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Dense and creamy with a hint of lemon and sweet pecans in the graham cracker crust, Church Street Cheesecake Squares will win you applause.
So, a Cheesecake Square or a Chess Square? What is the difference?
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Chess Squares or bars are a favorite tailgate treat in the South, where they’re made with boxed yellow cake mix. Though they are similar to Cheesecake Squares or bars in that they both incorporate cream cheese and eggs, that is pretty much where the similarities end. Church Street Cheesecake Squares offer up a sweet, and in our case, nutty graham cracker base, while Chess Squares yield a deliciously gooey and sweeter cake bottom. Don’t worry, those are coming…
So, I cannot tell you about Church Street Cheesecake Squares without going into some food background about Charleston and its southern cooks. Charleston, South Carolina is known for so many things. The city I call home is abounding with history, architectural beauty, formal southern gardens in every direction, and old fashioned hospitality. Oh, and less I fail to mention that Charleston is also a player in one of America’s HOTTEST food scenes?
Not only can Charleston boast about celebrity chefs hailing from here, but also boast about those celebrity chefs who choose to come here. I was excited when I met the Lee Brothers and Sean Brock. I had always held out hope that Tyler Florence would drop back into Magnolias for a little ‘behind the line’ action so we, his fans, could revel.
The list is long; Jeremiah Bacon of Oak Steakhouse and The Macintosh, Brooks Reitz of Leon’s Fine Poultry and Oysters and Jack Rudy Cocktail Co., Michael Toscano of Le Farfalle, Joshua Walker of Xiao Bao Biscuit, Joshua Keeler of Two Boroughs Larder, Mike Lata of FIG, Jill Mathias of Chez Nous, and so, so, so many more. Lordy, we even have Nathalie Dupree! I keep looking at my watch and tapping my foot, waiting on Martha Stewart to roll up. Don’t worry, I am getting to the Church Street Cheesecake Squares, I promise…
Church Street is a residential side street in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. In addition to being home to some of our country’s OLDEST places of worship, its cemeteries are the final resting place for signers of the Declaration of Independence, as well as historic destinations like the Dock Street Theatre.
Y’all know I am a huge fan of Vivian Howard. One of my questions to Vivian back in 2018 when she visited Garden & Gun Magazine for the Best Of The South Awards for which she was a judge, was “when are you going to open a restaurant here in Charleston, Vivian?”
She laughed and with a witty reply explained how she would feel ‘nervous standing on the same turf as many of our ‘celebrity themselves’ Charleston chefs. In particular, she called out FIG Restaurant and owner chef Mike Lata by name, adding she “wouldn’t want to open a restaurant on the same street, for fear of failure at this champion of culinary destinations.”
Well, even Vivian Howard, by the Grace of God, went back on her word. Vivian launched Handy & Hot this year in the midst of the pandemic. I have toasted you, Vivian, for your culinary prowess and sheer courage more times than you know. I would have proudly worked for you at your new establishment (doing what, I do not know, but I would have happily mopped floors!) if I were not so busy with Not Entirely Average. Like you, I am trying to make a ‘go’ of it.
While authentic baked ricotta cheesecakes have their place, sometimes I don’t want to mess with a three-day, baking-chilling-water bath mess of ‘meticulous.’ Sometimes, I want easy.
So, what is the big deal with Charleston, anyway? By now it’s no secret that the Holy City is, ounce for ounce, every bit as formidable a food destination as New York City or San Francisco. The media attention and food world cred is sustaining. We have no idea what the map will look like after the pandemic, but Lord knows the Comya’s and Beenya’s alike want Charleston to remain atop this world stage.
What I can explain to readers of Not Entirely Average, is that a dish at most venues here in Charleston is NOT foo foo food. It’s “sink your teeth into freshly and locally harvested, minimally processed, and filling Southern fare.” People EAT down here, and chefs serve up favorites that date waaaaay back.
There is a love, a true romance, with things ‘authentic’ here. And what may be surprising, is how straightforward the ingredients are. Not necessarily the methods, but definitely the ingredients. Just ask Sean Brock where his success was hidden in plain sight. He will openly tell you ‘in the farm fields of the Palmetto State.’
Charleston, South Carolina is the new epicenter of the food world. Don’t believe me? Ask a chef.
When I was putting together lists of holiday sweets that we all feel compelled to bake (and EAT!) around Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas, I got real unfancied in a darn hurry. Why? Because if I have learned anything from these guys, it’s that ‘less is best.’ Begin with locally sourced foods, put them together in a pleasing manner, and cook them like you were feeding them to the Queen. Such is the story behind the cheese squares.
