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Bless Your Spoon: Family love — the tie that stabilizes and binds

“You know how your family has friends who are really close — not necessarily blood-related — but you’ve always been around them?” asked Dustin.

“They’re your mom or dad’s best friend, so you just call them aunt or uncle so and so because that’s how they were introduced to you.”

Dustin Horner is owner and chef at Mountaintop Cheesecakes where he bakes professionally. He credits his successful venture to a single recipe passed down from his beloved uncle and support from binding family ties.

Dustin first met his mom’s best friends, Aunt Karine and Uncle Zeke, after moving to Colorado when he was12. Dustin and his mom lived in a home on the couple’s land, and Zeke became a role model in the boy’s life. “It was nice to have a male influence and mentor — a man I could talk to — and someone a teenage boy could talk to about things he wouldn’t necessarily talk to his mother about.”

Dustin’s cheesecake story began when Uncle Zeke offered to bake him a “real” cheesecake for his 13th birthday. When his 14th birthday rolled around, Dustin asked his uncle to make him another one. But, instead of doing it for him, Uncle Zeke offered to teach Dustin the recipe so he could make it for himself. The young boy made his first cheesecake that year and every year after that in celebration of his own birthday.

At this point, Dustin’s future began to unfold.

While still a kid, Dustin continued making cheesecakes, and people began asking him to make different kinds. He started out putting the fruit on top the way you usually see cheesecake. But he believed putting fruit inside a cake would produce a better marriage of flavors — making each bite a cohesive one. You would then taste the distinct flavors at one time — if you ate cherry cheesecake, you would enjoy both cherry and cheesecake flavors. Some flavorings such as key lime tend to overpower the cake when mixed in the batter.

Dustin had a job delivering fish for 14 years but continued making the cakes for fun. He developed relationships with restaurants who bought the cheesecakes and offered them on their dessert menu.

“That’s when I learned I had something marketable. I could sell it. Some areas of Colorado were difficult, but I was able to sell the cakes in challenging markets. It gave me confidence that I had a product people would want. Aspen’s pretty high end with lots of people who are picky about their desserts.”

Many people who lived in Aspen had come from New York, so they were used to authentic New York-style cheesecake.

“I was selling them to a New York-style deli in Aspen, and that’s what they were looking for. I had another restaurant in an outskirt town of Aspen and one in Crested Butte.”

Dustin’s recipes evolved. He makes cheesecakes because he loves them but not the store-bought kind, which is usually too dense — and he enjoys some more than others.

“Key lime’s always a tough one for me because I’m not really a citrus/tart dessert person. The ones I make are easy to eat and light and creamy. As far as flavors go, I started with basics, either plain or blueberry, because those were my favorite flavors.”

From time to time, Dustin’s mom offers flavor suggestions; she suggested the strawberry key lime combination. Her favorite is the peanut butter chocolate chip. But his mom understands the cheesecake thing is her son’s deal. He came from Colorado with his recipes ready, so there wasn’t much that needed to be done to change them.

One thing Dustin noticed while researching recipes was that many called for vanilla extract, but he couldn’t even taste the flavor in the finished product. He brainstormed and came up with a better way to get vanilla flavor into the cake — by using crushed vanilla wafers instead of graham cracker in his crusts.

“If a customer wants a graham cracker crust, I’ll do it, but if not a special order, all my cakes are on the vanilla wafer crusts. I’ve evolved to brownie crust and chocolate chip cookie crust. I even make gluten-free crusts.”

When it comes to baking cheesecakes, there are no time savers. Dustin’s recipes call for that which takes the most time — waiting. The baking part is an hour. But first, it takes about 40 minutes to get the mix together, get the crust ready and pour the cake. The rest of the time is nothing but patience.

“I have to wait for cakes to cool down in the oven, then cool to room temperature and then cool again in the refrigerator for 8-12 hours.”

The majority of downtime is waiting for the cake to set up. Rushing the cooling process might ruin a cake, ending up with what Dustin referred to as “cheesecake soup.”

I share with him my experience with baking cheesecakes — mine often end up with wide crevices down the center.

Dustin agreed that one problem with baking cheesecakes is they tend to crack. To prevent it, he suggests trying to get the air bubbles out. Cracking doesn’t affect the flavor, so he sells those cakes at a discount — and no one seems to mind.

To prevent cracking, cakes should be baked in what’s called a water bath — putting foil under the cheesecake pan and setting it on a cookie sheet filled with 1-inch of water. The water bath helps keep the moisture contained which can prevent the cracking and stop the top of the cake from drying out too fast.

“In the cooking world, they say you eat with your eyes first, and the cracked cakes are not the most appealing ones,” he said.

But there’s not much you can do to stop it from happening. Sometimes the breaks don’t appear until a cake’s refrigerated. The cake’s fine when you put it in the refrigerator, and then when you go back, the crack’s there. It’s just something you have to accept.

