When life gives this Kansas-City-area cook lemons, she makes a remarkable dessert.
When I put a question to my friends to name the best thing they’ve ever baked—it is National Baking Month after all—I didn’t expect to get more than 40 replies with delicious recipe ideas. Ranging from chocolate chip cookies to an award-winning hand pie made with bacon, bananas, whiskey, and the Southern favorite Goo Goo Clusters, plus something I’d never heard of (Japanese milk bread), my circle of home cooks inspire me all the time.
A few of them said various cheesecakes were their best baking recipe, but when Lisa Waterman Gray mentioned her limoncello cheesecake, I had to find out more.
Limoncello is a liqueur produced largely in southern Italy and served as a digestif. Each time I take a sip, my mind transports me to my first European trip. I was in my 20s (a LONG time ago) visiting Rome and Tuscany, which is where I was introduced to this drink. I wasn’t fond of the country’s most popular liqueur, Campari, but this lemon-flavored drink I’d often get after dinner was marvelous; it was if I was sipping Tuscany from a delicate, tiny glass.
Thus, a limoncello cheesecake made me feel tingly all over, so I messaged Lisa, whom I had met years ago during my time as a travel writer and editor. She graciously agreed to share more story details and the recipe.
Travel and food are best mates, and when Lisa isn’t writing about a destination for one of the many regional and national publications or websites to which she contributes, she’s leading the charge in the Kansas City area for the slow food movement and spotlighting local restaurants.
Several years ago, the chef at Kansas City’s renowned Jasper’s Italian restaurant, Jasper Mirabile Jr., gave Lisa (who lives in nearby Overland Park, Kansas) a bottle of his homemade limoncello. She wanted to do something to thank him, so she developed a cheesecake recipe using the ingredient and delivered it to the chef, who also had a sweet tooth.
“After he tasted the cheesecake, he said he had a special dinner in the works—where he creates a menu that may not reflect anything on the usual restaurant menu—and asked me if I would make five cheesecakes for the dinner. The title was right on the menu, and he invited my husband and I to come at no charge,” Lisa said.
That event spurred more culinary creativity for her, and she created a few additional cheesecake flavors, including cranberry and white chocolate, lime pistachio, and raspberry chipotle, the latter using a sauce made by and father-and-son duo from Fredericksburg, Texas, whom Lisa met while visiting the city on assignment.
Lisa discovered cooking in her 20s while at college. Her sorority house had a full kitchen, which she had access to. “The fellow I was dating cooked up a pan of sautéed mushrooms, and I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” she said.
After 40 years of baking and cooking, Lisa says her biggest challenge is fighting boredom.
“There are plenty of nights I say to my husband, ‘I don’t feel like cooking so can we forage tonight?’” she said.
Her strongest food memories as a child include her mother’s chocolate chip cookies and black bean soup. The family also made a lot of Italian food. After finishing graduate school, she moved to Kansas when she was 23 years old. She’s written a travel guide about the state and is well informed about the area’s food scene.
And in recent years, the greater Kansas City area has received a good deal of national press for its food and drink. During Restaurant Week, hundreds of establishments developed special menus and dining specials for area residents to enjoy.
But when she’s craving comfort food, Lisa said she’ll go for something sweet or Mexican food. “I really do love green chilies,” she said.
She also loves using ingredients that are in season, a hallmark of the slow food philosophy. Recently, to make a pumpkin pie, Lisa roasted and puréed a small pumpkin, but there wasn’t enough in the end to fill a pie. So she blended in leftover sweet potatoes.
In fact, Lisa gave this bit of advice to home cooks. “Don’t be scared to try something or to change a recipe to your own taste. As my own personal rule of thumb, the first time I make (a dish), I make it the way the recipe reads, but I’ll change it the next time.”