Cheesecake Explores Savory Territory

October 31, 2007

10 Min Read
Cheesecake Explores Savory Territory

One of my fondest memories of when I first knew my wife is when she made a recipe from a magazine clipping for Lindys New York Cheesecake. She ate at Lindys with her aunt on a trip to New York when she was young and never forgot how good it was. The special-occasion recipe was rich and delicious and covered with strawberries standing upright in a light glaze. Each berry, by the way, had to be exactly the same size, requiring the purchase of multiple quarts of berries.

Although the original Lindys restaurants are long closed, the tradition of Jewish-style cheesecakes is very much alive in New York City and around the country. This traditional dessert favorite can be found in New York City licensed under the Lindys name and at delis such as Katzs Delicatessen and Carnegie Deli, as well as New York steakhouses such as the Palm. And dont forget the Cheesecake Factory chain with outposts around the country serving cheesecake.

One thing all of these cheesecakes have in common is they are for desserttheyre sweet. None of these restaurants, that Im aware of, currently serve a savory cheesecake. But the savory side of cheesecake is a product category that holds much untapped potential.

When cheese met cake

Literature references cakes and various pastries containing cheese going back to the time of the Roman Empire, but not until the Middle Ages did it identify recipes for cheesecake-type products. At that time, the wealthy in Europe began to import expensive spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper and allspice. These spices made their way into many dishes, sometimes to cover up spoilage, or added with meaty or salty items to produce medieval versions of savory cheesecake. These items were not desserts under our current definitionnor exclusively savory, because they may have been topped with a small amount of sugar and rosewater.

Exclusively sweet cheesecakes became more common in the culinary repertory throughout Europe and the Mediterranean basin when sugar, also expensive during the Middle Ages, became more accessible and less expensive. Many ethnic groups, especially Greeks, Germans and Italians, developed culinary traditions around sweet cheesecake. When these ethnic groups immigrated to America, they brought these traditions with them. They are reflected in the classic Jewish-style sweet cheesecakes, first made with cottage cheese and later with cream cheese. Italians brought their ricotta-based sweet cheesecake tradition to the States, as well.

A savory epicenter

However, New Orleans and the surrounding area of Louisiana have a somewhat diff erent cultural recipe heritage. New Orleans chefs have a traditional, longstanding love aff air with savory items, according to John Folse, CEO, owner and executive chef, Chef John Folse & Company, Gonzales, LA, immediate past president of the Research Chefs Association and the author of The Encyclopedia of Cajun and Creole Cuisine. Immigrant groups such as Germans, Spanish and Italians settled in and around New Orleans as early as the 1720s. They brought a great dairy farming tradition, as well as a fondness for Creole cream cheese, a farmer-style cheese akin to a cross between cottage cheese and sour cream, that could be folded into eggs and milk to produce cheesecake.

These items started appearing in local bakeries and hotels. The development of the New Orleans brunch tradition saw the addition of many savory ingredients to cheesecakes. Folse cites recent appetizer examples from two of his properties: crawfish and tasso cheesecake with sauce Acadian, flavored with roasted crawfish shells and fi sh stock, served at White Oak Plantation, Baton Rouge, LA, and oyster and artichoke cheesecake with cows milk triple-cream curd and artichoke coulis at Lafittes Landing at Bittersweet Plantation, Donaldsonville, LA.

Numerous examples of savory cheesecake appear in New Orleans restaurants and hotel dining rooms, Folse explains. A famous example is the shrimp and alligator sausage cheesecake served at Jacques-Imos Café. This signature appetizer is served with a Creole sauce made with tomatoes, bell peppers, onion and Creole mustard. Another New Orleans favorite is the crabmeat cheesecake served at Dickie Brennans Palace Café. This signature dish is baked on a crust of crushed pecans and served with a mushroom sauté and a spicy Creole meunière sauce made from butter and cream flavored with lemon, white pepper, Worcestershire sauce and hot sauce.

Elsie Robin, manager, Martin Wine Cellar Catering, Metairie, LA, believes that savory cheesecakes present a more-upscale offering than dips. She also points out that leftovers can be frozen and enjoyed long after a catered event. Their most popular variety is crabmeat and Brie cheesecake served with a roasted-yellow-pepper coulis.

The company also offers crawfish and roasted-corn cheesecake with roasted-red-pepper pesto, in addition to two vegetable-based optionslemon and artichoke with basil and blue-cheese pesto, and roasted eggplant with black-olive tapenade. All are served with bread or crackers and eaten as a spread.

Regional aftershocks

Although not as common, savory cheesecake can be found outside New Orleans. One example from Chicago is found at May Street Market. The restaurants savory cheesecake starter is made with Maytag blue cheese on a layer of spiced pecans that have been caramelized and crumbled. It is garnished with more blue cheese and pecans, as well as wine-poached seasonal fruit and greens. Chantel Randolph, manager, explains that the dish is very popular with customers and has been on the menu since the restaurants opening.

An example from Las Vegas, inspired by its New Orleans connection, is the lobster cheesecake served as a special at Emerils Fish House. This is accompanied with a tomato-tarragon sauce and topped with bowfin fish eggs, sometimes referred to as Choupique caviar or Louisiana caviar.

A little farther south, in Tucson, an artichoke cheesecake rotates on and off the menu at Feast. Doug Levy, owner-operator, explains that this savory cheesecake features diced olive oilpacked Italian artichokes mixed with sun-dried tomatoes, fontina cheese and fresh basil baked in a breadcrumb crust flavored with Parmesan cheese. A wedge is drizzled with olive oil and served with toast points as a spreadable appetizer.