When Dustin was learning how to use the convection oven for the first time, he blew through a lot of cakes as the oven scorched the tops. The tops were over browned but looked done in half the usual baking time. After going through the cooling process, when he cut into it, the cake was soupy. With some research, he learned how to keep that from happening.

“I had to tent them with foil to keep the hot air from hitting the tops. Mine still crack on occasion — 24 years — and I still can’t keep a cake from cracking.”

Dustin and I talked about how it came to be that he left Colorado and settled in Mocksville. Uncle Zeke passed away in 2003 but remained a close family friend up until the day of his passing. Later, his mom moved back here, and Dustin longed to be close to family again. He felt it was an excellent time to work for himself and start a new venture — he knew the family would help him get his feet planted here and lend support. After moving, Dustin’s parents gave him some leeway to acclimate to the area and didn’t push him to do anything immediately. He took a breather while figuring out what he wanted to do and how to do it. Baking cheesecakes was the only good idea he had at the time — but it was a skill he had taught himself.

“Dumb luck and I found the building I’m in,” said Dustin, explaining how he found the place.

Friends were looking at available buildings for business and came across the spot. They knew he’d been looking for a place to open a cheesecake shop. The structure turned out to be the perfect space with a little remodeling. Dustin purchased commercial-grade sinks, tables, ovens, and freezers and installed easily cleaned wall coverings — fiberglass reinforced paneling that’s required in a commercial kitchen to help keep it clean.

Dustin bought the building as an investment, and his Aunt Darlene invested some money in it to help him get started.

“She knew Uncle Zeke and was excited to help me get the business going — we’re a very close family. She believed this was something I was good at and was proud I was working for myself.”

If the business needs to expand, Dustin has the space to do that now. Once he bought the building, it took a couple of months before he was open and selling cakes. After purchasing the building at the end of August, the store opened in November 2017.

“I waited for my house in Colorado to sell. My first day was Nov. 22, the day before Thanksgiving — so that’s how I remember it.”

Dustin ’s grateful for such strong community support.

“A lot of the people who come in — I call them regulars — tell me how glad they are to have me here. I get a lot of people asking for donations, cakes, or gift cards, and I try to support the community organizations and things going on around town.”

Pete’s Family Restaurant in Clemmons and King Crab Shack off Hanes Mall Boulevard buy Dustin’s cheesecakes. He’s thankful for their business. They’ve been with him since his opening and were the first restaurants to give him a chance. Currently, he has a couple of other restaurants talking about selling his cheesecakes when they get up and running.

“We’re all trying to make it and grow our businesses, and we can’t do that without the support.”

One of his most significant challenges was when radio station Rock 92.3 ordered his cakes as gifts for their customers during the holidays.

“They ordered 64 10-inch cakes instead of the cookie tins they had given their employees in the past.”

Later, the station set up a live remote in town with their tent in front of his building.  For advertising, they brought a DJ named Biggie from the Two Guys Named Chris Show and streamed live commercials onsite. The media brought a lot of new people into the area — customers were lined up outside the cheesecake shop’s door during the time they were there.

The response to the gifted cheesecakes was phenomenal. The radio station invited Dustin and his dad to their Christmas party. At the party, he heard how much their customers loved the cakes.

Baking up to their expectations, one of the radio executives commented to Dustin, “So you’re the cheesecake guy.”

Dustin admitted, “There was a moment of trying to figure out how to balance all the holiday orders at Thanksgiving and Christmas. It was a challenge for me for sure around that time. It was the biggest challenge I’d faced so far.”

Dustin enjoys knowing he’s giving people a quality cheesecake — and that there’s a place they can go to buy the real thing — not the kind one buys at a grocery store. He likes giving them the option of something more authentic. People who eat cheesecake have a predetermined idea of how it’s going to taste. Generally, cakes like Dustin’s are not something consumers can find readily available in any grocery store.

Dustin agreed, saying, “I believe if you’re going to eat it, eat one that has the right flavor and texture; don’t settle.”

While we chatted, I tried one of his luscious key lime cakes. I wondered if he ever got tired of eating them.

“I probably eat cheesecake three days out of a week. It can be my breakfast like you’re having now. I’ll get everything done in the morning, make my coffee, and before I get started, I’ll grab one of the personal-sized cheesecakes and have it with my coffee.”

People have referred to them as “guilt-free” because they’re just the right size — enough to get your fix without feeling like you’ve overeaten. They’re good for sampling flavors, also. You can try them all and see which one you like best — and then order a big cake.

“I just like making the cakes — it’s interesting going from nothing to the final result and all the steps in between. I like the process. I use up to eight different items and end up with a flavor bomb.”

