Johnny Scruggs picked up the last perfect strawberry, buffed it on a paper towel, placed it at the summit of his masterpiece, sealed it in place with a drizzle of gelatin, then stepped back to admire his work.
The objet d’art was his strawberry cheesecake, a confection so prized in Prince George’s County’s fire circles that it has earned him the nickname “Cheesecake Johnny.”
He had shopped for the ingredients — fresh eggs, Philly cream cheese, Breakstone’s sour cream and unsalted butter — then amassed them on the kitchen counter at Northview Community Fire/EMS Station No. 816 in Bowie, where he is assigned as a firefighter and paramedic.
Hoping that an emergency wouldn’t occur while he cooked, he beat the ingredients by hand (he never uses a mixer), kissed them with just the right amount of pure vanilla extract, lined a pan with parchment paper, crafted a golden crust of graham cracker crumbs and, with the care of a mother touching her infant, poured the mixture into the pan.
“There it is,” he said, beaming proudly. “Now into the oven it goes.”
Firehouse cooking is a skill as old as the service itself, but Scruggs takes it to a new level. Popular for his standard firehouse fare, Scruggs draws raves for his cheesecakes, whose aroma, mingling with the scent of disinfectant and rubber from giant engine tires, has become familiar at the station.
“There are a lot of firefighters who can cook standard firehouse chili or barbecue some ribs, but without a doubt he is our most famous dessert chef,” said Mark Brady, a spokesman for the fire department.
Scruggs’s repertoire includes 47 varieties, including chocolate, chocolate-peanut butter (“which,” he said, “tastes just like a Reese’s” cup), coconut, coffee, sweet potato and every fruit from blueberry to key lime. He recently mastered a bean cheesecake and has experimented with a broccoli and squash flavor. Each cheesecake is infused with natural flavoring and is elaborately decorated. For those who want zing, he will add a taste of the hard stuff.
“A firefighter friend of mine’s 88-year-old grandmother wanted a Jack Daniel’s cheesecake, so I made it for her,” he said. “The alcohol burns off, so there is no effect from it. It wasn’t my favorite, but she loved it. I put a little bottle of Jack Daniel’s on as decoration, and he said she drank that after she ate the cheesecake.”
Once known only within the department, Scruggs’s desserts are now in demand for weddings, anniversaries, family reunions and other events across the region. “I’m already just about booked up for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and it’s only June,” he said recently.
Mastering cheesecake baking was natural for Scruggs, who cut his teeth in the kitchen at home in Montclair, N.J. His mother, Bernice Smith, a teachers’ assistant, cooked basic weekday meals — meatloaf, roasted chicken and her special breaded shrimp.
His father, George Smith, a laborer whose sunup-to-sundown work schedule precluded him from getting into the kitchen on weekdays, produced weekend specialties such as slow-grilled barbecue and tender beef roasts.
“I can remember standing on a stool that was pushed up to the stove and watching my mother cook eggs and bacon,” Scruggs said. “It was like magic to me. She would take these raw [ingredients] and stand at the stove and miraculously, in a few minutes, breakfast would come.”
Scruggs tried to cook his first egg before he started school, its gooey contents missing the skillet and sliding into the fire below.
Despite the mess, he was hooked.
“I was the oldest of six kids, and there is a five-year gap between me and the next one, so I had a lot of responsibility,” he said. “My mom would leave a note on the fridge telling me, ‘Take this out of the freezer and thaw it,’ or ‘Start cooking the fish,’ so that by the time she got home at 5 or so, there was less stress on her. Later, I actually cooked dinner for the family.”
Read the rest of Cheesecake Johnny's story here.