In the middle of a fine June day, we embarked on an epic quest: to eat our way through the Cheesecake Factory's entire cheesecake menu. It gets you thinking in epic terms.
O, Muses, o everlasting genius, help me now! O memory, that etched on paper what I tasted; here, your grandeur shall be known! This article was not my idea, not my wish, not my choosing; rather, this was my destiny. Those Fates, those Editorial Fates, spun my web...
Few have attempted to try all 33 different flavors of cheesecake at the Cheesecake Factory; fewer have succeeded without medical assistance. But we've boldly gone where no others have gone before.
The staff at the Hackensack, New Jersey Cheesecake Factory* were tremendously kind, though understandably unsettled by our mission: "The cheesecake is good, but these three are going to eat every piece?" Perhaps they didn't believe that we could do it when we proposed a mission to sample every kind of cheesecake. After three rounds of two pieces, the other patrons gawked at us. After five rounds, they definitely thought we were gluttons. But you've got to ignore them; you've got to get in the zone.
*Thanks to Cheesecake Factory corporate for going along with our harebrained scheme and supplying more cheesecake than we could eat comfortably.
What makes a good cheesecake? When we attempted our Best Cheesecake in NYC taste-test, we defined it as such:
It's smooth and creamy, just sweet enough, with a hint of tartness. If there's a crust, it adds something extra without overwhelming the taste of the cheesecake itself. And it's rich enough to seem a bit decadent, without going down like a cement pour. You should want to keep eating—at least, for more than one bite.
And we did want to keep eating after one bite. Even two. Ten. But 33 was a little rough.
How to come up with 33 different versions of cheesecake? The Cheesecake Factory gets pretty creative, though the long list breaks down into a few basic constructions:
- Topped Cheesecake: Variations on the classic, adding toppings and sauces like strawberries, fudge, and the like.
- Flavored Cheesecake: Other flavors added to the cheesecake batter itself, such as chocolate or key lime, to make the base cheesecake taste different.
- Layered Cheesecake: Layers of mousse or thick crusts accounting for a large portion of the height and thickness of the cake; you might also see Oreos, ladyfingers, or caramel.
- Layered Cake-Cheesecake: a towering version with cake layers interspersed with the cheesecake.
Within those categories you'll find pretty much every possible permutation. Looking for candy? There's a cheesecake with Reese's, one with Snickers, and another with Butterfinger. More of a straight-up chocolate person? There's an intense Chocolate Mousse version with shaved chocolate on top, a Chocolate-Raspberry Truffle cheesecake for those who crave raspberry-filled bonbons, and for the truly obsessed, a luxurious Godiva cheesecake with a layer of dark chocolate ganache. There are a number of cheesecakes that that riff on classic desserts: a fresh banana cream version for banana pudding lovers, a red velvet cake cheesecake, a retro pineapple upside-down cheesecake, and an ambitious carrot cake cheesecake with cheesecake in the place of frosting. (Except there's also frosting.)
The other pressing question was just how to eat these pieces of cheesecake—the Factory serves up some mighty large portions. The natural inclination is to eat a piece of cake from front to back, or from point to outside crust. However, sometimes the best part of a cake or cheesecake is the back—or in its bottom crust. Thinking of cheesecake from point to back is one-dimensional, and disadvantages the oft-forgotten parts of cheesecake. My recommendation? Explore the cheesecake. My favorite method? Knock it over on its side, and attack from all angles! Take a bite off the back, grab a mostly crust part off the bottom, or carve out a yellow-only fluffy cheese bite.
With such a wide range of options, you'll probably want to narrow your order down by genre: are you into fruit, chocolate, candy, cake, or coffee? Once you've narrowed that down, you can zero in on the winners.
Best for Chocoholics: Godiva Chocolate Cheesecake
This intense dessert has a base of flourless dark chocolate cake. On top of that, you'll find a layer of chocolate cheesecake, a layer of chocolate mousse, and a thin layer of deep, dark chocolate ganache. The square of Godiva chocolate on top is a nice touch. Despite having already tasted 30 cheesecakes before we got to this one, our tasters all loved it. It's intensely flavored and not too sweet. (Cheesecake prices range from $6.75 to $7.75; premium cheesecakes like this are at the higher end of that price range.)