Subtle accents

Like many chefs, Klaus Tenbergen, CMB, assistant professor, California State University, Fresno, finds that the combination of cream cheese and proteins in some savory cheesecakes is rich to the point of needing an accompaniment for balance. As consumers continue to look for foods that somehow encompass their desire for something different, chefs have strived to provide the proverbial magic bullet: savory baking. But we need to make sure that savory cheesecakes are associated with a pleasant experience, he says. Balance is the ultimate goal in the creation of savory cheesecakes. Savory ingredients are primarily used to complement or round out a specific flavor profile or highlight a specific flavor in a savory cheesecake.

Jason Gronlund, executive chef, McIlhenny Company, Avery Island, LA, believes savory cheesecake is best served with a complementary garnish, similar to the nuts and fruit on a cheese plate. He says there is a bit of a mental block with customers associating cream cheese with sweet. People get it, he says, if the savory cheesecake is served like a wedge of cheese with a garnish that complements the primary flavor.

For savory seafood cheesecakes, Gronlund suggests a garnish with a bit of acid to cut the richness, somewhat akin to serving seafood with lemon. For a salmon-flavored cheesecake, for example, he recommends a pickled leek or onion relish accented with a bit of port.

Retail inspirations

The savory cheesecake business at Savory Secret, Nashville, TN, grew out of a signature fresh-herb cheesecake recipe on the catering menu, and Susannah Callaway, chef and co-owner, has had to spend a lot of time educating the public about savory cheesecakes. She says the major selling points are that the cheesecakes are a premium product that is convenient and versatile. The companys current best-seller is Gorgonzola and pear. However, she notes that their customers definitely exhibit regional preferences salmon and dill in the Northeast and mushroom and fontina in Chicago.

Many of Savory Secrets products are sold to wine-tasting rooms for pairings. Callaway suggests serving the cheesecakes with crackers as a savory appetizer. One hotel serves a slice of cheesecake with a signature salad. And she recommends using leftover crumbles in omelets or scrambled eggs.

Folse has also begun to experiment with manufacturing savory cheesecakes. He recently developed 3-oz. samples to share with customers. Among the flavor combinations he has tried are grilled vegetables and roasted garlic with a different cheese as a flavoring. The cheeses he has tried are pepper Jack, feta and Hispanic caso fresco. He has also experimented with one version containing fire-roasted corn, white Cheddar and poblano peppers.

In the kitchen

Tenbergen notes that savory ingredients should complement the cheesecake and enhance the typical cheesecake notes. Because the experience of flavor is highly subjective, affected by differences in peoples ability to sense and interpret flavor notes, any new creation should be aimed to the mainstream customer, he says. It is an art to bake good savory cheesecakes while capturing the most-appropriate flavors.

When experimenting, start by adding a small amount of a savory spice or herb, one type at a time, to a traditional cheesecake recipe. We are most sensitive to taste in the temperature range of 72 to 105ºF. Sweet and sour sensations seem enhanced at the upper level of this temperature range, while salty and bitter tastes are more pronounced at the lower end of the range. Tasting an uncooked batter of cheesecake is different from tasting it once baked and cooled. Consider whether the cheesecake will be served warm, chilled or at room temperature.

Add additional ingredients to favorite cheesecake recipes as enhancers. Start with only one additional savory ingredient and slowly build basic flavor effects. Too many additions may ruin the outcome.

Manufacturing concerns

Experimentation will play a key role during savory- cheesecake research-and-development efforts. Our level of scientific inquiry is basically trial and errorif it works, we go with it, says Amy Hakola, co-owner, Savory Secret. She stresses that for a product to be successful, the end user must have precise thawing and heating directions to follow. The company tests and retests products to make sure they thaw and heat properly. This is a fundamental requirement in customer satisfaction and repeat business.

One major factor Savory Secret has identified that impacts product quality is the use of different cheeses in the finished product. Some cheeses, such as Gorgonzola, create a softer product that requires a longer baking time. Feta cheese requires a shorter baking time because it can burn more easily than some other cheeses used as accent flavoring. Savory cheesecakes that include cheeses in addition to standard cream cheeseno matter what the varietytend to produce a softer, creamier product than a cheesecake made with a standard cream-cheese batter.

Hakola sees no difference in developing good sweet or savory cheesecakes. We are basically developing a cream-cheese mixture, adding flavorings and baking, she says.

Savoring the future

In a March 2004 Food Product Design article on all types of cheesecake (Demystifying Cheesecake, by George Geary) the author predicted that savory cheesecakes would likely be making a big splash in the medium- to high-end restaurant market in the coming years. And, although the savory cheesecake has begun to gain more-widespread acceptance, it hasnt yet hit its stride.

Bob Okura, vice president of culinary development, The Cheesecake Factory, Calabasas Hills, CA, had savory cheesecakes on the menu but took them off. He notes that the chain requires menu items to have very high volumes and, while the savory cheesecakes were popular, their volume was too low to keep them on the menu.

Folse is still testing the savory cheesecake market, because he thinks this category has possibilities. He likes savory cheesecakes because they are portable, freezable and microwavable. This makes them convenient to put on menus.

We have come through menu phases where health and wellness was so important that full-fat has lagged, Folse notes. He believes more-indulgent, full-fat items are beginning to come back onto menus. He sees savory cheesecakes as a growing niche in the foodservice arena. All indications are that they are fun, timely and people are more advanced in looking for interesting, local ingredients than ever before, he says.

We have not yet seen this happen, at least not in chain restaurants, but Folse may be correct that the time for a wider appeal for savory cheesecakes is drawing near.

Subscribe and receive the latest insights on the health and nutrition industry.
Join 37,000+ members. Yes, it's completely free.

You May Also Like