20090625pieopen.jpgIs it possible, I mean really possible, to make a cheesecake in just 15 minutes of active prep time? How about one with a graham cracker crust and a strawberry glaze? That's what the Jell-O No-Bake Strawberry Cheesecake Mix promises, right there on the front of the box. I took it on, like a Top Chef Quick Fire Challenge, for this week's Mixed Review.

7:20pm: I open the box. There are three pouches inside, one filled with graham cracker crumbs, one filled with a mysterious cheesecake powder, and one filled with the strawberry topping. A quick glance at the instructions reveals that the first step is to mix the graham cracker crumbs with 2 tablespoons of sugar and 5 tablespoons of melted butter, and press it into a pie plate. Shoot. I didn't pre-melt my butter. Should I take a time-out or just keep going? I decide that most home cooks don't assemble their ingredients mis en place-style, so I hurl the butter into a saucepan on the stove and let the clock run.

7:25pm: The crust is done. It looks pretty good, though it's a little thin around the edges. I would have liked a few extra tablespoons of crumbs. I lick the spoon I used to press the mixture into the pie plate. Yum. Is there anything better than the flavor of melted butter, graham crackers, and sugar? It tastes like childhood.

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7:27pm: On to the cheesecake filling. I dump the contents of the second packet into a large mixing bowl and add 1 1/2 cups of milk. I take out the base of my handheld electric mixer, set it on the counter, and start rummaging though a drawer for the beaters. I find one quickly, but the other seems to have disappeared. Where is it? I only have 8 minutes left! Wait...wait...there it is, under the package of wooden grilling skewers I bought for last week's shrimp kebobs.

7:29pm: I beat the cheesecake mix and the milk on low for 30 seconds, then increase the speed to high, as the Jell-O package instructs. Three minutes later the mixture has thickened to the consistency of mayonnaise—it's gooey, creamy, and wobbles a bit when I shake the bowl.

7:33pm: I pour the filling into the graham cracker crust and smooth it to the edges. Somehow, it looks less like a cheesecake than a blanco version of the chocolate pudding pie my mom used to make on special occasions. But no matter, I finished with two minutes left, which will be just enough time to top the cheesecake with the strawberry glaze once it chills for an hour.

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8:33pm: The cheesecake has set up nicely. The filling has firmed a bit, and it looks like I'll be able to cut clean slices. I tear open the last pouch and squeeze its Technicolor contents over the top of my dessert, spreading it with a butter knife. I can’t help but notice—before I've even tasted it—that the strawberry topping doesn't really have that many pieces of actual strawberry in it. It's more like a viscous, clear pink goo. Hmm.

8:35pm: Done! My cheesecake is finished in exactly 15 minutes of active prep time. Now for the taste test: I cut myself a wedge, noting with satisfaction that the crust, filling, and topping all hold together, making for a nice presentation. (Nobody likes a cheesecake that's more like a pudding with a pile of crust from the bottom of the pan heaped next to it.)

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The crust, in fact, proved to be the best part of the Jell-O No Bake Cheesecake. Crispy and light, it had just the right amount of sweetness and not so much butter that it turned greasy. The cheesecake filling, too, was mostly a success: airy and creamy, and lightly flavored with vanilla. I would have liked more cream cheese flavor and perhaps a bit more density (I’m a fan of the New York style cheesecake), but on the whole I found it pleasantly palatable. Unfortunately, the strawberry topping was less of a triumph. It tasted artificial and cloying, and it completely overwhelmed the other flavors.

Ultimately, I would recommend the Jell-O No Bake Cheesecake, but not the strawberry variety. Stick to the original, and if you want to add fruit, spoon some of your favorite jam on top.

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