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Cotton Blues

I had my doubts about cheesecake from Hattiesburg. Sure, Cotton Blues’ tagline is “Mississippi Made, New York Approved,” but who were the New Yorkers? Six years into life in New Orleans, I still feel more New Yorker than New Orleanian — I’m sure my neighbors would agree that I haven’t earned my Southern stripes yet. Call me a New Yorker then, and — bad news for Cotton Blues’ owner Chris Ortego — I’m a New Yorker who doesn’t really like cheesecake. (Gasp!)

Even New York’s most famous brand, Junior’s, with its Downtown Brooklyn flagship in walking distance from my home of 15 years, makes cheesecake that, to me, tastes heavy. Gluey. Too sweet. And, often drowned in drizzles and crumbles and candy. When I sat down with Chris and admitted that cheesecake wasn’t my first (or second, or third) pick from the dessert buffet, he barely blinked. “Yeah, I know. Most of it is so…[he made a face like a cow working its cud)…pasty,” he agreed. Had I found a kindred spirit in a guy who runs a cheesecake company?!

It turns out that Chris Ortego, first and foremost, runs a restaurant. Cotton Blues is the name of his popular Hattiesburg establishment and, as he prepared to open it eight years ago, he became reacquainted with a young local chef named Shaun Davis. Shaun had skipped town straight from high school to attend Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Las Vegas. When he circled back to Hattiesburg, angling for a job at the country club Chris had been running, and caught him on his way out to open Cotton Blues, it seemed like fate. As Chris said, for the first of several times in our conversation, “There are things that are meant to be.”

Cotton Blues’ menu is huge, meant to hit all the South’s comfort food classics. In between the po-boys, fried green tomatoes and pimento grilled cheese, how did they get to cheesecakes, I wondered? Chris was quick to point out that, while cheesecake might be the toast of New York, its main ingredient — cream cheese — can be found in king cake and Danish, as well as on the pages of every Ladies’ Auxiliary cookbook across the land, gussied up as pimento cheese, cream cheese and pepper jelly, or countless appetizer fillings. Cream cheese may be the domain of “mom and grandma recipes,” he pointed out, but Southerners appreciate what a good block of cream cheese can do.

Meanwhile, Shaun’s destiny as a pastry chef was written long before his phone call to Chris. For years, his culinary instructor warned him that he’d never be allowed to graduate until he gave up his cheesecake recipe. It was one he started as a kid watching Julia Child on PBS and continued to tinker with at school. Shaun made it out of Vegas with a diploma and brought his carefully honed recipe with him. Chris set him up at an old oyster grilling station in Cotton Blues so folks could watch him work. Cheesecake went on the menu a few weeks after opening. It was easy to see, Chris marveled: “You could tell we had something special.”

Last year, the restaurant served 12,000 slices. When people are liking that much cheesecake, it’s only a matter of time before they ask if you can mail one to a friend. And that was how, three years ago, Chris and Shaun found themselves expanding from the restaurant business to the cheesecake business.

Still cranking out of his former oyster station, Shaun began making cheesecakes to mail. When that didn’t work out, the two set their sights on local and regional retailers. Two years ago, Chris drove to Thibodaux with a cheesecake on the passenger seat of his car, hoping to get Rouses interested. They weren’t. But as Chris sees it, there are things that are meant to be. Shortly after his Thibodaux trip he saw a movie called The Founder about McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc. Ray Kroc was “all about persistence,” Chris remembers. “Brains and talent are great but persistence will win out every time. I decided to go back to Thibodaux and sit in the lobby until someone would see me.”

I guess it’s only a little while that a man with a tall stack of boxes on his lap can go unnoticed. A buyer invited him in for a meeting. As the story goes, Chris was so flustered he left his cheesecakes unattended. While he was making his pitch in some locked room, Donny Rouse strolled through the lobby, stuck a finger in a cheesecake and announced to no one in particular, “Put these in all my stores!” Shortly afterwards, Chris got a call from Rouses Bakery Director and the great cheesecake rollout began.

Selling cheesecake, or any perishable food, is tricky because of its short shelf life. It’s common in the world of supermarket bakeries to buy items frozen and then thaw them out before sale. I started to understand why Cotton Blues’ cheesecake was different when I learned that freezing it is actually part of the production process. As Chris put it, “Freezing isn’t a compromise of the standard, it is the standard.” Part of Shaun’s obsessive recipe development was figuring out how to cool the cheesecake as quickly as possible once it came out of the oven. He found that the faster it chilled, the less time the cake had to settle, and the lighter and fluffier the texture remained. The fastest way to chill it was to take it from the oven and put it straight into the freezer.

While Chris was telling me his story, a blueberry cheesecake was thawing on the table between us. I realized my moment had arrived. I was going to have to eat the cake. I was pretty curious, now that I’d heard about this special chilling process to preserve the light and fluffy texture. As Chris slid the box over I caught a look at the ingredients label. It was surprisingly short and surprisingly specific: not just cream cheese, but Philadelphia Cream Cheese. Not sour cream, but Daisy Sour Cream (wait, sour cream?!). Oh and, not graham crackers, but Keebler Graham Crackers.

“Tell me about this,” I said, nodding at the label. The ingredients, like the chilling process, have been intensely tested and retested. Technically, Chris points out, a pastry chef wouldn’t call this a cake but a custard filling. That’s because Cotton Blues uses no starch of any kind to bind its cheesecake. Philadelphia Cream Cheese (generic brands just aren’t as good and brown too quickly), Daisy Sour Cream (for a bit of tang and airiness), sugar and vanilla are bound together with whole eggs, carefully added by hand. The crust is also handmade — Keebler Graham Crackers pounded into coarse dust, bound with butter and pressed into a delightfully knobby and imperfect shell. The crust is par-baked, then filled, baked again and then frozen. The absence of any flour or cornstarch means a silken, fluffy, creamy texture that’s never pasty. Thinking back to Chris’s ruminating-cow face, I understood why he understood my concerns. This whole cheesecake was designed to be the opposite of what I’ve come to expect. It only helped that my sample had swirls of Mississippi blueberry puree to offer another layer of bright, tangy complexity. The filling was indulgent but balanced, the sugar restrained enough that the sour cream tang made it feel almost light.

When you buy a frozen Cotton Blues cheesecake, you can cut one slice out at a time, letting it thaw on the counter while you return the rest to the freezer. (A knife run under hot water does the trick beautifully.) As Chris told me,

“People can eat it like ice cream,” a bit at a time, until that sad day when it’s all gone. But then you can decide which flavor to try next. As is true of the entire story of Cotton Blues and its cheesecakes, there are things that are meant to be.

Cotton Blues cheesecakes are available in Original, Sea-Salted Caramel, Blueberry and Strawberry.