Alex Amoroso cuts the cheesecake
Desserts will break your heart. Baking, or patisserie, is the most technical of the culinary disciplines, a true melding of art and science, chemistry and creativity. Different textures, tastes and effects come as a result of varying ingredients introduced to each other at just the right time and in just the right way. A good pastry chef knows all the tricks to keep a custard together, to create lift and aeration in a cake or soufflÃ© and prevent a pie from falling apart after cutting the first slice.
Cheesecake is perhaps the most distinguished expression of the discipline, and it’s the one upon which Alex Amoroso has built his business.
Like so many other things in life, it began as a challenge: a cheesecake for his mother-in-law. But Alex, who had spent an entire career in the hotel and restaurant business, quickly became obsessed with the dish, replaying variations on the theme in his head’… textures, flavors, sizes and the different techniques that would achieve these ends. The obsession turned into a marketable skill.
Cheesecakes by Alex opened for business just over two years ago with the intention of creating a select few types of cheesecake (he started with just four flavors) and selling them whole over the counter. In the beginning the store was open only three hours a day. Now it stays open all day during the week and until 11 p.m. on weekends. The simple cheesecake counter has since evolved into a full-service bakery and coffee shop, with a brick dining area and an outdoor patio. The turbocharged menu of homemade goodies includes scones, muffins, cakes and what Alex calls ‘“serious brownies.’”
But the cheesecake, simple, noble and elegant, still holds his attention and garners his respect.
‘“It is science and chemistry,’” he says. ‘“It takes several hours [to make a cheesecake] and is slow and methodical, like doing a good custard. We use a water bath and cook it at low temperatures for a long time.’”
And that’s all he’ll say on the matter. Through trial and error, Alex has refined his cheesecake methodology and he’s not about to give away any of his hard-won secrets; he even makes his employees sign a non-disclosure agreement before he’ll show them how it’s done.
‘“It’s a pretty cutthroat industry,’” he says. ‘“Our cheesecakes have started to set themselves apart.’”
Some basic techniques for baking a dish of this complexity are French in origin: the water bath he speaks about, or bain-merie, means simply baking the dish in a water-filled pan inside the oven, a method said to prevent surface cracks. Lumps in the batter, which once formed will not go away, can be minimized through rigorous procedure. All ingredients need to be adjusted to room temperature before mixing. Cream cheese or ricotta must be beaten smooth at the outset before other ingredients are folded in gently. Liquids like heavy cream are added last. The mixture must then be blended at low speed, stopping often to scrape the sides of the bowl.
Another tip: slice the finished cake with a sharp knife dipped in water between cuttings.
These days at Cheesecakes by Alex, the signature menu item comes in no less than 16 varieties with a bestseller list that has the power to make a mouth water.
The Kahlua cheesecake, laced heavily with the coffee-flavored liqueur, is dusted with ground espresso and cinnamon. The Simply Chocolate relies on an Oreo cookie crust, Godiva chocolate liqueur and a dark ganache frosting to deliver complex layers of flavor. The CrÃ¨me Brulee cheesecake has a carmelized sugar topping and is flecked with ground vanilla beans. The Key lime and pumpkin varieties, Alex says, have consumption patterns that change with the seasons. And the gold standard, the simple New York cheesecake, sells well all year round. Alex’s version is a little taller than tradition dictates, but the texture and flavor are true to the dish’s origins.
The Elm Street storefront sells cheesecakes whole or by the slice, and his mail order business has grown to necessitate another store, this one in downtown Winston-Salem, which he plans to open this summer. They ship all over the country, from coast to coast, ‘“Pretty much everywhere FedEx ships,’” he says. And plenty of area restaurants and coffee shops have begun to serve his signature dish, too ‘— you can get them locally at JP Looney’s, Natty Greene’s, Solaris Tapas Restaurant, Lindley Park Coffee and many of the Elizabeth’s Pizza restaurants. But the best way to enjoy them, Alex says, is with a strong cup of coffee right there in the shop while watching the foot traffic on the avenue.
‘“We like the downtown scene,’” he says.
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