As a young baker, I looked forward to our neighborhood's summer's end picnic and the chance to show off a new dessert recipe.
The block's veteran bakers hogged the spotlight with their blackberry cobblers and fresh peach pies we counted on every summer. To compete with that crowd my dessert had to be different.
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After a season of ending meals with juicy watermelon slices and fruit salads, we're ready for an upscale dessert again. Yet it can still be too hot to want to turn on the oven. Even back then I loved the challenge, the allure, of making a fancy dessert without the oven. I'm on the constant lookout for no-bake dessert recipes; specifically ones that showcase an unusual ingredient or theme.
I found such a recipe recently stashed in a file cabinet. What caught my eye about this Milwaukee cheesecake -- what's not to like about cheesecake?! -- was it's no-bake preparation that didn't rely on sweetened condensed milk or lemon as key thickeners. The choice of marshmallows -- that's right, marshmallows -- as the thickening ingredient surprised this kitchen veteran.
Usually these jet-puffed treats get stirred into rice cereal or toasted and pressed between chocolate bars and graham crackers. This unique recipe shot to the top of my testing pile.
While a few versions of this so-called Milwaukee cheesecake rely upon commercial whipped topping to lighten the texture, this take called for unsweetened whipped cream. Regular cream cheese and melted marshmallows, along with milk, round out the filling ingredients. A few doubts nagged at me about relying on marshmallows solo for sweetness, but I decided to test the recipe as stated.
Marshmallows bring more than just sugar to the cheesecake. That spongy texture and bouncy feel comes from cornstarch and gelatin. These two powerful thickeners give marshmallows the ability to solidify softened cream cheese.
But could almost a pound of marshmallows, alone a distinctive and powerful ingredient, run away with the flavor theme in this recipe? Could plain cream cheese stand up to the mighty marshmallow?
No, on both counts. Unsweetened whipped cream heightened the whiteness of the marshmallows and did nothing to soften the marshmallow flavor or texture. Sadly, but not unexpected, the creaminess in this cheesecake fell by the wayside.
On the up side, I liked the idea of marshmallows adding structure to a no-bake dessert, I just had to tone down the marshmallows while perking up the texture and flavor. If we're going to call it a cheesecake, the taste buds must sense that traditional cheesecake taste.
I didn't want to take the easy way out by using lemon juice for acidity. So instead, to mimic the "tang" of cheesecake, I reduced the amount of unsweetened whipped cream and stirred in light sour cream into the filling. A tad more sugar gave the dessert a needed boost; a splash of vanilla rounded out the flavor.
This no-bake dessert offers enough traditional cheesecake style to comfort the taste buds while paying homage to its summertime roots. Top with your favorite fruit and enjoy this dessert at your summer's end picnic.
• Annie Overboe, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, lives in Villa Park. Write her at email@example.com.