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.]
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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.
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.
Vegan Farmer’s Cheesecake
This is a great everyday cake, one you can easily mix up for a daily treat, but so delicious you’ll want to share it with friends.
1/3 cup (85 g.) sunflower or other light-tasting oil
1/3 cup (100 g.) light agave nectar
2 Tbsp. (30 ml.) plain or vanilla soymilk
1-1/4 tsp. (6.5 ml.) pure vanilla extract
1 heaping Tbsp. (15 ml.) organic cornstarch
1 scant cup (130 g.) whole spelt flour
3/4 c. (80 g.) barley flour
heaping 1/4 tsp. (2 g.) baking powder
heaping 1/4 tsp. (2 g.) baking soda
heaping 1/4 tsp. (2 g.) sea salt
1 pkg. (350 g.) firm silken Japanese-style tofu packed in aseptic package (such as Mori-Nu)
1/2 cup (125 ml.) smooth cashew butter
grated rind of 1 lemon
1/2 cup (150 g.) light agave nectar
2 tsp. (10 ml.) fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp. (2.5 ml.) pure lemon extract
1 tsp. (5 ml.) pure vanilla extract
pinch sea salt
Preheat oven to 350F (180C). Grease an 8 x 8 inch pan (about 18 x 18 cm) or line with parchment.
Prepare crust: In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the oil, agave, soymilk and vanilla to emulsify. Sift the remaining ingredients over the mixture in the bowl and stir with a wooden spoon to combine into a soft dough (it will be slightly sticky, but firm enough to hold a shape).
Remove about 1/3 of the dough and set aside. Press the remaining dough evenly into the bottom of the pan with wet fingers or a silicon spatula (the spatula works well to avoid sticking). Set aside.
Make the filling:
Combine the tofu and cashew butter in a food processor until well blended, scraping down sides to blend any bits of tofu. Add the remaining ingredients and process until perfectly smooth and velvety (there should be no bits of tofu visible).
Pour the filling evenly over the crust in the pan. To smooth the top, grab the pan on opposite sides with your hands and, keeping the bottom of the pan against the surface it’s on, quickly rotate it once to the left and then to the right.
Divide the remaining dough in half, then divide each half into 3 equal parts (you’ll have 6 balls of dough). Pinching about 1/2 of each ball at a time, roll it between your palms to create a thin rope about 3/8″ (just under 1 cm.) thick.
Starting at one corner and working diagonally across to the opposite corner of the pan, place ropes of dough next to each other in a straight line from one corner to the other (the dough doesn’t necessarily have to be rolled in a single rope that spans the whole distance across the pan–you can line up shorter pieces next to each other). Next, place ropes of dough on either side of the first rope and parallel to it, so you end up with diagonal lines across the pan. Continue until you have 5 lines in one direction across the pan (shorter lines toward the edges).
Repeat with ropes of dough in the opposite direction, crossing over the first ropes. You should end up with a criss-cross pattern over the surface of the cheesecake.
Bake the cake in preheated oven for 30-40 minutes, until the filling appears firm and the edges of the dough are beginning to brown. Cool completely, then refrigerate until cold (at least 2 hours) before slicing. Makes 9 large servings.
[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.]