When Cheesecake is Love*

*apologies to Geneen Roth

 

[Well, I really hadn’t meant to write about my mother for two entries in a row.  Maybe it was all of your wonderful comments about yesterday’s “mom story”; maybe it was an offshoot of Mother’s Day earlier in the month; maybe I’m just feeling all mushy and sentimental after watching the over-the-top , tear-filled finale of American Idol last night. 

Or, maybe, it’s Sarah’s fault. Over at Homemade Experiences in the Kitchen, Sarah is hosting a blog event called “Tastes to Remember,” that asks us to write about “those tastes and smells that immediately bring you back to your childhood.”  Of course, my mother came to mind once again, this time for her baking (which, unlike her cooking, was quite exceptional).  So forgive the bathos. And here’s my own little contribution to this week’s sappy ending.]  

* * * * * * * * * *

In the house in which I grew up, food often spoke louder than the people. When my mother was too hurt, too angry, too stubborn or simply too out of touch with her own internal landscape to speak, the dishes she cooked were imbued with their own telegraphic properties. Food could be either a reward or a weapon, and, like each of those, was often withheld until the situation truly warranted its use.   

 

On schoolday mornings, I’d sometimes wake early and stumble into the kitchen before my father left for work (he was usually gone by 6:15, off to a 12-hour day at the butcher shop to kibbitz with customers, haul sides of beef, or trim stew meat just so before wrapping it expertly, as if swaddling a baby, in waxy brown paper). Squinting and still shielding my eyes from the electric light, I’d encounter my dad hunched over his breakfast at the kitchen table. I could always sense immediately whether or not some earlier argument between my parents had been resolved overnight.

 

Was he enjoying two soft-boiled eggs, an orange cut into eighths and his usual cup of black tea? That meant the air had cleared with the sunlit sky; equilibrium had been restored. If, instead, the plate proffered a lone slice of blackened toast, glistening with a hasty swipe of margarine; if the kettle was left boiling unattended (it was understood he’d have to go get his own), then I knew that tension had prevailed, and it would be at least one more day before détente was re-established.    

 

Food also conveyed silent, unspeakable messages of sorrow.   

 

When I was about six or seven, my mother acquired a recipe for “Potato Boats” from one of her Mah Jong friends, and they were quickly adopted as our staple Friday night dinner. Each week, Mom would cut the potatoes in half, scoop out the nubbly, steaming flesh and mash the innards with butter and milk before packing the mixture back into the empty shells, topping each with an orange haystack of grated Kraft cheese. The “boats” were then replaced in the oven and baked until the cheese oozed and bubbled, drooping over the potato edges to form charred rounds of ash on the baking sheet. We all loved the Friday suppers, and my sisters and I waited eagerly for them.   

 

Then my grandfather got sick.  As the only grandparent still alive when I was born, he’d been a fairly constant presence in our lives—living, in fact, right upstairs in the upper duplex of our house, with my aunt’s family. Diagnosed with liver cancer, Zaida was given little chance of recovery. Only two weeks after the diagnosis—on a Friday–he was admitted to hospital.    

 

That afternoon, my mother operated in a haze, her eyes perpetually wet, leaking silent rivulets down her cheeks. She moved aimlessly through the house like a fly caught in the window frame, shifting from one spot to the next as if the counter, the table, the cupboard, were each invisible barriers blocking her path, causing her to recoil and try again, over and over. She somehow still produced the requisite potato boats and salmon patties–I couldn’t understand why we were having them for lunch instead of dinner–and we ate in tense, confused silence.  The following Friday, we were served a different menu; she never attempted the potato boats again.   

 

Still, food could also project a sense of celebration and delight.
 
Shy and reserved, my mother was as soft spoken as grass. Not one to tout her own accomplishments , she relied instead on food to convey positive feelings of pride or self-confidence.  Renowned for her baking, she’d silently bask in the appreciative “ooh”s and “aah”s from friends and family whenever she served her signature creation, a towering Chiffon Cake almost a foot high.  Other times, if she felt adventurous and carefree, she’d bake up “Chocolate Shadows,” a somewhat bizarre yet beloved combination of chocolate cookie with swirls of sweet peanut-butter filling and a hint of mint flavoring.

Perhaps most of all, when Mom was feeling conciliatory and generous and filled with love toward my father, she’d bake his favorite dessert, something we called Farmer’s Cheesecake.  Unlike the rich, dense and decadent rounds  we’re accustomed to today, this homey version, based on one his grandmother had made on the dairy farm where he grew up, was set in a square pan and sported a cake-like crust both beneath, and woven in a freeform criss-cross over, a layer of puréed cottage cheese, eggs, lemon and a hint of sugar. The finished result was then cut into squares to be enjoyed after dinner or, in the case of my sisters and me, for breakfast. The cheese filling, reminiscent of that in a kolacky or cheese danish, was smooth, yet firm and not too sweet.    

On days when I arrived home from school and was greeted by the rich, eggy aroma as it sneaked out from under our front door, I’d race up the stairs in excited anticipation, knowing my mother would be in good spirits.  My sisters and I would sample the cake as soon as it was ready—only a tiny nibble was permitted—before allowing it to cool on the kitchen counter until my dad came home.    

