I’ll admit it: I was disgusted when I first saw the words “cheesesteak cheesecake.” (You probably are, too.) But that was last week, before I’d baked one myself and fed it to a room of colleagues who cleaned their plates.
As with much in life, it turned out that the cheesesteak cheesecake was nothing like what I thought it would be. It was savory, creamy, and not sweet, more like quiche than dessert, and far from the textural nightmare I’d feared. It was the kind of junk food that people claim they’d never touch — until it’s sitting in front of them, smelling like cheese, butter and meat, and suddenly they’re inhaling it.
“I would think it would be a lot worse than this,” said business reporter Ellie Silverman, summing up what many said after the first forkful. “I would eat this again.”
The recipe was created by Nikki Miller-Ka, a North Carolina food writer and blogger who was born and spent summers as a child in Philadelphia. She created the dish almost three years ago as part of a tailgating recipe roundup. She posted it on her blog, Nik Snacks, and said she didn’t think about it again until May 30, when the blog BroBible tweeted about it. Almost instantly, her recipe became the target of jokes, haters and horrified takes.
“I get it,” Miller-Ka said by phone this week. “If I had just seen that photo with nothing else, I would have called myself names as well.”
At the urging of my editors, I set about making my own cheesesteak cheesecake. Miller-Ka’s straightforward, incredibly easy-to-follow recipe calls for a wheat-cracker crust, butter, eggs, a little flour and milk, seasoning, cream cheese, and provolone. Once baked, it’s topped with onions, steak, green peppers and an optional garnish of Cheez Whiz.
“That’s not optional,” my editor said.
I assembled the crust by pounding crackers into crumbs, adding butter and cayenne pepper, and packing the mixture into the bottom of a springform pan. It smelled like buttery crackers — so far, so good.
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Things got dicier with the filling. Churning in my stand mixer, the cream cheese and provolone came together in unappetizing lumps that resembled cottage cheese. “Or rice pudding,” offered my colleague David Maialetti, who was in my kitchen shooting photographs of the process.
I ventured a small spoonful. It was strange, like cheese dip but with a strong aftertaste of Worcestershire sauce. “You would never put that on a cheesesteak,” David noted, correctly.
Once I had poured the cheesecake batter into the pan and it was baking away in the oven, I sauteed peppers, onions, and sliced steak, then drained it on paper towels before sprinkling it with salt. The cake came out after exactly 40 minutes, semi-firm and golden around the edges, the crust mostly intact. It smelled like a fancy, toasted cheese cracker. (It was, literally, cheese and crackers.)
I assembled the cake in the office, dressing it with the meat and vegetables and finishing with a generous drizzle of Whiz. Before I could even send an email inviting others to try it, people spotted the cake from across the room, swarmed the food table, and descended like vultures on my cheesy project. And while it’s true that people who work in a newsroom will eat anything, people ate it while there were leftover sandwiches sitting nearby. They also kept eating it — most people who took a slice finished every last crumb.
“It’s definitely not a disaster,” Inquirer.com producer Josh Mellman said.
“Oh!” columnist Kevin Riordan said, delighted, after taking a bite. “It’s not bad!”
Reporter Jacob Adelman agreed. “Mmmm!” he said, his mouth full.
Inquirer food critic Craig LaBan appreciated the richness of the flavors but questioned the level of sweetness from the cream cheese. He suggested that the meat would benefit from being sliced into smaller pieces. “The best part of it is the peppers,” he said. “It gives it a nice crunch.”
Incidentally, Miller-Ka said the most vitriolic of her online critics singled out the green peppers as the cake’s biggest flaw. “I know good and well they don’t belong in a Philly steak,” she said, but the peppers add much-needed color and freshness.
Reporter Julia Terruso thought the dish might be improved by piling on even more flavors.
“It’s good enough and gimmicky enough to bring to a party,” she said. “I wonder if hot sauce would be good on it?”
SAVORY PHILLY CHEESESTEAK CHEESECAKE
Makes one 9-inch cake
For the crust:
2 1/2 cups wheat cracker crumbs
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
For the filling and topping:
14 ounces cream cheese, softened
2 1/2 cups provolone cheese, shredded
2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup cream or whole milk
1/2 pound top round or sirloin, sliced thin
1/2 teaspoon oil
1/2 green pepper, sliced thin
1/2 cup white onion, sliced
1/2 teaspoon seasoned salt
Cheez Whiz for garnish, if desired
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place steak in freezer for 30 to 45 minutes to make it easier to slice.
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In a medium bowl, mix together the wheat cracker crumbs, melted butter, salt, and cayenne pepper. Press into the bottom and up the sides of an 9-inch springform pan. Set aside.
In a large bowl or using a stand mixer, beat the cream cheese until smooth and fluffy. Beat in the provolone cheese, flour, and Worcestershire sauce until combined. Gradually beat in the cream (or milk), then beat in the eggs, one at a time.
Pour on top of the wheat cracker crust. Bake 40 to 45 minutes or until it is almost set (it will feel firm when touched and wiggle a little bit when moved). Let cool to room temperature. Remove the side of the pan before adding the steak topping.
Remove steak from the freezer and slice very thin. Heat the oil in a medium saute pan over medium-high heat. Add the green pepper and onion and cook until soft. Season with seasoned salt.
Add steak and saute for 2 to 4 minutes.
Spoon the steak mixture over the cheesecake. Optional: Top the steak with a drizzle of Cheez Whiz.
Source: Nikki Miller-Ka of Nik Snacks, niksnacksonline.com