What’s the best way to add flavor to cheesecake?

I came home to over 200 comments and emails, so don’t mind if I answer a few in the main window here. This one from reader Hattie I especially like because, well, I love that name. But also because there are so many different ways to answer it.

I’ll be honest and say at the outset that a plain vanilla cheesecake is my personal favorite. However I recognize that there are plenty of cheesecake makers out there who consider plain cheesecake to be a mere starting point, a blank canvass if you will. For those folks I have a few basic suggestions.

Fruit toppings are of course a natural. Personally I’d leap straight for some lemon curd and slather it over the top once the cake had a chance to chill and firm completely. Chunky fruit toppings work great too: strawberry, blueberry, cherry, apricot, mango. Most often these are simple fresh fruit compotes. To make one of those simply combine three quarters of a cup of water with half a cup of sugar, two teaspoons of lemon juice and then a dribble of some sort of liqueur if you like. Heat the mixture to a simmer and add a cup and a half or more of fresh fruit. Cook to your desired softness, cool and spoon the mixture onto slices before serving.

Another way to go is to swirl a fruit purée straight into the batter before you bake. To do this pour about half your cheesecake batter into the pan, then add about three quarters of a cup of fruit purée and give it a brief stir with a fork. Gently pour on the remaining cheesecake batter. Make a simple fruit puree by putting about three quarters of a pound of seeded and/or hulled fresh or frozen (and thawed) fruit into a blender or food processor with a teaspoon of lemon juice. Puree until the mixture is spoonable (add water if needed to thin it). Do this with just about any fruit you like save for citrus or peaches which will curdle the baking cake. To make the purée as smooth as possible press it through a fine mesh strainer. Add a little sugar to taste.

What about chocolate? I can hear many of you saying. Yes of course you can add chocolate. A cup or so of chocolate chips, pieces or warm ganache can be stirred into the batter like a fruit purée. You can also just make a chocolate cheesecake by melting about half a pound of a good quality milk, semi-sweet or white chocolate and stirring it into your batter until it’s evenly incorporated. Similar effects can be created with mashed ripe banana (swap 1 cup mashed banana combined with two teaspoons lemon juice for an equal amount of sour cream) or peanut butter (again, swap out a cup of peanut butter for an equal amount of sour cream).

Anyone else who’d like to weigh in with some ideas please do!

40 thoughts on “What’s the best way to add flavor to cheesecake?”

  1. I’m with you , Joe: unadorned and plain is best. It may be a starting point for some, but for me it is a complete dessert.

  2. The best cheesecake I ever had was a mango and raspberry cheesecake, a layer of each. Sadly my attempt to recreate by adding fruit purees to my go-to recipe was a complete flop. Both the eating of and attempt to recreate were years ago, maybe it’s time to try again.

      1. The texture was off, I suspect I added too much fruit puree without considering the added liquid. But even with that the flavor just wasn’t nearly as bright and fruity as the original despite using purees of fresh fruit.

        I was early in my baking adventures at that point and really had no idea what I was doing besides just adding fruit to my momma’s cheesecake recipe. 🙂

        Honestly I’m a bit suspicious that the original may have been dependent on artificial flavors but I’d still like to see if I can get close with real fruit.

        1. Interesting. Yes I can see where lots of purée would do it. Good luck on your next attempt, Erin!

          – Joe

    1. That is very good stuff, K, you’re right. How do you make your swirl?

      – Joe

  3. Crust! You can really play with both flavor and texture…branch out from traditional graham cracker or chocolate to nut, pretzel, coconut, potato chip (!) and so on. Depending on the properties of your desired crust apparatus, you may need some add-ins to get enough sturdiness but as long as you can get it to hold together sufficiently for the cheesecake to bake up you’re good to go.

      1. Right. Good idea that. One of my friends does a crushed gingersnap and ground toasted pecans crust in lieu of a graham cracker crust, and it is to die for.

  4. Really, never underestimate the power of toppings – those who like a plain vanilla cheesecake can eat around them, and everyone else can combine them in one mouthful to get the blend of flavors.

    A soft ganache; peanut butter topping; chopped toasted nuts, glazed or unglazed; the previously mentioned fruit toppings (I’d note that cranberry sets up nicely into a jelly for topping a whole cheesecake and provides really lovely flavor contrast); espresso-fudge topping; the variations are probably pretty much endless. (bonus: these are great at covering up any imperfections in the top of the cheesecake)

    Another territory to explore if you’re flavoring a cheesecake is crust additions or modifications; lime cheesecake with gingered crust is delicious; chocolate crumb crusts are also very, very good under almost any circumstances; substituting almond flour in for part of the crumb can be a tasty combination with some flavors.

    But ultimately, while there tend to be more audible ooohs and aaaahs over fancy flavors at potluck dessert occasions, the plain or plain-with-topping kind will disappear out of our fridge the fastest… which tells me something, at the very least, about our household preferences. 🙂

  5. I found a recipe for a cranberry and other fruit topping years ago in a Gourmet magazine. The tartness of the berries with the cheesecake was pretty darn good, I must say. At this time of year it’s easy to find cranberries too.

