By Anne Palumbo
Every May, in honor of my mother, I make her favorite dessert: cheesecake with sliced strawberries.
I typically don’t feature desserts, because they’re often full of empty calories. But, today, I’m making an exception.
On occasion and in moderation, it’s OK to indulge. And, the good news is, most nutritionists agree! (FYI: the recipe that follows is lighter and healthier than most cheesecakes.)
The star of cheesecake — and today’s column — is cream cheese. Produced from unskimmed cow’s milk, cream cheese is a soft cheese (yes! a true cheese) that gets its firm but creamy texture from lactic acid.
Let’s begin with the good. Although cream cheese doesn’t provide as much calcium or protein as many hard cheeses, it still has some nutritional merit.
Cream cheese is a good source of vitamin A, with an average serving (two tablespoons) providing about 10% of our daily needs. Vitamin A promotes healthy eyesight and helps reduce the risk of vision-related problems, such as night blindness and macular degeneration.
Gut health may improve with the consumption of cream cheese. Some of the bacteria used to make cream cheese are probiotics, which are friendly bacteria that keep us healthy by restoring the balance between good and bad bacteria, supporting immune function, and controlling inflammation.
Lactose intolerant? You’ll be delighted to know that cream cheese is low in lactose (less than 2 grams per ounce) and so may not cause the GI discomfort associated with some dairy products. Experts recommend tasting a small amount at first to see how your body reacts.
Now for the bad. Hold onto your hats, bagel-lovers, a two-tablespoon serving of regular cream cheese is pretty high in fat and calories: 100 calories, 9 grams of fat. Unfortunately, 6 of the 9 grams of fat is saturated fat, the kind that drives up cholesterol and raises the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Of course, we must end with the lovely. Oh, where to begin with luscious cream cheese? Let’s see, its creamy texture, its sweet and tangy taste, its versatility, and its important role in a classic dessert that so many mothers love.
Lighter Cheesecake with Fresh Fruit
For the crust:
2 cups crushed graham crackers
6 tablespoons butter, melted
¼ cup sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon
For the filling:
2 (8-ounce) packages of reduced-fat cream cheese, softened
¾ cup sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
Fresh fruit for topping
Preheat oven to 375 F. Lightly oil a 9-inch springform pan (or spray with nonstick cooking spray). Set aside.
In a medium mixing bowl, combine graham cracker crumbs, sugar, and cinnamon. Pour melted butter over crumbs and mix well.
Pour crumb mixture into center of prepared pan and using your hands or a spoon, press the crumbles down and around the pan in an even layer.
Bake your crust for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and let it cool while you prep your filling. Lower the oven temperature to 325 F.
With an electric mixer on medium speed, beat the cream cheese and sugar until smooth, about 4 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, beating until just incorporated, about 1 minute. Beat in flour, vanilla, and lemon juice just until combined, about 1 minute.
Pour the mixture into the cooled crust and bake the cheesecake for 45-55 minutes or until the middle is set. Let the cheesecake cool for 1 hour, and then transfer it to the fridge. Serve with fresh fruit of choice.
Choose reduced-fat or no-fat cream cheese to cut calories and fat. Many stores also have vegan options. An unopened package of cream cheese is good one month past the “Best When Purchased By” date on the carton. Once opened, cream cheese should be used within 10 days.