JOCO Dining: The (semi) definitive guide to local cheesecake

Cowtown Cheesecake Co.'s four-layer cinnamon cheesecake .
Cowtown Cheesecake Co.’s four-layer cinnamon cheesecake .

By Charles Ferruzza

Like many people growing up in the Midwest, my first taste of cheesecake was the frozen product manufactured by Sara Lee and sold in supermarkets. My mother didn’t purchase this very often – we had an outstanding delicatessen in our neighborhood for this delicacy – but she was a big advocate for convenience food so occasionally, one of Sara Lee’s cheesecakes fell into her shopping cart.

I thought they were delicious, but what did I know?

Chef Terry Mille, best-known as the creative force behind Cowtown Cheesecake, recalls the first time he tasted cheesecake as a kid: “It was Sara Lee,” he says.

He was unimpressed, even at the time. But years later, after learning his craft working in a variety of restaurants, Mille began experimenting with baking cheesecakes. Oddly enough, a tragedy triggered his interest in the art of the cheesecake. In 2005, in the turbulent days of Hurricane Katrina, chef Mille was serving as the Red Cross mass feeding coordinator at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana (the school’s arena was being utilized as a shelter), preparing as many as 450 meals – three times a day – for the displaced population.

Wanting to utilize ingredients and products from the region, Mille baked his first sweet potato cheesecake.

He’s never stopped, finally opening a mail-order cheesecake business, Cowtown Cheesecake Co., and later, a short-lived bakery and café in Bonner Springs; he closed that venture earlier in 2016 after two years of operation. Seeking greener pastures, he took a job with a catering firm in Texas – and came to his senses.

“I have a very strong following and customer base in Kansas City,” he says. “Why was I running away from it?”

Mille is still operating the mail-order component of the Cowtown Cheesecake Co. (now taking holiday orders at www.cowtowncheesecake.com) and starts today cooking – working with veteran chef/manager Hope Dillon – at The Drop, 409 East 31st Street in midtown Kansas City. Mille will oversee that intimate bistro’s kitchen during the lunch shift on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and Saturday and Sunday brunch.

And yes, there will be chef Terry’s celebrated cheesecake on The Drop menu. He won’t say if one of them will be his best-selling Kansas Vanilla Cream cheesecake.

But Johnson County – which has its own branch of the popular California-based Cheesecake Factory restaurants, with over 50 variations of the cream cheese delicacy on the menu – has its own memorable cheesecakes. Some of my recent favorites include the miniature pumpkin cheesecakes at Dolce Bakery (3930 West 69th Terrace in Prairie Village); you can’t feel too guilty eating them, they’re bite-sized. J. Gilbert’s (8901 Metcalf Avenue, Overland Park) serves a classic New York-style cheesecake that is sumptuously good.

And that raises the question, what is the difference between New York-style cheesecake, Chicago cheesecake and Philadelphia cheesecakes?

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the New York cheesecake is more dense, luxuriously creamy and baked in a higher pan than other traditional cheesecakes. The Philadelphia version is less dense with a still creamier consistency. Chicago bakers almost add sour cream as an ingredient to identify it as a Windy City confection.

So far, the only uniquely Kansas-style cheesecake I’ve discovered is chef Terry Mille, who bakes his distinctively Sunflower state cake in a moist cake crust.

Longtime Kansas City food writer Charles Ferruzza’s column runs each Friday on the Shawnee Mission Post and Blue Valley Post.