Heavenly Cheesecake in Cambridge
You might not guess it from meeting her, but Sister Cecelia, the silver-haired prioress of the New Skete Monastery, is one of the most successful businesswomen in Washington County. The nuns and monks of New Skete are a pious group—and they’ll be the first to tell you that their monastic life comes before anything else. They are aligned with the Eastern Orthodox Church and are devoted to their faith, but over the past 40 years, they’ve also produced some of the best cheesecake you’ll ever have. Located just a few minutes outside the tiny village of Cambridge, New York, the monastery is tucked into the side of a hill, surrounded by farmland, with Vermont’s Green Mountains rising in the distance.
Many of the nuns originally belonged to the Poor Clare cloister in Evansville, Indiana, but in the spring of 1969 they decided to make the move to upstate New York. In their previous location, the sisters were cloistered, which means they had very limited contact with the outside world. Sister Cecelia explained that by moving to New York, they were looking to establish a convent that would allow them a contemplative life more in line with contemporary American culture.
The sisters contacted the monks of New Skete (who had arrived in Cambridge a few years earlier) and decided to join them. The monks helped the sisters get their footing by providing them with land, but as Sister Cecelia explains, the nuns had to find a way to become self-sufficient. “We assured the church that we wouldn’t be a burden to them, so we began thinking of ways to support ourselves.” The sisters were aware that Washington County was not the wealthiest area, so when thinking of ways to make money, they had that added challenge. “We didn’t want to do anything that would take away from the residents of Washington County,” Sister Cecelia says.
The sisters tried their hand at a number of jobs such as sewing vestments and assisting the monks in raising and training German shepherd dogs. Later, they became housekeepers at the local hospital and nursing home. Eventually Sister Magdalene, a nun with a love of baking, joined the convent. Sister Cecelia explains, “She was not enamored with housekeeping,” so she suggested that the nuns try selling cheesecakes.
The cheesecake recipe was perfected in 1975 and it was an immediate hit. Sister Cecelia said that over time, they were able to bring home sisters who were working outside the convent. While the sisters were devoted to their housekeeping work, the night shifts were not exactly conducive to communal living and attending services. At first the sisters worked in the monastery kitchen, but eventually they purchased larger fridges, bigger ovens and eventually a walk-in freezer. In 1983, with money raised by selling cheesecakes, the nuns were able to build their current commercial kitchen. From there, the popularity of their cheesecake skyrocketed.
The nuns sell their tempting cheesecakes at a number of local retailers and restaurants, but these days much of their business is online. Sister Cecelia explains, “We saw that online shopping was the way of the future, so we opened up an online store.” By the early 2000s the online store was in full swing and their orders have only continued to grow. The nuns recently signed an agreement with Goldbely, a national food marketing company that assists with marketing and facilitates shipping.
When it comes to production, Sister Cecelia says, “We bake as we need the cakes—two days per week is our ideal.” The nuns only use recipes that freeze and keep well because as Sister Cecelia explains, “Monastic living comes first. We need a schedule that allows us to bake when convenient.”
The sisters are passionate about using the highest-quality ingredients. They source things locally when possible and use natural flavorings. Their key lime puree comes directly from the Florida Keys and their raspberry puree is imported from Michigan. The cheesecakes have received positive press nationwide, leading them to ship the sweets as far as Hawaii and Alaska. Their popularity spiked last year after two of the sisters traveled down to New York City to appear on the Rachael Ray cooking show. But Sister Cecelia says that much of their success is due to word-of-mouth recommendations. “Once people try our cheesecakes, they keep coming back,” she says.
Although they’re shipped to far-flung places, the cheesecakes are still monastery-baked and produced in small batches. Sister Cecelia calls herself the business manager while 85-year-old Sister Patricia serves as the bakery manager. Many of the nuns work in the kitchen, but they also employ 17 staff members, making them a good-size employer in rural Washington County. The convent’s PR representative Ida Williams says, “The nuns of New Skete make a bigger impact than many people realize.” Beyond the bakery, there are a number of other community events held at the monastery—annual retreats, concerts, dog seminars and an iconography workshop planned for later this year.
With over 40 years of experience, the nuns of New Skete know their way around the kitchen. The nuns make more than a dozen varieties of cheesecake with flavors ranging from Raspberry Ripple to Chocolate Amaretto. They even make a gluten-free flavor (New York Classic) with homemade gluten-free cookies. And legend has it that the nuns were the first to incorporate flavors into the cheesecake batter versus serving the flavors as garnishes.
If your appetite is whet for a slice of cheesecake, we recommend you take a drive out to Cambridge to visit the monastery yourself. A gift shop and self-service vestibule allow visitors to purchase cheesecake from 8am to 8pm daily (bring check or cash), or if you’re farther afield, visit their online store newskete.org/gift-shops-online for the latest selections. In addition to cheesecake, the nuns also produce fruitcake, cheese spreads and pancake mix.