Summer is fading and I am finding myself trying to make as many desserts as possible featuring sun-soaked, ripe fresh fruit, as if by doing so I could make summer last just a wee bit longer. After all, nothing says summer like fresh fruit! And there is nothing like the joy of berry season. From May through August, I find myself compulsively snacking on fresh, locally-grown berries, starting with juicy blackberries early in the season, feasting on strawberries and raspberries mid-summer, and wrapping up the season with blueberries to mark nature’s last hurrah before autumn sets in. But of all the berries, strawberries are the crown-jewel of summer berries and my most favorite. Strawberry season is short and sweet and I look forward to it all year, with the added element of anticipation that this year I was hoping to harvest my own home-grown strawberries to make a scrumptious strawberry cheesecake.
When I moved into my urban cottage in Southwest Minneapolis last year, one of my main goals was to create a garden that was a riot of flowers and color, had both sunny and shady areas to enjoy, and would have the potential to grow my own fruits and vegetables during the warm season. I can’t deny that I fantasized about having a small farm, but the truth is that having a farm right now is not compatible with our current life stage. You see, I come from a long line of gardeners and farmers hailing all the way from Europe many generations ago. In Buenos Aires, our house sat next to a verdant garden complete with a lemon tree, two apricot trees, a set of banana trees, climbing jasmine, hydrangeas, birds of paradise and even a massive bay leaf tree two stories high and four feet thick. My grandmother had a large garden too, and a portion of her back garden was dedicated to vegetables, where she grew potatoes, tomatoes, squash, basil, and other herbs. And apparently, this habit of gardening has been passed down the generations, so even though as a young adult I lived in college dorms and small apartments, the minute I stepped into the yard of my little cottage, all of those inherited gardening impulses burst to life, and I found myself itching to grow fruits and vegetables of my own and use them in my recipes.
Alas, the garden of our cottage has probably not been tended in over 10 years. It had a wooden deck in the middle of the yard unconnected to any structure, and the back was a jungle of weeds and buckthorn. After one year, I have made significant progress and have established a substantial bed of hydrangeas, planted a lilac bush for their wonderfully sweet and intoxicating scent, and planted a few peonies, roses, and coneflowers. Additionally, among the many other things I placed, there is a strawberry plant. While my little plant has yielded beautiful little red berries with an intense flavor, quite unlike the ones you find at the store which are the very opposite, large and watery-tasting, my plant is much too young to produce enough fruit for any recipe. I am hoping that as the years go by, I will end up being a successful strawberry gardener going into my backyard with a basket to collect heaping amounts of ruby-red berries. One day, it will be!
In the meantime, I cannot wait more years to develop a strawberry cheesecake recipe that emphasizes the flavor of strawberries. Have you ever had one dish you always wanted to make, but couldn’t find the right recipe? Strawberry cheesecake is one such dish for me. All summer long, I wanted a slice of the beautiful, blush-pink goodness bursting with berry flavor, but alas, every recipe I’ve encountered was a no-bake cheesecake. I have nothing against no-bake recipes, but I wanted a baked strawberry cheesecake because it is more like a traditional cheesecake, with a dense, firm texture. No-bake cheesecakes tend to be lighter, very soft, almost mousse-like, and many no-bake cheesecake recipes end up being a huge flop where the texture is so soft it’s like serving yogurt and then they turn into a big liquid mess when it thaws. Not for me, no siree.
This strawberry cheesecake is more work than a no-bake cheesecake but less work than a layer cake, and just as stunning and pretty. It is a twist on a classic. Most strawberry cheesecakes consist of a buttery graham cracker crust; a lightly sweet, dense, creamy filling; and a topping of red berries on top, usually with a drizzle of fruity syrup. I wanted the strawberries pureed into the cream cheese layer so that I would get the bright berry flavor blended with the luscious creamy vanilla. After many attempts, I landed on what is probably the best approximation of what I had envisioned. My crust here is made out of Italian Amaretti Di Saronno cookies, which are naturally grain-free. They lend a distinctive almond flavor to the crust, which makes this cheesecake a bit unique and out of the ordinary. The cheesecake layer is flavorful and truly scrumptious, balancing the tanginess of the cheese with the sweetness of the strawberry and vanilla; it has a wonderfully firm consistency, rich but not heavy, and features an appealing pale blush color. If you want the color to be stronger, you might have to use food coloring. I chose not to because I’m not big on artificial dyes, but there are natural options if you want to turn your cheesecake a bright shade of pink instead. Lastly, when choosing strawberries at the market, don’t go for the ones that are partially white: strawberries don’t ripen after they are picked. Choose strawberries that are bright red, plump, and firm to the touch. Don’t wash them until you’re ready to use them. Hope you enjoy the recipe and the end of summer!
