgrew that, they rented a property on Route 9 in Clifton Park, which they eventually purchased and developed into a shopping center where their bakery now resides.

Susan started out baking four different varieties of cheesecake: plain, fudge marble, chocolate kahlua, and raspberry. Now, the bakery offers 20 different types of cheesecakes, including cranberry walnut, orange creamsicle and pumpkin pecan, which illustrates just how versatile this dessert can be.

Using the basic recipe as a canvas, bakers can add in different ingredients to change the flavor, which is something that Susan did over the years as vendors came to her with requests for different flavors. The latest is Irish cream, for St. Patrick’s Day.

“It’s just a matter of figuring out how much extract or emulsion to put in to get the right flavor,” Susan said. For example, in a key lime cheesecake, she makes sure to go heavy on the tart flavor so the cheese doesn’t mute it so much.

Having some fun

In addition to varying the filling ingredients, the crust can be different, too. While crusts made of crushed graham crackers are popular, a shortbread crust works as well, said Texas-based cookbook author Camilla Saulsbury. This is easy to do, she said, even without a recipe specifically for cheesecake crust. She suggests using a regular shortbread recipe, patting enough on the bottom of the springform pan to cover it and one-half to one inch up the side and parbaking the crust until it is lightly browned.

There are other possibilities, too. “You can also have fun with other types of cookies,” Saulsbury said. Another addition is pressing nuts into the crust. For example, if you’re making a peanut butter cheesecake, press some crushed up peanuts into the crust. Even crushed up cereal with a little sugar added can make up a crust.

Cheesecake has a reputation for being loaded with calories. Saulsbury’s newest cookbook, “Enlightened Cakes: More than 100 Decadently Light Layer Cakes, Bundt Cakes, Cupcakes, Cheesecakes, and More, All With Less Fat & Fewer Calories” (Cumberland House Publishing, June 2008) addresses the issue by providing recipes that reduce the calories of this decadent dessert without compromising flavor or texture.

Saulsbury discovered that many cheesecake recipes call for more sugar than necessary. The formula she uses is one-quarter cup sugar for every 8 ounces of cream cheese. Another way to lighten up this dessert is by substituting Neufchatel (one-third reduced fat cream cheese) cheese. If a recipe calls for four 8-ounce packages of cream cheese, two to three of those can be the less-fat variety. “You still get the wonderful tang of the cream cheese and the same silkiness,” she said.

Fat-free varieties of cream cheese don’t work, though. Leaving the crust out entirely is another way to reduce the calorie content.

Reducing cracking

One of the main problems for home bakers when they’re making cheesecake is that it tends to crack. Both Watkins and Saulsbury attribute this to overbeating the filling. Thus, it is important to start out with softened cream cheese and all the ingredients at the same temperature so that less beating is required. The more one mixes the filling, the more air gets into it, which causes it to rise in the pan and crack.

If the cheesecake does crack, you can pour a filling on top to cover it up.

Slicing cheesecake can be a challenge, too. Watkins and Saulsbury recommend using heavy duty thread to cut it. With the thread pulled taut, one can slice right through the cheesecake. Fishing line and unwaxed dental floss will work, too. Saulsbury experimented with laying the thread or floss down on the pan before putting the crust in the pan so that once the cheesecake is done baking and cooling, you can move the thread back and forth across the bottom to lift the crust off the pan.

When she enjoyed cheesecake as a girl, Watkins had no idea she would end up owning a bakery. J & S Watkins produces a couple of hundred cheesecakes a week, and the couple even got to deliver one of their cheesecakes to Jack Nicholson for his birthday when he was in Troy filming “Ironweed.”

Cheesecake Supreme

Recipe from J & S Watkins in Clifton Park.


1⁄2 cup butter

1⁄4 cup sugar

1 egg yolk

1⁄4 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup sifted flour

1 teaspoon lemon zest


5 packages (8-ounce size) of cream cheese

13⁄4 cups sugar

3 tablespoons flour

1⁄4 teaspoon salt

5 eggs and 2 egg yolks

1⁄4 teaspoon vanilla

3⁄4 teaspoon lemon zest

1⁄4 cup heavy cream

For crust: Cream butter and sugar together. Add yolk and vanilla. Gradually add flour and lemon zest, and mix until dough pulls away from sides of bowl.

Grease bottom only of the springform pan. Pat dough evenly over the entire bottom of pan. Bake at 350 for 5 minutes. Cool completely before greasing sides of pan.

For filling: Start with all ingredients at room temperature for best results. Beat cream cheese and sugar together on lowest speed until well blended. Scrape sides of bowl. Add flour and salt, then eggs, one at a time. Scrape bowl, then add 2 yolks. Finally, add vanilla, lemon zest and heavy cream.