Dustin admits there’s really no secret to his cakes.

“I’ve found recipes online that are similar to mine — they use the same ingredients as I do, but a change of crust, and in particular, the amount of ingredients I use is very different.”

One thing that makes his cakes stand out is that all his ingredients are mixed by hand. He tried the industrial stand mixers, but the cake didn’t come out with the same consistency, texture, and silkiness of the batter he was used to tasting.

Explaining how hand mixing improves texture, Dustin changed his method, saying, “I went back to doing everything by hand to make sure I had control over how my mix was coming out.”

While baking cheesecakes might be somewhat involved, it’s not laborious, so don’t let the process overwhelm you. It’s not difficult so don’t overthink it. If you decide to bake the cake, have the patience to wait and let it cool. You’re not going to be able to eat it right after it comes after the oven.

“It has to cool in stages — let it cool to room temperature before it’s put in the refrigerator. There are up to 18 hours in cooling one cheesecake.”

The cooling process varies with the size — that’s for a 10-inch cheesecake. And don’t be discouraged with the cracks in the cake.

Cheesecake’s a dessert for any time, not just Valentine’s Day. While we associate the day with candy and chocolate, you can do all that with a cheesecake.

“It’s sweet, decadent, and for lack of a better word, a gourmet dessert. It’s indulgent. I’ll be glad to make you a chocolate heart-shaped one.”

There’s no surer way to someone’s heart than that.

Mountaintop Cheesecakes is at 150 Horn St. near the square in downtown Mocksville. You can order a cake by calling 336-391-9127.

Never mind the water bath, sunken centers, or worrying about cracks. If you’re craving the mild aroma, sweet taste, and creamy texture of cream cheese but the idea of baking a whole cheesecake is daunting, consider satisfying your taste buds with one of these small sized plain cake and fruit recipes. Just know going into it that the taste won’t compare to that from our town’s gourmet cheesecake shop.

STRAWBERRY ‘N CREAM  SHORTCAKE

1 10-inch angel food cake or sponge cake without a hole

2 cups fresh strawberries

¼ cup of sugar

8 oz. softened cream cheese

¾ cup sugar

1 tsp. vanilla extract

3 cups sliced, fresh strawberries

1 envelope unflavored gelatin

1 ½ cups whipping cream

¼ cup sugar

2 cups halved, fresh strawberries

Slice cake into 3 layers. Process 2 cups of strawberries with ¼ cup sugar in a blender. Place 1 cake layer on a serving plate. Spread top with strawberry mixture. Top with second cake layer. Beat the cream cheese, ¾ cup sugar, and vanilla until smooth and thickened. Spread over the cake layer. Slice 3 cups of the strawberries. Arrange over the cream cheese layer. Top with remaining cake layer. Chill for at least 6 hours. In a mixing bowl, soften gelatin in the whipping cream for 5 minutes. Beat until soft peaks form. Add ¼ cup sugar and continue to beat until stiff peaks form. Frost the top and side of the cake. Slice remaining 2 cups of strawberries into halves and decorate the top of the cake. Cut into slices to serve. Serves 12.

CREAM CHEESE CUPCAKES

5 beaten eggs

1 cup sugar

24 oz. softened cream cheese

1 ½ tsp. vanilla extract

1 cup sour cream

¼ cup sugar

½ tsp. vanilla extract

Any fruit topping

Cupcake papers

In a mixer, combine the eggs, 1 cup sugar, cream cheese, and 1 ½ tsp. vanilla. Fill the muffin pan with cupcake papers. Fill papers 2/3 full with mixture. Bake in a 325-degree oven for 40 minutes. Remove from oven. They will form an indention in center. Then, in a mixer, combine sour cream, ¼ cup sugar, and ½ tsp vanilla. Mix together, fill indention on cupcakes, and return to oven for 5 minutes. After cooling, add any fruit topping.

BUTTERCREAM CAKE

3 cups of sugar

1 ½ cups softened, salted butter

6 eggs

8 oz. softened cream cheese

3 cups flour

1 tsp vanilla

1 tsp. butter flavoring

In a mixer, cream butter and sugar. Add eggs one at a time. Blend in cream cheese. Add flour and mix well. Add vanilla and butter flavoring. Bake in a tube pan in a 325-degree oven for 1 ½ hour. Check cake early for doneness and do not overbake.

PARTY CHEESECAKE BITES

3 eggs, separated

16 oz. softened cream cheese

¾ cup sugar

½ cup graham cracker crumbs

2 Tbsp. sugar

¾ cup sour cream

2 Tbsp. sugar

½ tsp. vanilla

Beat egg whites until stiff. In a separate bowl, combine the cream cheese, egg yolks, and sugar. Beat until light and fluffy. Fold in egg whites. Generously butter 1 ½ -inch mini muffin tins.  Coat tins well with graham cracker crumb mixture. Fill with cream cheese mixture. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 15-20 minutes. Remove from oven to cool.  A small depression will form on the top. For topping, in a small bowl, combine the sour cream, sugar, and vanilla. Place ½ tsp. of mixture in the depression of each mini cake. Bake again in a 400-degree oven for 5 minutes. Remove from pans while warm. Fruit topping is optional. Makes 3 dozen.