Prep time: 20 mins
Cook time: 1 hour 30 mins
Chill time: 8 hours
Makes: 12 servings
- 11 ¼ oz amaretti cookies (such as Lazzaroni brand)
- 3 tbps butter, melted
- 32 oz cream cheese, at room temperature
- 1 ¼ cups sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla powder or extract
- 5 eggs
- 1 ½ cups (7.5 oz) strawberries, chopped
- ¼ cup of sugar
- 1 tbsp cornstarch
- red food coloring (optional)
- 5 strawberries, halved
- ½ cup heavy whipping cream
- 1 tbsp powdered sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
For the Crust:
- Preheat the oven to 350ºF.
- Using a food processor, grind the amaretti cookies to a gritty dust.
- In a medium bowl, mix the cookie crumbs and melted butter to combine.
- Press the mixture evenly into the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan.
- Transfer the springform pan to the oven and bake until the crust is lightly golden, about 10 to 12 minutes.
- Remove from the oven and let cool at room temperature. Also turn the oven down to 325ºF so it can cool down a bit while you make the filling.
For the Filling:
- In a medium saucepan, combine the chopped strawberries, ¼ cup sugar, and cornstarch, tossing to mix.
- Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, for about 10 minutes, until the strawberry has softened and a thick syrup forms.You should end up with 1 ½ cups of strawberry puree.
- Remove the strawberry mixture from the heat and, using an immersion blender, puree the strawberry mixture until very smooth. Let cool to room temperature.
- While the strawberries cool, in a food processor, beat the cream cheese, sugar, vanilla, and eggs until very smooth, about 2 minutes. Pause occasionally to scrape down the bowl.
- Add the cooled strawberry puree to the cream cheese mixture, mixing well. If desired, add the red food coloring.
- Heat a large kettle of water to barely simmering.
- Place the springform pan with the crust in a large roasting pan. Pour the cream cheese filling into the crust, then pour the hot water from the kettle into the roasting pan to come about halfway up the sides of the springform pan, as you would in a hot water bath.
- Carefully transfer the roasting pan to the oven and bake the cheesecake for 60 to 75 minutes at 325ºF. To test for doneness, the edges of the cheesecake should be slightly golden and set, but the center will still jiggle slightly.
- Once done, remove the cheesecake from the oven and leave the springform pan in the water bath to cool for 30 minutes.
- Transfer the springform pan to the refrigerator and chill at least 2 hours before removing the cheesecake from the pan. It’s best if you let the cheesecake set 8 hours or overnight. It will really set.
- If you want to garnish the cheesecake, whip together ½ cup of heavy whipping cream with powdered sugar and vanilla extract. Beat on high speed for 3 to 4 minutes until medium peaks form. Essentially, the peak of whipped cream should be slightly sturdy. It should not be heavy and curdled, and it should not be so soft that it will lose its shape.
- Remove the outer ring of the springform pan and transfer the cheesecake to a serving platter or cake stand.
- Place the whipped cream in a decorating bag fitted with a decorating tip and apply slow pressure to the decorating bag to squeeze cream out of the tip, while swirling to create a decorated dollop. Place ½ strawberry atop each dollop of cream. Ideally each serving gets a dollop with a fresh strawberry on top.
- Serve the cheesecake chilled. It can be refrigerated for up to 2 days before chilling, and leftover cheesecake can be refrigerated for up to 2 additional days. Enjoy!