 

When my mother placed a slice of this cake in front of my father, his face, no matter how tense or furrowed from the day’s work, would soften and a smile overtook him as he brandished his fork. He’d relish his little gift of generosity, savoring every morsel along with his cup of tea.  “Just like my grandmother used to make,” he’d murmur, grinning. Then my mother would retreat to the sink; as she passed the soapy dishcloth slowly over each bowl or plate, her face was limned with satisfaction. No words were required, as we all knew what she was feeling.  

 

So you see why I was determined to recreate that cake. I wanted to achieve a vegan version with the same harmony of cookie crust, tart, lemony filling and light, pillowy texture. It took several attempts, but I think I finally found a suitable rendition.  And while it may not quite do the original justice, but I’m still pretty happy with the outcome.  With its irregular lattice crust and home-made appeal, this cake does approximate the Farmer’s Cheesecake of my childhood.   

 

Tonight after dinner, I padded over to where the HH sat and, without uttering a sound, placed a big slice of the cake in front of him. At first he cut into it tentatively, sampling a tiny bite.  Then he dug in to the rest with gusto, and in an instant had already scraped the plate clean.   

 

I could tell from the smile on his face that he’d understood exactly what I meant.  

 

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[This recipe will also appear in my upcoming cookbook, Sweet Freedom, along with more than 100 others, most of which are not featured on this blog.  For more information, check the “Cookbook” button at right, or visit the cookbook blog.]

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Comments

  1. great story ricki. such a great sense of food and emotions intertwining – and it seems that sharing a warm piece of fresh baking is a great bond between mother and daughter.

    I love the crisscross – it seems as retro as the orange cheese on the potato boats (I will look forward to the day you do a vegan version of them).

  2. OMG! I can’t wait to try this. I quickly scanned the recipe for vegan cream cheese (something I can’t get here in Japan) and was thankful to not see it on the list. I’ll definitely be making this soon!

    Thank you for sharing your families beautiful story. I’ve been lurking on your blog for awhile.

  3. Beautiful story, Ricki. Food is so much a part of our family histories, isn’t it? And such a powerful language as well.
    This cheesecake looks just beautiful- it shows when things are made with love, too.

  4. I always love making meals/treats (especially desserts!) that bring back memories – even if they’re bittersweet. I LOVE your Vegan Farmer’s Cheesecake recipe – looks so decadent and luscious!

  5. Not only do I always find great recipes and pictures on your blog, your writing skills are also beyond amazing!
    And I am always looking for recipes for cheesecakes that don’t call for any soy cream cheese, because that stuff freaks me out (and is mostly not available here in G.). I really like the cashew/tofu mixture!

  6. That looks so delicious!

  7. What a well told story; I loved it. My Lithuanian Grandmother makes a similar recipe, but with ricotta cheese I think.

    I’m so glad the HH loved it too :)

  8. Courtney says:

    Isn’t it amazing how food can hold such an important place in our lives and histories? And I love how food and emotions are intertwined…no story of my great grandmother can be told without mention of her kitchen or food or her famous bread, rolls, or pie. Great Grandma’s farm means Great Grandma’s kitchen and you cannot have one without the other!

    Your stories are always so vivid–I love them! And that recipe looks beautiful. I am happy to hear that the HH enjoyed it!

    Courtney

  9. I used to love kolaches—we’d pick them up on Sundays after church, instead of doughnut. If it’s at all possible, your cheesecake looks even better than the kolaches I remember loving!

  10. A lovely tribute to your mom! As for the cheesecake, oh goodness. I’d like to try the original version without the tofu. Would it work if I just substituted diary in place of the soya products?

  11. OH ! MY ! CHEESECAKE ! WOWOWOWOWOWOWOWOWOW

  12. Johanna,
    I guess food an emotions are pretty intertwined for lots of people! I hadn’t thought of the criss-cross as retro, but I guess it is! (And I’ll let you know when I master a vegan potato boat!)

    Pamela,
    Thanks so much for your comment, and for visiting! Glad you de-lurked. And lucky you, in Japan! I’m guessing you won’t have much trouble finding the right type of tofu over there. . . :)

    Shellyfish,
    Yes, food does seem to be connected to so many family stories, for so many of us. Glad you liked the look of the cake!

    VeggieGirl,
    Well, somehow I’m not surprised that your choice of favorite memory-related food is baking! And from your blog posts, it sounds as if you have many, many wonderful memories connected to your baked treats.

    Mihl,
    Thanks so much for your kind words. I am glad you liked the cheesecake idea–I’m also not fond of the processed “cheeses” and find them hard to digest. So this seemed like a good compromise, and the texture was really lovely, too.

    Deb,
    Thanks! And I think it would be Deb-friendly, too, as it’s made with agave :) .

    Lizzie,
    I bet that my mother’s original recipe was supposed to use ricotta, but ricotta was too “exotic” in our house, so she probably just subbed cottage cheese! I bet your grandmother’s version was delicious.

