Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Gift of Cheesecake, Part 1

I should've been done by now.

By the end of August I had a pretty good idea of what I'd like to do with my life but I lacked the means to get there. A week later, ideas still flew like bullets in a bad western. Possibilities abounded, but nothing jelled. A week later, I had my eureka moment; a catalyst. Something that wasn't much, but it was enough to expound upon, to mull over and possibly to put in motion. Something that was just enough to start with.

In the weeks that followed, spare time (which was precious) was occupied with gathering all the information I could. It was like going back to school in a way without paying for all that annoying tuition...or books...or student loans...or cohesive schedule. Without giving away too much information, I am training myself in new (a) new skill(s) as well as learning how to profit from it. October was all about getting something, anything done. By the time November came, self improvement had to be put on hold so I could concentrate on planning for the Holidays. December rolled in, and anything that had to do with new skills had to be put on hold until the end of the year. Dinners had to be planned and gifts had to be considered. Both of which were really hard to do on a budget that was shrinking as the days grew darker.

The day after All Hallow's Eve is my day to get my game face on, for the time for turkey was drawing nigh. I love turkey. I love cooking turkey and everything that goes with it. Many years ago, when I was single, new found friends told me to come and join them for Thanksgiving since they were away from their families as well. Unfortunately, neither of them knew how to cook. Luckily, I committed Alton Brown's world famous turkey brine recipe to memory before I couldn't afford cable anymore.

Looks like more sandwiches for me!
This recipe was my signature, my Stairway to Heaven, my "do-that-thing-that-you-did-that-time" thing, my proof that I do in fact know my way around a kitchen and my intention to make any kitchen I step into my turf. To be sure, I've been working in kitchens for about as long as I can remember, but once you step out of that role to--let's say--improve your station in life, just saying that you know how to cook gets met with looks of "suuuuure you do". That is until you make them dinner, then they won't shut up about it.

The recipe was something I can be proud of. It brings joy. It lets people know that there is such a thing as Thanksgiving turkey that isn't dry and unpalatable. It is, by all accounts, a big hit. Since it is, it is my duty to follow up with something that will bring it a little further. "Yeah, first album is a classic. But what's he got for the second one?" The Sophomore Curse. I have spent years making sure that The Curse doesn't know where I live. I can't be remembered for one thing, I need to expand my repertoire. First, it was the turkey. Then my compulsion to cook slowly took over every Holiday and special occasion menu; A Caprese Salad that is simple to make and leaves a huge impression, a Risotto that claims partial responsibility for my first child being conceived. A where-have-you-been-all-my-life Macaroni & Cheese that is always the first thing to be devoured at a Holiday Dinner. A chocolate cake that has been requested over and over again by family members and business associates young and old. A lasagna that has always been made in the tradition of my Italian Grandmother; labor-intensive, time consuming, but the end result always has someone whisper in my ear, "When are you going to make this again?" Of course, there's a pizza sauce recipe that could always use improving, but it's made with whole tomatoes that I get from a local farmer's market so THAT part makes me happy. And there's an apple pie that I've made for a couple of years but only just recently unlocked the magical "Holy Grail" ratio of Braeburn to Jonagold. Giant, manly tears roll down my cheek as I eat the last piece of the last slice. It's like the last scene in Old Yeller, only more delicious.

There's a Carbonara, there are various cookie recipes, I recently got on a kick of making my own ice cream, all of these things I will make at the drop of a hat. Just because I can. Just because I want to. All of these things climb into the front seat of my subconscious and take control of the wheel until December 26th. I'm not making excuses, I'm just stating a fact. None of it takes away the fact that I should finish what I start. I should get back to previous plans. But now, it's the beginning of the new year and circumstances have been altered.

I should've been done by now.

In as much that I like making these things out of pure joy, I would be remiss to not admit, just a little bit, that these things that I've collected, these dishes and treats might be regarded as a form of currency. On one hand, I enjoy making these things. On the other, they sure do come in handy as a bargaining chip, tribute or (wait for it) gift.