Best for Fruit Lovers: Lemon Raspberry Cream Cheesecake
Two words: raspberry puree. We worried this would be a candy-sweet cornstarch-thickened gluey mess, but the raspberry sauce was tart and freshly flavored, perfectly offsetting the ladyfinger-studded tart lemon cheesecake and lemon mousse topping. Though not all our tasters loved the ladyfingers, the combination of lemon cheesecake and tart berry sauce made for a refreshing treat.
Best Presentation: Chocolate Tuxedo Cream Cheesecake
You eat with your eyes first, and this one's a showstopper. It's like a tuxedo in two ways: black and white, and good-looking. Starting on the bottom, this cheesecake has a layer of fudge cake, a layer of chocolate cheesecake, a layer of creamy mousse, and a final layer of chocolate ganache. The chocolate cheesecake, like the Godiva, blends the chocolate and creamy cheesecake seamlessly. What really made it stand out was the swirled band of chocolate syrup and marshmallow cream on the plate around the cake. Definitely one of the best looking desserts on the menu.
Actually Like Another Dessert: Key Lime Cheesecake
Just what it sounds like. The crust is a thin layer of crushed vanilla wafers, with a tart Key Lime cheesecake filling and whipped cream. Thinner than the other cheesecakes, about as tart as you want Key Lime Pie to be, and had just the right amount of sweetness. The lime brings out the natural tartness of the cheesecake—it's easy to devour quite a bit of this one.
Coffee Addict Award: Tiramisu Cheesecake
Like the Italian dessert, coffee-flavored cheesecake and mascarpone cream sit atop a thick crust of Marsala-wine-and-espresso-soaked ladyfingers, which had a real hit of java. Not too sweet, great coffee flavor—after 22 pieces of cheesecake, it was the pick-me-up we needed.
Most Decadent: Reese's Peanut Butter Chocolate Cake Cheesecake
This beautiful monster had layers of chocolate fudge cake, salted caramel, and classic cheesecake with pieces of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups inside. If that weren't enough, there were chocolate chunks all over the back of the slice. The caramel was gooey and lightly salty, setting off the peanut butter nicely. This one's a lot of desserts in one.
Best Cheesecake for Cake Lovers: 30th Anniversary Chocolate Cake Cheesecake
I couldn't help but fall for this cake, which has four alternating layers of fudgy chocolate cake and classic cheesecake. The slice is then topped with a chocolate cream icing, and the back of the slice is finished with crunchy chocolate pearls. The chocolate fudge cake was moist, fudgy, and not too sweet, and the crunchy pearls provide an interesting textural contrast. My favorite part, though, was the swirl of chocolate cream on top. Looking at it, I expected a sugar rush, like birthday-cake icing. Instead, I found a thick and silky, intensely chocolate-tasting frosting.
We had a few other favorites, too, and many cakes to go before we slept. Banana Cream Cheesecake: check. A must order for banana pudding lovers. Brownie Sundae cheesecake: check. Reminded us of an old-fashioned soda fountain dessert. Apple streusel cheesecake: check. More streusel and apple than cheesecake, but we needed a break anyway. How many of these have you tried? Check them all out in the slideshow »
The Cheesecake Factory isn't really the cutting edge of pastry—and we didn't expect it to be—but these cheesecakes were quite tasty. I went into this challenge expecting creamy but overly-sugared, waxy cheesecake, and walked away with a very different impression. (And a very, very full stomach.)
It's easy to imagine a chain restaurant taking one cheesecake and just loading it up with 33 different toppings; the truth of the Cheesecake Factory is that these really are 33 different creations. Should you end up at a Factory, here's hoping you're now acquainted with whatever rendition might appeal to you. But if not, hey—you could always repeat the experiment yourself.
About the Author: John M. Edwards, the fast-food bureau chief at Serious Eats, also writes about fast food and regional chains at fastfoodr.com. His day job relates to personal training and nutrition. (Seriously.) Follow him at @johnmedwards.
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