I did it. I won my first contest. I don't mean to brag or anything, but winning really is sweet. Last Wednesday, I participated in the Best Desserts benefit for The Lamp organization. In the spirit of charity, myself and five other fabulous bloggers turned out an impressive array of desserts for the competition. Esther, took home the audience favorite win with her Jacques Torres inspired chocolate chip cookies, Katy brought mocha brownies, Anna brought amazing bite-sized salted turtle cashew cupcakes, Rachel gave us Asian rice crispy treats and Emily brought chocolate chip cookies covered in a salted butterscotch sauce, yum!
I decided to make strawberry cheesecake bites after being inspired to do something with the incredibly sweet and juicy local strawberries I found at the Greenmarket last week. They blew my mind, nothing like those super-sized ones in the supermarket. These little berries have super-sized flavor and paired with a killer cheesecake, well, it's my idea of a best dessert.
When I set out to come up with my own version of cheesecake, I went to the source of great cheesecake. It's Junior's cheesecake that originated at Junior's Restaurant in downtown Brooklyn. I still remember driving past the restaurant for the first time with Bernie (my grandfather), as he pointed it out to tell me they had great cheesecake. I knew I could trust his opinion on the matter because the only thing Bernie ever points out while driving is all the storefronts that used to be a Jewish delicatessen, well, that and whoever is committing a driving violation. The man really missed his calling as a traffic cop. Back to cheesecake, I'm from New York, and I believe that great cheesecake is New York style cheesecake, like they make at Junior's. You can keep your French or Italian cheesecake with the soft fluffy texture. I want a dense tangy cream cheese overload slice of cheesecake. However, I wanted to make it mine somehow so I tweaked a few things to my liking. Junior's is missing texture. So, I switched out their sponge-cake crust with a graham cracker one. And, I cut down on the sugar a bit knowing that the strawberries are sweet enough. Lastly, I cut out a whole eight ounces of cream cheese for a few reasons. Junior's is almost too dense. It gets stuck to the roof of your mouth like a peanut butter sandwich on white bread. Plus, it was a little trick to cut down on the calorie count (and cost) this way you could eat more of it, and feel less guilty. This is the only way I would attempt to "lighten" a cheesecake recipe. It was a gamble, but I think it worked well.
One more preachy point about the strawberries, this recipe really does benefit from the sweetness of a fresh-in-season strawberry. But, if you're craving it past strawberry season, it's still a cheesecake recipe and it would work with any seasonal fruit. I'm really not ready for strawberry season to end, not one bit. Luckily, summer is just starting, so I guess I'll just have to come up with a "Best Dessert" for each fruit that appears in the market.
Seasonal Strawberry Cheesecake Bites Adapted from Junior's Restaurant Cookbook. Do not attempt this with low-fat cream cheese. Allow these to chill at least 6 hours, or overnight is best.
2 cellophane packs of graham crackers (about 18) 5-6 tablespoons of unsalted butter, melted 3 8 oz. packages of good quality cream cheese, at room temperature 3/4 cup sugar 1/4 cup cornstarch 3/4 teaspoon vanilla 2 eggs 1 cup heavy cream 1/2 cup good quality strawberry jam Pint of fresh local stawberries
Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Have handy four small muffin size tins. Do not grease or line them.
Make the crust - Break up graham crackers in thirds and place in a food processor. Pulse until they are fine crumbs. May need to break up a few small bits with your hands. Place crumbs in a bowl and combine with melted butter until all the crumbs look wet. Take about a teaspoon of crumbs and put in each muffin slot. Press down with your fingers until flat. Chill the tins in the fridge while you prepare the filling.
Make the filling - Using a stand mixer place one bar or 8 oz of cream cheese in the bowl with the sugar. Mix for about 2 minutes on low speed until sugar is completely incorporated and mixture looks creamy.
Add the cornstarch and mix to combine. Then add the remaining two bars of cream cheese and mix for another 2-3 minutes or until it looks creamy and smooth. Add the vanilla, mix. Add one egg at a time, mixing until it is incorporated into the batter. Last add the cream and allow to mix for about a minute until texture is creamy again, not liquid-y.
Using two tablespoons spoon mixture into the mufffin tins. Once they're all full, take the jam and break it up a bit with a fork so that it is not so chunky. Place about a teaspoon on each cheesecake and using a toothpick or the end of a knife, swirl it into the top of the batter.
Bake cheesecake bites for about 20-25 minutes or until edges look set and middle is only slightly giggly. Let cool on a wire rack to room temperature, then place in the fridge to cool completely.
Top each one with fresh strawberries before serving.