BOSTON — CHEESECAKE: It's like ice cream that doesn't melt. Soft and creamy, it can be made and flavored many different ways - from chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla to caramel swirl, honey almond, and pineapple. The fresher it is, the better it tastes.
Cheesecake fans are fiercely loyal to their recipes. They insist on high-quality ingredients. They are persnickety about how one should eat the prized dessert. And yes, there are lower-fat versions, but the idea is controversial among those who use the words dessert and indulge in the same sentence.
``Cheesecake has always been a big American favorite. No matter what people say about cutting back on calories, they love to have it as a special finale,'' says Larry Zisman, a longtime cheesecake fan and cookbook author.
Mr. Zisman and his wife, Honey, recently collected 5,000 gourmet cheesecake recipes from cheesecake lovers across the country.
Then, they compiled 50 favorites in a tiny paperback: ``The 50 Best Cheesecakes in the World'' (St. Martin's Press, 173 pp., $7.95)
``One piece of cheesecake can last you 30 minutes if you eat it properly and savor every bit,'' says Honey Zisman during a phone interview.
The Zismans stress that people shouldn't be intimidated by the idea of making a perfect cheesecake. Home bakers shouldn't worry about cracks, for example, because they make cheesecake look, well, homemade.
Also to remember: Don't over garnish, says Ms. Zisman. Keep it simple, and try to make it fresh. It would be a shame to ruin a cheesecake by pouring a can of something over it, she adds. ``Even just a strawberry and a mint leaf in the center can lend a wonderful touch of color.''
For those who aren't in the mood to cook, there are always places such as Serendipity III, based in New York (the city that made cheesecake famous).
Though cheesecake purists may scoff at this restaurant's grandiose treatment of the dessert, it is a novelty.
Aptly called ``Cheesecake Vesuvius,'' the eclectic specialty originated as the restaurant's birthday dessert. It is hazelnut-based with erupting layers of whipped cream, hot fudge, and strawberries - capped with roasted almonds.
But who says a cheesecake has to be sweet? Or that is has to be a dessert, for that matter?
In the book ``Cheesecake'' (Chronicle Books, 71 pp. $9.95) author Lou Seibert Pappas offers savory cheesecake recipes as well as sweet.
Among her intriguing creations are a Pesto Pistachio Cheese Torte (to serve as a spread for toasted baguette slices) and a Filo-Wraped Havarti Cheesecake.
Lora Brody, author of ``Indulgences,'' is also savvy about savory cheesecake, which she says is wonderful as an appetizer, hors d'oeuvre, brunch or luncheon entree.
During her catering days, Ms. Brody was making a lot of quiche Lorraine. One time she made a smoked-salmon quiche and thought: ``Why not use smoked salmon in a cheesecake?'' It was a hit. Then she tried a blue-cheese cheesecake - also a hit.
Brody's No. 1 tip? Use a high-quality, unwhipped cream cheese.