Pour batter into prepared pan and bake in a preheated 500-degree oven for 8 minutes. Turn oven down to 350 and continue baking for one hour. Cool cake thoroughly, then remove sides of pan. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Makes one 9-inch cheesecake.

Lemon Curd-Swirled Cheesecake with Gingersnap Crust

Recipe by Camilla Saulsbury.

1⁄2 cup fresh lemon juice

6 large eggs, divided use

11⁄2 cups sugar, divided use

3 teaspoons finely grated fresh lemon zest, divided use

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

2 cups ground gingersnap cookies

6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, melted

3 packages (8-ounce size) cream cheese, softened

3⁄4 cup sour cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For lemon curd: In a 2-quart heavy saucepan, whisk the lemon juice, 3 of the eggs, 1⁄2 cup of the sugar and 1 teaspoon zest. Add the butter and cook over moderately low heat, whisking frequently, until curd is thickened and beginning to bubble, about 5 to 6 minutes.

Transfer curd to a small bowl cover surface with wax paper. Cool completely, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes.

For crust: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Stir gingersnap cookie crumbs and butter in medium bowl until evenly moistened. Press mixture onto bottom of 9-inch-diameter removable-bottom cheesecake pan with 3-inch-high sides. Bake crust until deep golden, about 12 minutes. Cool completely. Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees.

Stack 3 large sheets of foil on work surface. Place same cake pan in center. Gather foil snugly around pan bottom and up sides to waterproof.

For filling and baking: In a large bowl, beat the cream cheese and remaining 1 cup sugar with an electric mixer at medium speed 2 minutes until smooth. Reduce speed to low and add the remaining 3 eggs 1 at a time, beating until incorporated. Beat in sour cream, vanilla and remaining 2 teaspoons lemon zest until combined.

Pour two thirds of cream cheese filling into crust, then spoon half of lemon curd over filling and swirl curd into filling with a small knife. (Avoid touching crust with knife to prevent crumbs getting into filling.) Repeat with remaining filling and curd.

Place wrapped cake pan in large roasting pan. Pour enough hot water into roasting pan to come halfway up sides of cake pan. Bake cake until filling is slightly puffed and moves only slightly when pan is shaken gently, about 1 hour, 5 minutes. Remove cake pan from water bath; remove foil. Center of cake will appear very loose but will continue to set as it cools.

Transfer springform pan to a rack and immediately run a knife around top edge of cake to loosen. Cool completely, about 2 hours, then chill, uncovered, at least 4 hours. Remove side of springform pan before serving.

Makes 16 servings.

Chocolate Chip-Orange Cheesecake

(Lighter recipe)

This recipe is from Camilla Saulsbury’s soon-to-be-released book, “Enlightened Cakes: More than 100 Decadently Light Layer Cakes, Bundt Cakes, Cupcakes, Cheesecakes, and More, All With Less Fat & Fewer Calories” (Cumberland House Publishing, June 2008).

1 cup reduced-fat chocolate wafer crumbs (about 33 cookies)

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, divided use

1 tablespoon butter, melted

3 packages (8-ounce size) fat-free cream cheese, room temperature

1 package (8-ounce size) 1⁄3-less-fat cream cheese, room temperature

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons orange liqueur

5 teaspoons finely grated orange zest

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

4 large eggs

3⁄4 cup miniature semisweet chocolate chips

Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 300 degrees. Wrap double layer of heavy-duty foil around outside of 10-inch-diameter springform pan. Spray bottom and sides of pan with nonstick cooking spray.

Combine cookie crumbs, 2 tablespoons sugar and melted butter in a small bowl. Using a large square of wax paper, press and compact crumbs onto bottom (not sides) of springform pan. Bake 8 minutes. Transfer to rack and cool while preparing filling. Maintain oven temperature.

In a large bowl, beat the cream cheeses with an electric mixer at high speed until smooth. Add the flour, liqueur, orange zest, vanilla and remaining 1 cup sugar, beating well. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in chocolate chips. Pour filling mixture into prepared crust.

Bake 1 hour or until almost set. Cheesecake is done when the center barely moves when pan is touched. Transfer cheesecake to cooling rack and run a knife around outside edge. Cool to room temperature, then chill at least 8 hours. Release pan sides. Cut into wedges.

Makes 16 servings.

Nutrition per serving: 223 calories, 6.9 grams fat (3.5 grams saturated, 2.3 grams monosaturated, 0.5 grams) polysaturated, 10.3 grams protein, 68.2 milligrams cholesterol, 28.8 grams carbohydrates.

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