~***~

"Oh, that seems to be the trend this year," said the lady behind the counter of the restaurant supply store with a measure of glee. "I'm seeing a lot more people make their own Christmas gifts this year. Personally, I'm rather glad to see it come back." 

When I was a child, there was no danger of parents letting their children mosey about places while the they proceeded to go about their business of shopping. My mom would go to the grocery store, I'd stroll over to the CVS next door and poke around their comic book rack or stand in awe of the gloriousness that was the cheap toy aisle. It is a trait that is the hardest to let go. I love coming to the restaurant supply store. Mostly because I've never been in one, although I've heard tales. And partially because then as now, even though most of the time I don't intend to buy, I do intend to become inspired. If in my travels I find something that I might not necessarily need at the moment, I will log it away in memory, ponder over the occasion on when I might need it (being a responsible adult and all, I thought it best to rationalize the purchase of all my toys) and then come back with cash in hand to claim my quarry. Thus was the case on this occasion. "You know what?" I said to the lady, "I am in total agreement with you." We exchange a smile as I walk out with a fat stack of unfolded cardboard pastry boxes and tiny cardboard cake plates.

This Holiday season has found me strapped for cash, low on ideas and quickly running out of patience. I had no idea what to give anyone. Normally, I devote all gift giving to the kids. This year, I felt it necessary to at least make an effort and give gifts to the in-laws. Since I skipped out on making Christmas Dinner, I thought I would reach down into my stack of go-to recipes and pull out the one thing guaranteed to knock everyone's socks off in lieu of turkey. I present to you the reason for my drawing out this story longer than I should, my secret weapon...

 ...cheesecake. Ah yes, the social lubricant for those who don't necessarily drink. I have seen grown men squeal with excitement over it (okay, maybe just me) and tough-as-nails, cold-as-ice women turn to goo  as they catch a whiff when that box is opened. It's like I found their Kryptonite.

Cheesecake. The perfect Holiday gift. Who knew? And I'm not talking about the one pictured here; just one cake and everyone gets a slice Merry Christmas. And I'm not talking about getting a pre-made mix off the shelf throwing it together with a graham cracker crust and calling it done. No. When I want a burger, I will go 20 miles out of my way past several McDonald's and Burger Kings to get to a 5Guys. When I want ice cream, I will save up my pennies for a pint of Ben & Jerry's. When I want pizza...well, I'll usually make it myself...but if I want someone else to make it, I'll call in Genovese's (their Strombolis are exceptional, avoid the Margherita) or if I find myself back in Melbourne Florida, I'll put Sweet Tomatoes back on speed dial (I literally have had dreams of taking one of their pizzas, folding it up to the size of a peanut butter sandwich and shoving the whole thing in my mouth. They are that good. A great "Mom & Pop" establishment that I highly recommend). The point is that when I want something, I don't want mediocre just because it's convenient. I can do mediocre on my own time. If it's worth having, then it's worth putting in the extra effort to go get it. In the case of Holiday Cheesecakes, if it's worth doing, then it's worth doing well. Notice the crust on that puppy up there? Yeah. That's right. No Graham Crackers were harmed in the making of this cake. That's a spongecake crust. If it's worth doing, then it's worth doing well. I could make a cake that came out of a box. OR, I could use the greatest cheesecake recipe of all time and duplicate it over and over until all the gifts are covered. If it's worth doing, then it's worth doing well. I choose to make Junior's Cheesecake. If I'm going to use someone else's recipe, then it might as well be theirs. Junior's is the Gold Standard and I'm raiding Fort Knox. I've been making these for years and I almost got it down. Every excuse to make one is another opportunity to perfect it. Any excuse to get creative is always welcome.

I think I've gone a little long here. If you're interested in a recipe, part 2 is coming soon.