A slice of rich, decadent cheesecake pairs beautifully with a cup of strong coffee, combining to make a perfect moment of self-indulgence. That over-the-top richness, so alluring on its own, can make cheesecake a difficult dessert when it's served as the accompaniment to a full meal. Whether your favorite recipe calls for American cream cheese, Italian ricotta or German quark, you need to focus the meal on light, fresh flavors to keep the cheesecake from overwhelming it.
Starters and Appetizers
When your meal will culminate in a cheesecake, try to avoid similarly rich ingredients in your starters. If you're entertaining, shun heavy or cheesy canapes in favor of lighter alternatives, such as marinated vegetables. Keep your salads light, crisp and green, and serve them with simple vinaigrettes rather than rich ranch or blue-cheese dressings. If you plan to start the affair with a soup, choose one that's light and brothy, rather than creamy or heavy.
Choose your entree with similar care. Your Lobster Newburg might be legendary, but a meal heavy in cream and butter won't leave your guests in any condition to appreciate cheesecake. Think in terms of lean protein and simple accompaniments: white fish, chicken breast or grilled meats, rather than salmon or pulled pork; and relatively plain herbed rice and vegetables instead of rich casseroles or scalloped potatoes.
Toppings and Sauces
After exercising restraint and prudence throughout the meal, you can be lavish with the dessert. Your cheesecake's sweetness and richness makes it a perfect foil for fruit-based toppings, from fresh-sliced strawberries to sauces heavy with cherries or vivid blueberries and blackberries. A dark chocolate sauce or rich caramel sauce takes the opposite tack, complementing rather than contrasting with the cheesecake's sweetness. Toasted walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans or almonds add flavor and texture, alone or in conjunction with a rich sauce.
Toasted or lightly candied nuts, with their astringent tannins, can also be served in small dishes along with the dessert as a complement to the cheesecake. Strong tea and coffee -- especially espresso-based coffees -- play a similar role in cleansing the palate between bites, so the cheesecake never becomes cloying. Offer a selection of fresh or dried fruit as well, valuable either as a refreshing complement to the cheesecake or as an alternative for guests who like to end a meal on a lighter note.
The Savory Option
It's also worth remembering that cheesecakes can be taken in a savory direction and serve as the centerpiece to a meal in their own right. This was their historical role in rural Europe, as a sustaining and protein-rich meal for the numerous fast days of Catholicism and meat-free "dairy" days of the Jewish community. A cheesecake is essentially a very rich quiche, and common quiche ingredients such as ham or bacon, spinach and caramelized onions are all at home in a savory version. Serve it in small slices with a salad or light vegetable dishes. Alternatively, serve it simply with crisp crackers or toasted baguette rounds as a dip-worthy appetizer.