What Is A Cheesecake Square?
There is this thing in the south called a chess square. It is kind of like a cheesecake but kind of not. You can call them gooey cheesecake bars or chess cake squares, whatever. They are real simple, real delicious, and made using a recipe that comes together in minutes rather than hours.
I enjoy chess squares for sure, but I crave cheesecake bars way more often. But who has time to bake elaborately around the holidays, especially when you are baking a variety of cookies, loaf breads, and squares all at once? First time recipes are less daunting when they are simpler to approach. Know who told me that? Vivian.
Church Street Cheesecake Squares come from my sweet friend, Skipper. His late mother’s recipe, he gave me this on the occasion whereas I was invited over to observe his bird egg collection. Yes, sounds odd, but it really was not if you were fortunate enough to have known Skipper. Skipper was 83 when he passed earlier this year. He was eccentric to say the least.
His historic home on Church Street in downtown Charleston was a mirror of the man himself. Wild and unique, a treasure trove of historical manuscripts and priceless works of art, and old and long in the tooth. And that bird egg collection, unique as it was, is the only reason I was let in on this sweet and easy recipe.
Think graham cracker enhanced with sweet, crushed pecans, then topped with rich, creamy cheesecake. Yup. This fills the cheesecake craving in a epic way.
This is not a cheesecake recipe per se, rather a cheesecake bar recipe. His mom referred to them as both cheesecake squares and chess bars in her notes on the recipe card, however a true chess cake or chess bar would incorporate boxed cake mix, cream cheese and a stick of butter. This particular recipe’s ingredients are minimal.
They include graham crackers, cream cheese, cottage cheese, sugar, vanilla, and lemon flavorings. Eggs bind this subtly sweet filling that, once well chilled, make PERFECT miniature party bites, or left larger, a fantastic dessert for after dinner.
I cut the bake into large-ish squares while it is still warm, then into quarters once a bit more cooled. I pop each bite into a muffin paper and dress up a cake stand with greenery among these sweet nibbles. Sweet, festive, worth celebrating the moment.
The filling is light due to the cottage cheese. It lends a creaminess without adding heaviness. It is the counterweight to the cream cheese. No chocolate and no caramel. Not a dollop of whipped cream or ice cream. Nothing to distract from the simplicity of this holiday snack.
I hope you will try this and certainly add to your cookie-baking repertoire. I think you will love it. Oh, and did I mention the pecans? Y’all know we southern gals are always itching to sneak those sweet nutmeats in where we can. These lemon cream cheese bars are no exception.
All images and text ©Jenny DeRemer for Not Entirely Average, LLC
Church Street Cheesecake Squares
- 9 x 13 x 1 sheet pan
for the crust
- 1 ½ cup graham cracker crumbs
- ½ cup butter salted or unsalted, melted
- ¾ cup pecans finely chopped
for the cheesecake filling
- 1 8 ounce package cream cheese softened to room temperature
- 1 8 ounce container cottage cheese at room temperature
- 3 large eggs at room temperature
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
for the graham cracker crust
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease or butter a 9 x 13 x 1 sheet pan and set aside.
- Mix all ingredients for the crust. Reserve 1/2 cup of this mixture and set aside. Press into the bottom of the sheet pan. Use the flat bottom of a measuring cup to compact the crust and flatten it.
for the cheesecake filling
- Cream both cheeses using an electric mixer for several minutes until very smooth. Add the eggs, one at a time, and mix well after each addition.
- Scrape down the sides of the bowl before gradually adding the sugar.
- Add the lemon juice and the vanilla and mix.
- Pour the cheese mixture directly over the crust.
- Using a fork, scatter the reserved graham cracker and pecan mixture over top of the cheese mixture.
- Bake for 45 minutes. Center should be firm but not solid.
- Remove from oven to cool for 15 minutes.
- Cut into squares by running the back edge of a sharp knife around all edges and then through the center. I begin by cutting 12 large squares. If you require more than 12 servings, continue to cut in half for 24 bars or in quarters for 48 bite-sized pieces.
- CHILL FOR AT LEAST 1 HOUR.
- If serving as bars or smaller, place into individual muffin papers for easy handling and cleaner serving.
The nutrition value can vary depending on what product(s) you use. The information below is an estimate. Always use a calorie counter you are familiar with.
Please note that table salt and iodized salt are NOT substitutions for Kosher salt. Do not deviate unless otherwise specified.