    Courtney,
    Thanks so much–much appreciated! Sounds as if you enjoyed some wonderful creations from your great-grandmother’s kitchen and farm (even if they’ve been passed down to others). And the HH definitely enjoyed it, all right–he practically finished the whole thing the first night!

    CCV,
    I’ve never actually had a kolache, but it the filling sounds just like this one, similar to the kinds of cheese danish my mom used to buy.

    Lisa,
    I wouldn’t recommend just switching cheese for the tofu, as I made up this recipe from scratch and the ingredient amounts aren’t the same as in the original. I was aiming for something that evoked the original cake and think I did accomplish that, but it’s made based on my memory rather than the original recipe.

    Happy Herbivore,
    Thanks! It may not be fat-free, but it doesn’t add MUCH fat, and it is still yummy (for a special treat, of course) :)

  13. Beautiful story. Farmer cheesecake looks delicious!

    Ok, I need to go call my Mom now! :)

  14. Wow…I think I need a moment to digest that information. I think I almost shed some tears! Thanks for the stories, as well as the beautiful recipe Ricki! I’m glad to share it at my event!

  15. Amanda,
    Thanks so much, and thanks for visiting my blog! (And it’s always a good idea to call Mom, anyway, right?) ;)

    Sarah,
    Thanks so much. It was fun to participate in this event and think about all those recipes from my childhood! Looking forward to checking out everyone’s entries on the roundup.

  16. Every time I read one of your posts I think you’ve outdone yourself—and this one is no exception. Wonderful story, beautiful food.

  17. What a beautiful story Ricki. Food conjures up so many memories, both good and bad. Baking is such a wonderful way to keep those that have passed close to our hearts.
    This cheesecake recipe sounds so delicious. I love the crisscrossing on the top, very fancy. And of course, beautiful writing and photos as well!

  18. Am I really wrong to wish I had the original recipe? hmm…

    Will have to try this one, looks delish.

  19. Carol Miranda says:

    Yeah, tho’ American Idol can be a tear jerker sometimes, but the memories of childhood and mother does bring back all the flooding once again, I would not attempt this cheesecake bec. some of the ingredients are hard to get, unless you can substitute )spelt flour, the nectar, but it’s the most unusual once I’ve encountered so far esp. with the criss-cross topping. Great work and kudos to all mums.

  20. Wonderfully moving story! I’m so glad I followed Shelly’s link here, though I was expecting a vegan potato boat recipe, LOL! Now I really want to try the cheesecake! I hate the vegan ones I’ve made with Tofutti cream cheese and I really like the idea of making this richer with the cashew butter.

  21. I missed this story before. How beautiful. Your descriptions are achingly vivid.

    When I can get my hands on some cashew butter and agave nectar, I am going to try this.

  22. Vivacious Vegan says:

    Hi Ricki! Just curious, I don’t have any barley flour (and I may not have enough spelt flour). Do you think I could substitute wheat flour (perhaps half white and half white wheat)?

  23. Came here after this recipe was featured on Cookstr, hoping to find a link to your mom’s recipe–like a couple of others, your vegan version has a few too many difficult-to-get ingredients, and I have no dietary restrictions. I’ll keep on googling for that, after seeing your comments that no simple back-substitutions are likely to work.

    Besides all that, it was lovely to read your full “recipe story” for this one on Mother’s Day.

    • Sorry about that, Nancy! I’m not even sure I’ve got the original any more, actually. The recipe is really for people who want to bake vegan, or allergy-friendly, cheesecake. Thanks for your kind comment about the story, though! :)

  24. Wow, that’s quite a lot you remember from your childhood. You were really a perceptive child. I guess a lot of that kind of stuff went on in our house too but I never could have written about it like you have done here. You have a way with words, Ricki. I’m going to try this soon. Thanks for sharing a part of your life with us.

    • Thanks so much, Deborah. I think it’s either a blessing–or a curse–that writers do remember so many details from their earlier lives (just don’t ask me what I ate for dinner last night–totally gone). ;-) I do remember my mum’s cheesecake, though!

Trackbacks

  1. [...] one of her recipes – though I do use her recieps often! Then it hit me: last year Ricki wrote a very moving post, one of my favourites, and she therein mentions potato boats. This post touched me for many [...]

  2. [...] You can find the recipe here, and it will be appearing in Ricki’s up-coming cookbook Sweet Freedom, available May 15th! Sweet Freedom is more than just another vegan dessert book! It’s about the freedom to enjoy desserts even if you normally can’t due to allergies and dietary restrictions, with about a quarter of the book featuring gluten-free or grain-free recipes! Ricki shows you that you can snub refined flours and sugars and still rub elbows with mouth-watering treats – yippie! You can read more about the cookbook here, or visit the official Sweet Freedom blog to drool over the amazing photos and check her Diet, Dessert and Dogs blog where she has shared some of the upcoming recipes. [...]

  3. [...] made a lot of her recipes:  Grain-free coconut flour biscuits, Edamame seaweed salad,  Lemony baked cheesecake, Warm chickpea + artichoke salad, Chocolate almond mousse, Fruity cabbage salad, Almond + curry [...]

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