Food & DrinkFood Features

Charlotte Baker Pushes Boundaries of Cheesecake With Lé Cakes

The science of sweet

Charlotte baker Anheleta Chatman
Anheleta Chatman started her Charlotte-based cheesecake business, Lé Cakes, in the midst of the pandemic. (Courtesy of Anheleta Chatman)

Charlotte baker Anheleta Chatman isn’t a huge fan of sweets, which is ironic considering that she runs a business that has her spending a majority of her time baking and tasting cheesecake.

In fact, Chatman prefers savory flavors, but even more than that, she loves a challenge. And that’s what cheesecake is: notoriously difficult to get right, frustratingly easy to screw up.

Unlike most desserts, cheesecake fights back from the moment the oven door closes. Heat makes the top want to crack and color, while the inside, rich with cheese and cream, wants to curdle. The smallest mistake can throw the whole thing off.

It was that science and technicality that drew Chatman in to baking cheesecake initially and continues to challenge her today as she bends the possibilities of flavor with her artisan New York-style cheesecake business, Lé Cakes.

Though it started as a pandemic side hustle for the stay-at-home mom, Lé Cakes has since grown to a full-time business through the power of social media and word-of-mouth. On May 21, Chatman’s cheesecakes were featured at Dessert Wars Charlotte at the Park Expo Center, where judges awarded Lé Cakes fifth place out of 60 vendors.

If Lé Cakes continues on its current trajectory, Chatman said she can see herself opening a brick-and-mortar shop one day. Until then, she offers local pickup and delivery in Charlotte (though she says she will sometimes drive her cheesecakes to customers in her former home city of Raleigh). 

Chatman spends lots of her time in the kitchen, tinkering with ingredients like a scientist looking to create new flavors. But no matter how many different directions she takes her cakes, from Fruity Pebbles to banana pudding, there remains one constant: Each cake is rooted in the same family recipe that was passed down to her years ago, as a child.

The recipe serves not only as the foundation for Lé Cakes, but a jumping off point for Chatman’s creativity.

Uncle Greg’s kitchen

Originally from New York, Chatman remembers traveling upstate with her family on the weekends to visit her Aunt Nancy and Uncle Greg, who lived in a big house on a hill with a pool and lots of land, when she was 9 years old. 

“One weekend, because I was always interested in food, my uncle said, ‘You want to learn a recipe? I’m going to teach you a recipe this weekend.’ And it was cheesecake,” Chatman recalled. “It was this recipe that he taught me.”

She remembers spending a lot of time on the recipe while her Uncle Greg chimed in with tips here and there. That Thanksgiving, she made mini cheesecakes for everyone and whenever she visited her dad, she made him a cheesecake.

“This recipe just kind of floated and stayed around with me, but until Lé Cakes took off I never thought, ‘This is the one. This is the recipe,’” Chatman said. “Amongst my friends, I’m the cook, I’m the chef, I’m the baker. So I was always doing something, but never this one recipe until this took off out of nowhere.”

Aside from small adjustments over the years, the cheesecake recipe Chatman uses for Lé Cakes is almost exactly what her Uncle Greg taught her as a child. In fact, she knows it so well, and has spent so many hours beyond that day in his kitchen working to perfect it, she can easily rattle it off down to the ounces and grams of each ingredient.

Technique and ingredients set Lé Cakes apart from store-bought cheesecake, specifically one secret ingredient that Chatman would only describe as “completely different from everything you can probably find on the internet.”

Fruity Pebble mini cheesecake
Fruity Pebble mini cheesecake. (Photo by Ohsnaplee Photography)

She did reveal that she adds citrus, usually lemon or lime juice, to all of her cheesecakes no matter the flavor. Citrus carries the tanginess and cuts the sweetness that cheesecake tends to have, which is one of the biggest compliments she hears about Lé Cakes: the sweetness level is just right.

And not one cheesecake in her arsenal is made with a graham cracker crust. Instead, Chatman uses a smorgasbord of crushed-up cookies and cereals including Fruity Pebbles, Nilla Wafers, Lotus Biscoff Cookies and Oreos.

Though their cheesecake recipes are nearly identical, Chatman’s technique is completely different from her uncle’s, which she recalled as something along the lines of “throw it all into a blender, mix it as high as you can and go for it.”

Through much trial and error over the years, Chatman has learned that cheesecakes really don’t want you to give them air. They want you to be gentle, she said, and they want to be left alone.

No piece of cake

Baking might be a relatively popular venture, but there’s a reason not many people go into the cheesecake business, specifically. Cheesecake is incredibly technical, Chatman said. There’s so much science behind getting a perfect top with no cracks and no color that its led countless people to give up on perfecting the process. 

Charlotte-based Lé Cakes specializes in New York-style cheesecake, which is dense and rich compared to the fluffier Chicago style and the softer, almost mousse-like texture of a no-bake version. It’s difficult to make because it’s baked, and Chatman is all too familiar with the triumph and disappointment that comes from trying to get it right.

After she presses the crust and pours in the batter, she places the cheesecake into a pan of water to sit in while it bakes in the oven. The water-bath method helps the cheesecake not crack on top and ensures it will come out smooth and creamy, but it’s not without risk.