  6. I love lemon/lime flavoured cheesecake – not too tart but just a hint of citrus. What is the best way to do add the flavour: zest, juice or both?

    1. I’d do both, and because I love citrus curd so much I’m always tempted to add a thin layer of it to the top of the cake before serving to put it over the top…but that’s just me! 😉

      – Joe

  7. Biscoff cookies instead of graham crackers for the crust is something I’m going to try.

  8. I want to do a Christmas themed cheesecake, what flavors do you recommend? I’m very tempted by the cranberry, but I’m worried that cranberries will be out of season shortly, and maybe they are to strongly associated with Thanksgiving.

    1. How about a pomegranate topping? That would look very Christmas-y. A couple of mint leaves on the top and the presentation would look almost exactly like holly. Just my opinion of course. Anyone else want to weigh in?

      – Joe

    2. My in-laws make a peppermint cheesecake for Christmas every year, which I think is really strongly flavored. Basically, it’s a regular cheesecake with a full teaspoon of peppermint oil to flavor. You can swirl red and green through it by dipping wooden skewers in food coloring and running them through the batter before baking. Or just drop a drop of each on the opposite sides of the top and drag them around with toothpicks.
      Top with some crushed candy canes.

      The peppermint fans love it, but it’s strong for me. I don’t like mint much at all.

      If you can’t find pomegranates and don’t want to use cranberries, you could use rehydrated dried red currants or lingonberries. Slightly different flavors, but they are both a relatively sweet fruit. And lingonberries are fairly common in a lot of Scandanavian Christmas sweets. Currants are rarer, but I have a recipe for some Alsatian Advent breads that use currents. If it works for Advent, it should work for Christmas.

  9. I have found that unfrosted animal crackers make an excellent crust for cheesecake.

  10. I love vanilla cheesecake with toppings on the side – dulce de leche and fudge, both warm, and pineapple and strawberry compotes, icy cold. Why yes, I AM a banana split fan too, why do you ask? >.>

  11. Yeah, I like vanilla cheesecake with vanilla cream on top…the Cheesecake factory vanilla bean cheesecake is my all time favorite commercially produced cheesecake.

  12. So… have I ever mentioned goat cheese cheesecake? No toppings and no swirls but lots of interesting cheese flavor.

    1. I think you may have, Brian, but it’s worth mentioning again!

      Cheers,

      – Joe

  13. I am originally from New York City, so the only way to go is plain and unadorned. The most I would accept is to put a nice berry coulis on the slice of cake at serving time.

    1. Yes, a man after my own heart. I just don’t do toppings, me. Thanks for the backup!

      – Joe

  14. I’m a Pastry Chef as a college. Every Thursday night is cheesecake. We have to get creative as we don’t want to bore the students. I’ve tried everything! We have to be “quick and simple”, we don’t water bath and make all of our cheesecakes in large rectangular cake pans and cook at 325. Haven’t had a fail yet!
    Some of their favorites flavors are actually in the crust, sometimes I do a brownie crust or a pretzel crust or plain graham. If I have a lot of extra cookies, I’ll grind them up and use them.
    Quick, easy and tasty toppings are strained raspberry or strawberry jams. These are better heated to spread. Often times I’ll use a chocolate ganache.
    Cheesecake flavors and add ins include chocolate chips, butterfingers, plain vanilla/New York, chocolate-chocolate. We will experiment with almost anything including layering.
    We also need to improvise on occasion, if I end up with a lumpy mix, it quickly becomes chocolate chip as we add extra lumps and no one knows…..
    We end up with a great product and I can produce a large batch in less then an hour!

  15. Could flavored dry jello be added to the raspberries or strawberries to enhance the flavor or color in a cheesecake?

    1. What an interesting idea, Jean. My guess is that the result would be fairly grainy. The little gelatin granules would probably find a way to absorb at least a little moisture from the fruit or cake itself, swell slightly, then firm into semi-hard little nodules. I don’t see that as a good thing. But I’ll keep thinking!

      Thanks for the question!

      – Joe

  16. I want to know if anyone has used flavor oils in their cheesecakes, and if so, what amount, so as not to over power but to still have a definite presence? I bought dehydrated raspberry powder to incorporate into a raspberry cheesecake but I’m not sure the flavor presence I’m hoping for will be realized. Suggestions?

    1. Hey Lynn!

      There’s no easy answer to that question since oils vary in potency. Lemon needs only few drops, for instance, while rose petal needs much more. I think you’ll need to experiment. But if anyone has ideas please weigh in!

      Joe

  17. Crushed saltine crackers, 1/4 cup dark cocoa, 1/4 cup sugar, 1 & 1/4 stick of melted salted butter, 1/8 tsp kosher salt, 1/8 cup honey

    Mix till crumbly … press into bottom of springform pan, bake 5 minutes @ 350 degrees to set

    Make a southern style cheesecake mix… take 1/3 & set aside

    Put pepper oil on finger tip and smear on the side of mixing bowl. Whip mixture and pour into pan, take remaining cheese mixture and blend 4 squares of melted dark chocolate into mixture, pour over first layer and bake as usual

    The smear of peppermint oil gives a subtle flavor to the cheesecake that goes well with dark chocolate and the crust makes a salty contrast to the filling

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