New Jersey Diner Cheesecake

I cannot hear a Donna Summer song without doing time travel in my head to a place where my life seemed like a boundless adventure, every opportunity for romance, fame and fortune a distinct possibility. This photo captures a moment in 1975, after I’d just turned 18, and was being nominated for Homecoming Queen, sophmore year at my small New Jersey college. I was an unlikely candidate for such mainstream popularity, having escaped high school by skipping my senior year and passing GO! in a hurry before my parents could change their minds. You don’t skip senior year of high school if you are Homecoming Queen material. You stay and revel in your top-of-the-heap status at school, you take it easy, plan all year for prom. Not me. In high school I was too tall, too introspective, a brooding journal keeper, shy, a bit of an outsider who could occasionally find a way in with humor. I was self-conscious of my immigrant parents in a homogenous town, and made even more so by the dark secrets of emotional and physical abuse that happened behind the closed doors of my home. I was looking for an escape and college provided one.

There, I found my first real boyfriend, lost 20 pounds and blossomed. I was part of a “crowd.” I can still remember in visceral detail the breathless awe I felt the first time I walked into a packed disco with my college friends, the wave of deafening music hitting me in the face, jacking up my pulse until it matched the bass line of the song being played. It was Donna Summer’s Love to Love You Baby.

My weekends through college I worked as a cocktail waitress, then bartender at a sports bar/disco near Giant Stadium that the players frequented, and it was Summers’ songs, along with others, that had me dancing through the nights, making it more play than work, slinging drinks and pocketing big tips that were more about my short hotpants than the good service.

The driving disco beat was the soundtrack of my life those years. Bear with me as I try to tie all this in with food, which in New Jersey, in the 70’s, when you’re leaving the club at 2 a.m., and you’ve had a few drinks, and haven’t eaten anything all night but goldfish crackers or orange segments off the bar, means you hit a diner. I’d push away the telephone-book-of-a menu that had everything from cheese-laden French fries with gravy (aptly named Disco Fries) to Chicken Cordon Bleu on its pages, and simply order cheesecake with the cherry topping.

In Jersey that comes not so much by the slice but the slab. The thick, graham-cracker-crust end of the wedge would be a good four inches. You couldn’t eat the whole thing, and needed hot coffee to help get its cold creamy decadence down. Donna would be there too, made possible by a few coins, a flip of the pages to find your favorites, and some buttons pushed on the mini jukebox at the diner booth. Something more mellow like MacCarther Park, Dim All The Lights, or On The Radio. Around 3 o’clock you’d all drift out, sober and sleepy and full.

There’s no rewind button for life. Time bullies on, taking our youth and our youthful icons along the way. But the music makes you remember, lets you close your eyes and feel it. And the cheesecake, yeah, the cheesecake lets you taste it.


NJ Diner Cheesecake
aka New York Cheesecake, adapted from Gourmet Magazine, by way of Smitten Kitchen

Crumb crust
15 sheets of graham cracker, ground finely in a food processor (4 3/4 x 2 1/2-inch each) or 8 oz. of finely ground chocolate or vanilla wafer cookies or any of these you can find in a gluten-free variety can be substituted
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt

Cheesecake filling:
5 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened (Philadelphia is my preferred)
1 3/4 cups sugar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
(or gluten-free flour mix)
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
5 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Cherry topping
15 ounces sweet or sour cherries, pitted (frozen is fine)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup sugar*
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/2 cup watet

Make crumb crust:

Stir together crust ingredients and press onto bottom and up the sides, stopping one inch shy of the top rim of a buttered 9 1/2-inch (or 24 cm) springform pan. Place the pan with the formed crust in the freezer to set, for 15 minutes. Make the filling.

Cheesecake filling:

1. Preheat oven to 550 degrees (yes, 550). NOTE: if using a Teflon coated pan, only go as high as 475, which is the manufacturers suggested limit. Your cake may then need more time to brown before you reduce temp. See baking instructions below.)  Beat together cream cheese, sugar, flour and zest with an electric mixer until smooth, using a paddle attachment (with scraper), if you have one, or beaters if you don’t. Add vanilla, then eggs and yolks, one at a time, beating on low speed until each ingredient is incorporated. Scrape bowl down between additions to avoid being left with stripes of unincorporated cream cheese.

2. Take your springform pan out of the freezer and put it in a shallow baking pan or on a rimmed sheet pan to catch any overflow in the baking process. (Better than scraping off burnt goo from the bottom of your oven later.) Pour filling into crust, which will be full just about to the top. Carefully transfer the sheet pan, with the springform pan in it to the oven, positioning it in the center of the rack (which is positioned in the lower middle of the oven). Bake at 55 degrees for 12 minutes or until puffed. Keep an eye on your cake because some ovens will brown the top very quickly. If you notice this happening, turn the oven down as soon as you catch it. Reduce the temperature to 200 degrees and continue baking until cake is mostly firm (center will still be slightly wobbly when pan is gently shaken), about one hour more.

3. Remove the pan(s) from oven. Run a knife around the top edge of the cake to loosen it and cool the cake completely in the springform on a rack, then chill it, loosely covered, at least 6 hours before serving to allow it to set.

Make cherry topping (optional): Place all ingredients together in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil. Once it is boiling, cook it for an additional one to two minutes then remove from heat. Cool completely.

To serve:

Gently remove springform side of pan and transfer cake to a plate. Spread topping (if using) over chilled cheesecake.

Do ahead: Make topping up to 3 days ahead and store in air-tight container in fridge. Cheesecake keeps, covered and chilled, 2 weeks.


In Memory of the Queen of Love, RIP Donna Summer 1948-2012