NUT ‘N CREAM CHEESE DROPS

1 cup salted butter

6 oz. softened cream cheese

1 cup sugar

¼ tsp. salt

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1 egg

1 Tbsp. milk

2 cups flour

½ cup coconut

Pecan halves

Cream butter, cheese, sugar, salt, and vanilla. Add eggs and milk, and beat well. Add flour and stir in coconut. Drop from tsp. on ungreased cookie sheet. Top with halved pecan. Bake in a 325-degree oven for 20 minutes. Do not let brown. Makes 3-4 dozen

CREAM CHEESE TARTS

1 box crushed vanilla wafers

2 pounds softened cream cheese

1/3 tsp. salt

1 cup granulated sugar

4 beaten eggs

1 tsp. lemon juice

1 can pie filling or fresh fruit

Using a small, greased mini tart tin and paper liners, place 1 tsp. vanilla wafer crumbs in bottom of each tin. Beat cream cheese, salt, sugar, eggs, and lemon juice together. Fill cups ¾ full. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 12-15 minutes. Allow to cool. Use fresh fruit of your choice to decorate tops using a small amount of fruit on each top.

CHEESECAKE SQUARES

¼ cup melted butter

1 cup graham cracker crumbs

3 oz. lemon gelatin

1 cup boiling water

8 oz. pkg softened cream cheese

1 cup of sugar

141/2 oz. can chilled evaporated milk

Mix butter and crumbs. Pat in an 8 x 8 square pan. Bake crust in a 375-degree oven for 8 minutes. Set aside. Dissolve gelatin in boiling water. Chill until it begins to harden. Mix cream cheese and sugar until creamy. Whip evaporated milk until it has the consistency of whipped cream. Mix gelatin, cream cheese mixture and whipped milk together until well blended and creamy. Pour into crumb crust. Refrigerate at least 3 hours before serving.

CREAM CHEESE JAM  COOKIES

½ lb. butter

6 oz. cream cheese

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 tsp. baking powder

2 Tbsp. sugar

Thick jam

Powdered sugar

In a mixer, cream butter and cheese until light and fluffy. Add flour, baking powder, and sugar. Mix until smooth. Roll out about ¼ inch thick on floured board and cut with 1 ½ inch cookie cutter. Make a slight depression in the center and fill with 1 tsp. Jam. Bake in a 350-degree oven on an ungreased cookie sheet for about 10 minutes. Cool and sift powdered sugar over the cookies. Makes about 60 cookies.

CHOCOLATE MARBLED BROWNIES

4 oz. German sweet chocolate

3 Tbsp. melted salted butter

2 Tbsp. softened butter

3 oz. cream cheese

¼ cup sugar

1 beaten egg

1 Tbsp. flour

½ tsp vanilla

2 beaten eggs

¾ cup of sugar

½ tsp. baking powder

¼ tsp. salt

½ cup all-purpose flour

½ cup chopped nuts

¼ tsp. almond extract

1 tsp. vanilla

Melt chocolate and 3 Tbsp. butter over low heat while stirring. Cool. Cream 2 Tbsp. butter with cream cheese until soft. Add ¼ cup sugar. Blend in 1 egg, 1 Tbsp. flour and ½ tsp. vanilla. Set aside.

Beat 2 eggs until thick.  Gradually add 3/4 cup of sugar. Add baking powder, salt, and remaining flour. Blend in cooled chocolate mixture, nuts, almond extract, and remaining vanilla. Measure 1 cup chocolate batter and set aside. Spread chocolate batter in a greased 9-inch square pan. Top with cheese mixture. Drop measured chocolate batter from spoon onto cheese mixture and swirl to marbleize. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 35-40 minutes. Cool.

STRAWBERRY CREAM  CUPCAKES

8 oz. softened cream cheese

1/2 cup sugar

1 beaten eggs

¼ tsp. vanilla extract

24 vanilla wafers

1 can strawberry pie filling

Cupcake papers

In a mixer, cream the cheese, sugar, and vanilla. Add eggs one at a time, beating them in until smooth. Place cupcake papers in muffin tins. Place a vanilla wafer in bottom of the cupcake paper. Top with 1 tsp. strawberry filling.  Fill three-fourths full with cheese mixture, and bake in a 350-degree oven for 18 minutes. Cool and refrigerate. Top with favorite pie filling. Yield 23 cupcakes.