A Saving Cake
After the union of my mother’s Irish parents bore four children, they both began to swim in the drink. Beer, whiskey, vodka, gin – the menu was long and fully subscribed. I was not there to witness their marriage’s slow descent into madness, but my mother was. High-achieving in school but uneducated in the ways of the world, she took her cues from her big sister Betty, a fast-talking, epithet-spewing battleax whose pain bore deeply into her core.
To cope, they cleaned. And Aunt Betty cooked.
By the time the two girls returned home from school each day, their mother was a sopping, saturated rag doll passed out on the sofa. Within a few years, her liver gave out. She died in her bed, surrounded by husband and children. The girls were teenagers.
Aunt Betty never established herself as a memorable cook, but she fed my mother, their two brothers and their father. My mother functioned as the sous chef, assembling ingredients, chopping and stirring. They managed to get the food on the table, cleaned up afterward, and went to bed.
By the time my mother married my father, she had mastered beef stew, spaghetti with meat sauce, and hamburgers and baked beans made ever appealing with maple syrup, onions, bacon and ketchup, served on choice Saturday nights and always with hot dogs. She made, too, a mandatory tomato and cucumber salad, which functioned as a vegetable even though both are fruits. She hadn’t met lettuce yet.
My father was a creature of habit. Recipes requiring alien ingredients worried him. He reveled in fresh raw clams dug from the Rockaway beaches, tossed onto pages of the New. York Daily News lining the kitchen table and sliced open with a Swiss Army knife. He brought home gefilte fish, bagels, lox, whitefish, and matzo ball soup from the delicatessens of the Jewish neighborhood where he worked as a cop. And he consumed record amounts of Rheingold beer, the signature beer of the New York Mets, a workingman’s lager made a mere six miles away, in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
Cooking for six kids and a husband who disliked change dampened my mother’s creativity in the kitchen. She was always a careful cook, and as we grew and because she knew from early on that reading was the key to knowledge, she became an inveterate consumer of cookbooks. When we morphed into teenagers, she took her first step into a new realm, with her offspring as guinea pigs.
One momentous day, she spent the morning baking James Beard’s sour cream cheesecake. We had never eaten cheesecake before. It seemed antithetical to marry cheese to cake. One was an appetizer, the other a dessert. They were whole menus apart.
My mother served the cheesecake for dessert. My father was having no part of it. My brother Jackie, always an iconoclast – and I’m being nice here – also refused to try it. “I spent all morning making this!” my mother protested.
“How can that be my fault?” my brother protested back. “I’m not eating it. It looks disgusting.”
My mother’s spine had always looked to be as rigid as Aunt Betty’s, and I had never seen her cry. But that day Jackie almost broke her. She sat at the kitchen table and stared at the facing wall for the better part of half an hour, trying to lift the sagging muscles of her face. I was too young to understand the dark history of her cooking life. We all were.
As with the other obstacles thrown at her, she refused to yield. She used cooking, baking in particular, as her Alka-Seltzer for sadness. She cooked boeuf bourguignon for a dinner my sister threw for school friends. They all asked for the recipe for their mothers to make. She whipped carrots with shots of nutmeg and sugar and a squeeze of orange, and served it for Sunday dinner. We inhaled it. She boiled the leftover turkey carcass after Thanksgiving for a turkey soup that yielded only enough steaming, salty broth to serve us one bowl each, and left us begging for more.
She made the sour-cream cheesecake for a family party, where everyone who wasn’t her child or her husband ate it and raved. My brother, who caved to external pressures both good and bad for him, suddenly couldn’t get enough of that cheesecake.
Growing up, my mother had few, if any, outlets for creative expression. Life was about surviving, physically and emotionally. Trauma was the order of the day; it seemed to be what everyone was serving. But now, in the precious words of these cookbooks, which accumulated to fill an entire bookshelf in the kitchen, she had discovered the meaning, and the worth, of self-expression. She poured herself into the art and craft of cooking, and out poured a lifetime’s worth of memory-making delights.
My father never quite came around. He was a sweetheart surrounding everything but food. He preferred spaghetti with meat sauce and a Manhattan, after Rheingold stopped making his beloved beer. Dessert was another Manhattan. That sour-cream cheesecake would never cross his lips.
I hope, in heaven, he has finally tried it. It feels as though it goes with the territory.
James Beard’s sour-cream cheesecake
· 2 cups graham cracker crumbs
· 1⁄4 cup sugar
· 6 tablespoons butter
· 3 (8 ounce) packages cream cheese, at room temperature
· 1 1⁄4 cups granulated sugar
· 6 eggs, separated
· 1 pint sour cream
· 1⁄3 cup flour, sifted
· 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
· lemon, juice and zest of
- Mix 1 1/2 cups of graham cracker crumbs with sugar and butter. Press into bottom and sides of a lightly buttered 10-inch springform pan. Set aside.
- Beat the cheese until soft and creamy. Add sugar and mix thoroughly.
- Blend in egg yolks one at a time.
- Add the sour cream, vanilla, flour, lemon zest and lemon juice. Mix well.
- Beat egg whites until stiff but not dry. Stir in one-third of whites into cheese mixture. Then fold the remaining whites in gently.
- Pour the cheese mixture into the prepared crust.
- Bake in a preheated oven at 350 degrees F for one hour. Turn off the heat and allow the cheesecake to sit in the oven for one more hour.
- Remove to a wire rack and allow to cool to room temperature.
- Sprinkle the remaining crumbs on top of the cake.
- Chill over night. Dust with confectioner’s sugar just before serving, if desired.
This week’s prompt: think of a food memory from your childhood. Write about it. If there’s a recipe involved, certainly share it with me. — Jane