Because she requested it for her 90th birthday party at the end of this week, and because she completes nine decades on the planet today (happy birthday, Ma!), I am practicing cheesecake.
My sister asked our mother what kind of cake she’d like for her party, and she immediately said, “Cheesecake.” And while I know that I can buy cheesecake in any number of places, I decided I’d learn to make it.
This is because Marge Thompson, my de facto sister-in-law (Dick’s sister), who makes the best cheesecake I know, said, “It’s easy.” I’ve long said that I’ll eat anything this woman puts on a a plate. She’s been whipping up cheesecake for decades based on Helen Miniaci’s recipe from a 1950s church cookbook. She gave me a photocopy of the recipe, which immediately stumped me.
It begins: “Crust: Crush 16 graham crackers fine…” I did, and it didn’t look like nearly enough to cover a 9-inch pie plate. Then: “Mix: 4 small or 2 large packages of Philadelphia Cream Cheese…” Wait—small? large? I saw only one size at the grocery store. What’s that translate to in ounces?
I asked Marge on the phone. “You know,” she said, “two blocks of cream cheese.”
“Are there two blocks in the little box?” I asked.
“No, just one,” she said.
“But it’s a big block,” I pointed out. “Is that enough?”
Pause. I could hear her rummaging in what turned out to be her fridge. “Noooooo, I don’t think so,” she said. “I generally use two of them.”
“So that’s 16 oz. total then?” I said. I’m not a numbers gal, but if you give me ounces, I can usually make that work.
“I think so,” she said. “I just do it the way I do it.”
That’s when I knew I needed to watch her make Mitchell’s Favorite Cheesecake. And R. agreed.
Mitchell was Marge’s oldest child, Rebecca’s (known as R. in the family) big brother, who, when asked always requested his mom’s cheesecake. To Marge, it was Helen Miniaci’s cheesecake, but Mitch and Rebecca knew better: It was their mom’s. And it was The Best Cheesecake Ever.
“It’s easy, very simple,” Marge always says when someone brings it up. She can do it by heart, but she still has Mrs. Miniaci’s recipe close at hand. I tried it at home alone, making the fatal error of using (horrors!) low fat cream cheese and sour cream, and it was a runny mess. (“Yeah,” Marge said, when I told her, “that’ll do it.”) I couldn’t get the graham cracker crumbs to set with the amount of butter in the recipe, so I added more, and it still didn’t set properly.
So R. and I decided to get some tutoring from the Cheesecake Goddess herownself in her own kitchen, no less. R. took direction from her mother as I watched, photographed and took notes. This was after I’d tried two other cheesecake recipes on my own—one using premade crust (very easy) and another with a springform pan and five eggs (for me, fancy). Marge thought so, too. Her recipe calls only for two eggs.
And she’s right—it’s easy, once you see her do it, as Rebecca and I asked dumb questions. Like when she rinsed the 1/2 teaspoon measuring thingie out after I squeezed a bit of fresh lemon juice in it for the pie filling. “Oh, you do that so there’s no lemon in there to curdle the cream. Because you need the teaspoon to measure the vanilla.”
Well, we did. She probably just tosses in a perfect splash.
Mitchell died three years ago at the much-too-young age of 43, and we all miss him terribly, especially his wife Christina and daughter Ella. I imagine that there hasn’t been a cheesecake his mother has made since his death that hasn’t brought Mitch into her mind. He was certainly with us as we practiced cheesecake.
R. followed the recipe to the letter—well, her mother’s instructions—penciling notes onto Mrs. Miniaci’s recipe.
“It’s really a pie,” Marge said more than once, especially as she pressed the graham cracker crust mixture into the pie plate. “Cheese pie.”
“Yeah, but that doesn’t sound as good as ‘cheesecake,'” R. observed.
“But it does taste superb,” I said, a veteran of many a Marge cheese pie. R. agreed.
Once assembled, the cheesecake/pie went into the oven, and 25 prompt minutes (“Do not over bake!” warns Mrs. Miniaci’s recipe) later emerged to cool on a wire rack (“Gotta get me a wire rack,” I muttered to R) as we oohed and ahhed and inhaled its velvety smell.
Today at Marge’s house they can dig into the cheesecake. We all know what it tastes like—creamy heaven on a fork. It really is the best. Mitchell was right.
And Ma, it’s coming to a party just for you this weekend.
Thanks to Margery Thompson, Cheesecake/pie Goddess!
Margery Thompson’s cheese(cake) pie
(“Because it’s really a pie,” Marge says, based on Helen Minaci’s recipe)
Heat oven to 350°
For crust (mix in 9-9.5-inch glass pie plate):
• 1 cup graham cracker crumbs
• 3-4 tablespoons melted butter
• 2 tablespoons sugar
(Press into plate so that crust goes up sides of plate nearly to the rim. Plate doesn’t need to be greased; “there’s enough butter in there so it doesn’t stick,” Marge says.)
For filling (in a large glass or ceramic bowl)
Beat with hand mixer or food processor until very creamy, almost runny:
• 16 oz. (2 8 oz. packages) of full fat cream cheese (“low fat doesn’t set up properly”)
• ½ cup sugar (“basic white sugar is smoothest and easiest to whip”)
• 2 eggs (“add one, beat into mixture, then add the second egg”)
• ½ teaspoon lemon juice (“no pulp; tart lemons are best”)
• ½ teaspoon vanilla
In separate, smaller glass or ceramic bowl, beat with hand mixer or food processor until very creamy, almost runny:
• ½ pint (“half a pint container; you don’t have to measure”) sour cream
• 2 tablespoons sugar
• ½ teaspoon vanilla (“rinse lemon out of measuring spoon first to avoid curdling the cream”)
Fold sour cream mixture into cream cheese mixture “sloooowly to avoid air pockets” using rubber spatula to gently turn the sour cream mixture into the cream cheese.
Pour into crust, smoothing “gently so it doesn’t pull up the crust” on the sides of the pie plate. (Optional from Mrs. Miniaci: Sprinkle graham cracker crumbs on top.)
Bake 25 minutes (“Do not over bake!” warns Mrs. Miniaci). Remove carefully from oven and cool on a wire rack till completely cool (“a good four hours”) before covering with plastic wrap and putting in the fridge. Allow to chill in fridge at least overnight (“24 hours is better”). Can be refrigerated for up to two days before serving.
Optional: Serve with a berry topping (frozen or fresh).