“You’re basically kind of betting your last dollar that no water seeped in — no water got to your crust — because if it did, party’s over,” Chatman said. “You have to throw the whole thing away, all the work you just did. You have to start completely over.”

Chatman’s cheesecakes need to cool for at least 12 hours after baking before decorating can begin. It’s a long process that, for a large 10-inch cheesecake, can take about 32 hours to complete from start to finish. Chatman also makes a smaller size that feeds up to four people and sells mini-cheesecakes by the dozen. 

Despite the difficulty of cheesecake, Chatman never gave up. In fact, she’s taken her uncle’s recipe for classic cheesecake and manipulated it over a dozen times to make flavors such as Fruity Pebble, banana Biscoff, lemon Oreo, dulce de leche, carrot cake and cinnamon roll.

She loves to challenge herself by making customer requests for new flavors, which she calls freestyle, and many freestyle cakes have become permanent menu items.

“It takes a lot of trial and error,” Chatman said. “And it all comes from asking how far can we push this recipe to go? How far can we manipulate it?”

That’s where the science comes in.

Cinnamon roll cheesecake
Charlotte-based Lé Cakes offers a cinnamon roll New York-style cheesecake, among others. (Photo by Anheleta Chatman)

When Chatman was experimenting with making key lime pie cheesecake, she found the key lime completely changed the texture of the batter, so she had to adjust other ingredients to make it right. With the cherry pie cheesecake, she first tried using a store-bought cherry filling but that caused the batter to curdle in the oven, so she made a homemade tart jam and folded in frozen cherries.

She’s gone through dozens of types of cream cheese, as some create too much moisture and others have too much sugar, causing the cheesecake to brown during bake time. She’s constantly tasting — despite not being a huge fan of sweets — so that she can not only nail down new flavors but further perfect those already established. 

“We all know we can grab a slice of cheesecake almost anywhere. We can run to The Cheesecake Factory and grab any slice,” Chatman said. “The point of what I’m doing is to give you something that not only looks super cute and is very different from what we see for cheesecake, but also makes people say , ‘Huh, I never thought about that. I never thought that would go there.’ So that’s kind of where all these flavors have come from.”

Lé Cakes also offers keto- and diabetic-friendly cheesecakes made with Monk fruit sweetener in a Catalina Crunch cereal crust. Chatman is currently toying with the idea of vegan, dairy-free and gluten-free versions, but that comes with its own set of challenges, she said. 

In cheesecake, dairy is what brings fat and flavor; fat is what gives texture on the palate; and eggs add moisture and texture, Chatman explained. She often wonders how replacing these ingredients would change the recipe and alter the taste, but she doesn’t think it’s impossible. 

She just needs to get into the kitchen and figure it out.

“With cheesecake, these are all difficult lanes because a lot of what I do is texture-based and when we start introducing dairy-free or gluten-free, it’s all fat content and how far can we push it,” she said.

It was the challenge that drew her into this game, after all.

An evolving passion

Chatman has been interested in cooking, as her experience with Uncle Greg proves, but when she attended Johnson & Wales University, she had no intention of becoming a baker. She initially wanted to open a food truck that fused her father’s Caribbean roots with her mother’s Puerto Rican heritage.

After graduating with a degree in Food & Beverage Industry Management, Chatman worked as a concessions cook at what is now the Spectrum Center, which is where she met her husband, who is currently a chef for NASCAR. She later served as director of concessions at what is now Truist Field and then as a deli manager at several high-end grocery stores. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, Chatman’s daughter, Nori Mae, had just turned 1 year old. Chatman didn’t want to put her at risk so she decided to take a leave of absence, then began selling cheesecake by the slice out of her home in Charlotte to earn extra money.

strawberry cheesecake
Classic strawberry cheesecake is one of Charlotte-based Lé Cakes’ most popular flavors. (Photo by Anheleta Chatman)

It was in August 2021 that business skyrocketed thanks to an unintentionally viral social media post. When a friend asked Chatman to make a cheesecake for a baby shower, she decided on a whim to post on Facebook asking if anyone else might be interested in a cake as well.

“I’m not kidding, I had like 20 people order cheesecakes from me that day,” Chatman said. “And from then all the way through holiday season until now, we’ve been swamped.”

“Honestly, I should have known because, in 2020, I was selling slices of cheesecake during the pandemic — literally leaving it in a box in a bag hanging on my door for people to come and grab,” she continued. “So it kind of came like full circle for me.”

She went viral again in January when she encouraged her Twitter followers to retweet a photo of her cheesecakes. The post received over 4,000 retweets and over 5,000 likes, helping boost word-of-mouth about her business even further.

Chatman’s passion for cheesecake lies both in her desire to challenge herself and her love of making food that people enjoy. The success of Lé Cakes is especially meaningful to her family, who were there the day Chatman made her first cheesecake and have seen the recipe evolve and mature with Chatman.

What started as a simple recipe for classic cheesecake has gone so far beyond what any of them, including Chatman, could have imagined. And there’s still so much further she can go. 

“I feel like we have something that’s fun and original,” she said. “I’m not done with concepts on what can be done with cheesecake. I’m truly just getting started.”

As it turns out, hundreds of cheesecakes later, Chatman is a fan of something sweet after all: success.

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