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And the cheese stands alone - or does it?

January 11, 2019

The timid dare not speak its name. But for centuries its siren song has lured the innocent into its unrelenting grip. It starts out socially; even recreational. As it tightens its hold, you begin using in secret - late at night - while the rest of the world slumbers. The cravings rule your life. Some produce it at home, cutting the pushers out of the deal. But from that moment on, all hope is lost. What is this forbidden pleasure that lurks in the dark recesses of Rehoboth restaurant refrigerators?

Why, cheesecake, of course.

From her trim figure, you’d never know that Bonnie Cullen is a user. As local guitarist and personal chef Paul Cullen’s wife, she spends a lot of time in restaurants. When she approached me about writing a tell-all exposé of the creamy confection, I asked (in the most hopeful tone I could muster), “Will we have to try them all?” With a steely glint in her eye (and a fork in her purse), she replied, “Certainly.” And so it began.

We each poured a glass of Paul’s Rosso di Toscana, and mapped out our strategies and guidelines. We printed them out, fortified ourselves with a bit more wine, called an Uber and hit the road - leaving all our notes behind. The resulting free-for-all was wonderful.

We started at 1776 Steakhouse. Their cheesecake brûlée arrived looking like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The fiery recipe was spearheaded by original 1776 chef Phil Lambert, who used an open flame to encase a fluffy slice of cheesecake in a crunchy shell. Current chef and partner Tammi Mozingo continues the hallowed tradition. How did humans survive before brûlée torches?

Victoria’s Restaurant at the Boardwalk Plaza Hotel sources from The Point Bakery and Coffee Shop from whence their Nutty Irishman Cheesecake springs. A creamy festival of Frangelico, Bailey’s, candied hazelnut and a granola crust marches out of the kitchen, satisfied in the knowledge that you’ll be helpless in its grip.

Long before many of us begin to stir in the morning, Touch of Italy’s chief baker Marta Lucci is putting the finishing touches on her often-imitated-but-never-duplicated ricotta cheesecake. When Bonnie and I asked her if she mixes cream cheese with the ricotta (an Italian tradition), we were met with stony silence. Apparently Marta keeps these things to herself.

SoDel Concepts’ Corporate Pastry Chef Dru Tevis is never without a fresh idea for cheesecake, and we made it into the Clubhouse at Baywood just in time to get the white chocolate and cherry cheesecake. By the time you read this, that delightfully decadent confection will probably have been replaced by Dru’s own vanilla bean cheesecake, topped with seasonal berries or perhaps even a cranberry/orange compote. It will also be available at Fish On. Bonnie and I might have to return to the scene of the crime to investigate that cranberry/orange thing. Of course, this column will have long since gone to print, but we don’t let little things like that get in our way.

Alex Kotanides is justifiably proud of his variety of pies at Pat’s Family Pizzeria in Lewes. His Greek-style pizza (the square one) is impossibly cheesy and built on a focaccia-like crust. (As an aside, that style of pie reheats at home better than any other in town. Use a pizza stone.) Another great thing about Alex’s pizza is that you get to order dessert afterwards. Pat’s goes all-out in the cheesecake department, offering four varieties that include Oreo, strawberry, carrot and for the not-so-adventurous … plain.

Chef Sean Corea at Fork & Flask has departed from the ordinary by transforming the humble cheesecake into a pumpkin trifle studded with ginger-spiced cranberries, salted caramel and cinnamon streusel. It’s all about cheesecake masquerading as a trifle.

I received several emails about Keith Irwin’s holiday mint-chocolate cheesecake that he featured over Christmas at Old World Breads in Lewes. But my life is one big to-do list, and by the time Bonnie and I got together it was no more. But Keith and his farmers market cronies are already dreaming up seasonal berry swirl cheesecakes. And now that the bike trail passes by Old World Breads, you can conveniently put back all those lost calories with a colorful slice.

Allegedly dreamt up by the ancient Greeks, cheesecake has been evolving for 4,000 years. Of course they didn’t use Kraft Philadelphia cream cheese - there was no Philadelphia back then - but U.S. cheesecakeries began embracing it around 1928. But Marta and her fellow Italian bakers still prefer ricotta, while yet another style of cheesecake favors quark, a cottage cheese-like ingredient popular in Germany.

All good things must come to an end. And in this business of eating, that usually means dessert. No matter how you slice it, cheesecake makes a great canvas upon which resourceful chefs can express their cheesy selves. And sweet tooths (or is that sweet teeth?) the world over are better for it.

  • So many restaurants, so little time! Food writer Bob Yesbek gives readers a sneak peek behind the scenes, exposing the inner workings of the local culinary industry, from the farm to the table and everything in between. He can be reached at byesbek@capegazette.com.

    Masthead photo by Grant Gursky. Used with permission from Coastal Style Magazine.