Lemon kisses the crust, but leaves this bar-style cheesecake rich and creamy, then appears again in a sweet sauce that covers the strawberries on this springtime dessert.
My grandma would have us over for Sunday dinners often. When my family up and moved away from the city, his brother followed, buying the house two doors down. His parents, my grandparents, would keep a respectable distance of 1/4 mile when they moved, too, so as not to crowd the boys. Only my aunt, with her world-traveling ways, would flit on the outer edges, sometimes a good hour away by car. Today she lives a whole mile from me, and still I am 25 minutes from my parents, my uncle, and my grandfather.
Sunday dinners were my favorite family activity. There was the joy I found watching my grandma in the kitchen, but there was also a feeling of togetherness. The adults would talk, the kids would climb on the adults all over the floor, not allowed on the champagne-colored floral brocade couch with its pillows just so. Food would be served and eaten, and at the end of the meal a cheesecake would appear.
It’s probably no surprise then that family and friendly gatherings to me always seem to call for cheesecake. It is the glue that holds it all together: the conversation, the giggling, everyone together in one place, begging them to stay just a bit longer after the meal has been served, consumed, and cleaned up. Holding them hostage for just one last bite of goodness, the goodness of gathering and eating together.
This recipe started as Junior’s cheesecake, a request from a neighbor that I make it for his cheesecake-loving self, but after a few years, I’ve morphed it into cheesecake bars, changed the crust, the method, added lemon and strawberries, and started making it in a 9×13 cake pan instead of a 9″ springform. Blasphemous, perhaps. I’ve never actually bothered to try Junior’s myself in all my trips to New York. Shh…
For the spongecake crust:
1/2 cup cake flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
3 eggs, separated
7 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 lemon, juiced and zested
1 tablespoon butter, melted
For the cheesecake:
4 8-ounce packages cream cheese, softened
1 2/3 cups sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 eggs, lightly beaten
3/4 cup cream
For the topping:
4 cups sliced strawberries
1/2 cup water
1 lemon, juiced and zested
1/2 cup sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
Preheat your oven to 350º F. Lightly grease the bottom and sides of a 9×13″ cake pan.
For the crust: Sift together the cake flour, baking soda, and salt. Set aside. Beat the egg yolks for 3 minutes, then slowly add 5 tablespoons of sugar and continue beating until a thick, pale yellow ribbon forms. To the egg yolks, mix in the vanilla, lemon juice, and lemon zest. Stir in the flour mixture until incorporated, and then add the butter and stir to combine. Set aside.
In a separate bowl, beat egg whites until frothy. Add in the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar. Continue beating until stiff peaks form. Add one cup of the egg whites to the cake batter and stir to combine. Fold in the remaining egg yolks just until incorporated.
Spread the cake batter into the bottom of the prepared pan. Bake for 15-18 minutes until the top just starts to brown and the center springs back when touched lightly. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.
For the cheesecake: Beat together all four packages of cream cheese until creamy and no lumps remain. Stir together sugar and cornstarch, breaking up any clumps. Slowly add the sugar and cornstarch mixture to the cream cheese while continually beating. Mix in vanilla. Mix eggs and cream together, and then slowly pour into the cream cheese mixture while beating. Continue beating until combined.
Pour cream cheese layer over the baked spongecake, spreading evenly across the cake. Return the pan to the oven and bake for 60-70 minutes, until the center of the cheesecake is just set but still wobbly. Turn off the oven, crack the door slightly and allow the cheesecake to come to room temperature. Refrigerate until cool, at least 4 hours.
When the cheesecake is cool, make the topping: Place the strawberries in a large, heatproof bowl. Set aside. In a small saucepan, combine the water, lemon juice and zest, sugar, and cornstarch. Heat over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved and the syrup starts to thicken and coat the spoon. Remove from heat, pour over strawberries and stir to coat evenly. Immediately pour the strawberries over the cooled cheesecake. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Makes 24 bars.