When I Judged a Cheesecake Contest

I was once a judge at a cheesecake contest. It was at a cookware shop in Darien, Connecticut, and each of us, three judges in all, were given clipboards with survey sheets for cakes numbered 1 through 50.

50 cakes!! How much we would actually be eating by taking 50 bites, one from each cake??

The shop owners reassured us that there were only 32 cakes to sample.

Only 32???

There were tall cakes, fat cakes, plain cakes and glitzy ones. One, covered in mounds of white chocolate curls and festooned with pink satin ribbon, looked too gorgeous to cut.

One cake was already cut. The contestant’s husband had taken a piece for himself, not realizing it was for a contest.

The garlic-and-herb flavored savory cheesecake (with bread crumb crust and tomato rose garnish) was the biggest surprise. We started there.

We tasted New York Cheesecakes, Italian style ricotta cheesecakes, nut-filled cheesecakes, cherry covered ones and a couple topped with glazed or chocolate-dipped strawberries. In between each taste we drank sparkling water.

We tasted all 32 and each finished 3 liters of water.

The white-chocolate fancy cake was terrible, an overload of sugar and no cheese flavor. But it got a special “most beautiful” prize.

The cut cake was very good, but out of 32 entries there were three excellent tasting-looking cheesecakes that were clear winners.

It’s really difficult to be a judge at a local food contest. When the contestants and their families started to file into the store just before the winners were to be announced  we realized how hard everyone worked and how eager they were for us to like their recipes.

And yet, we could only choose three. First place, by a lot, was Leslie Sutton’s chocolate and vanilla layered cheesecake enveloped in a chocolate cookie crust. It was capped with a thin, sweet-and-tangy sour cream icing cover and decorated with dark chocolate leaves and a white chocolate swan. The cake’s delicate beauty was matched by an exquisite flavor.

We announced the winners, prizes were given and then it was all over but the Alka Seltzer.

Leslie, wherever you are now, thank you and you should know that this is still my favorite. And so, on National Cheesecake Day, I am sending this recipe out to any readers who might want to try your recipe for the best cheesecake I ever tasted.

Leslie Sutton’s Layered Cheesecake

Crumb crust:

1-3/4 cups chocolate wafer crumbs

5 tablespoons melted sweet butter

Mix the crumbs and butter until all the crumbs have been coated. Butter the sides of a 9-1/2 inch springform pan. Press the crumbs onto the bottom and sides of the pan. Set aside.

Cake:

3 8-ounce packages cream cheese

1 cup sugar

1/8 teaspoon salt

3 large eggs

1 cup dairy sour cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

7 ounces melted semisweet chocolate

topping

garnish: chocolate leaves, swan, etc. optional

Topping:

2 cups dairy sour cream

1/4 cup sugar

Mix sour cream and sugar. Use as a topping for cheesecake.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Beat the cheese, sugar and salt together (use a mixer set at medium) until smooth, creamy and well-blended. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition. Add the sour cream and vanilla extract and blend thoroughly. Pour half the batter into the springform pan. Add the melted chocolate to the remaining batter, bend thoroughly and slowly pour the chocolate batter on top of the vanilla layer. Bake the cake for 40 minutes. Remove the cake from the oven and let it sit for 15 minutes. Reset the oven to 450 degrees. Pour the topping over the cake. Return the cake to the 450 degree oven and bake for 10 minutes. Remove the cake from the oven and let cool to room temperature. Remove the sides of the pan and refrigerate cake until well chilled. Garnish with chocolate leaves, swan, etc, of your choice. Makes one cake

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