Someone please hand me a block of Philadelphia Brand cream cheese; apparently Thursday was National Cheesecake Day and I didn’t get the memo.
When the mercury hovers in the nineties, my thoughts turn to ice cream floats and precarious swirls of soft serve. Cheesecake isn’t on my radar in July and August, probably because we once shared too much time together.
Cheesecake and I were once summer pals, hanging out together in Philadelphia restaurant kitchens, cooling off in the walk-ins, mopping up butter spills with nubby linen-service bar towels. Springsteen and Hall & Oates poured out of the radio until the line cooks arrived and changed the station. In the 1980s, Oreo cheesecake was a popular cholesterol buster, combining an iconic cookie with a triple threat of cream cheese, sour cream, and heavy cream. Over-dressed in dark chocolate ganache and swirls of whipped cream, each slice should have been garnished with 20 mg of Lipitor.
In the summer of 2002, I gathered together my collection of warped springform pans and moved up the block to a brand new eatery boasting Northern Italian cuisine. When I wasn’t turning out trays of tiramisu, I was filling the oven with ricotta cheesecakes. Flecked with lemon zest and perfumed with vanilla, the cheesecake needed nothing more than a perfect espresso. Instead, it was airlifted onto a behemoth dessert plate, Jackson Pollock-ed with raspberry and blackberry sauces, dotted with deliberately asymmetrical summer berries and finished with a casual dusting of confectioners’ sugar. Plating the dessert was almost as exhausting as preparing it.
A thirty pound carton of Philadelphia cream cheese forever changes the way you approach cheesecake, Sunday morning bagels, and lavishly frosted carrot cakes. In many bakeries, cream cheese is delivered in a single carton that could be mistaken for a window unit air conditioner. Chiseling away at cream cheese the way a sculptor embraces clay, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to weigh the yin and yang of cream cheese. The slab vs. the schmear, on a bagel. The naked carrot cake vs. the one smothered in stark white frosting and neon carrots. The pre-sliced cheesecake samplers peering through the freezer doors at Costco. For some, it might be cause to give up cheesecake forever.
With a stash of freshly pitted sour cherries in my freezer, and a nearly empty container of ice cream, dessert inspiration arrives via a recipe from my Canadian neighbors. Ignoring the oven, dessert is within reach. Smashing digestive biscuits into crumbs proves exhilarating. Adding a splash of bourbon to a quick stove-top spin of sour cherries and vanilla instantly improves my mood. (Ditto for a thimble-ful of bourbon for the baker.) The ‘no bake’ cheesecake filling is a quick blend of cream cheese, mascarpone, and more cherries. Not a single springform pan is required; an ordinary cupcake pan will do. The end result is the very best pairing of sour cherries and cheesecake in a digestive biscuit crust. Say cheese-cake.
As we continue to mask up and hunker down, the very best time for produce has arrived. Feeling skittish about the farmers' market, I convince myself that our local Monday market is too small to be problematic. Blinded by glaring sun, foggy eyeglasses, and mask (slightly askew) I'm determined to keep my distance. Though tempted to choose my own ears of corn, I really don't want to touch previously handled silver queen. Using my elbow, I maneuver two ears from the table into my canvas bag. There's a pyramid of blushing peaches, but those will require plastic. The simple task of procuring a plastic bag from a post dangling overhead is an issue. People within 6 feet watch me, eyebrows raised as I struggle to emancipate a single polybag while trying to maintain a safe distance. The bag is without end, causing me to unroll a football field's worth of bags. Attempting to re-roll simply makes everything worse. Fellow shoppers are glaring and stage whispering amongst themselves about "social distancing." Ugh. Is it too much to ask for a solitary flimsy tote? One with an opening that will cradle a few freestone peaches?
Focusing strictly on the cashier ahead, I pretend not to notice the peaches rolling under my feet. Just before the check-out, an unwieldy crate filled with just-picked sunflowers is perched a little too closely to where the table meets the thoroughfare. Unsuccessfully juggling my produce, I cannot find the opening of my hold-all. Clipping the sunflowers a little too closely, I plunk down my produce in order to steady the bouquet. Aaargh- my hand grazed the flowers! The grumpy guy behind me has been glaring since I elbowed the corn. Approaching the cashier, waving a credit card, I've touched the table and the square reader for contactless payment. My head hurts. Trying to maintain a safe exiting distance, a serious worker is trying to coax the sunflowers back to a casually impressive display. This is much too stressful for a Monday. Setting the produce on the front seat of the car, I explain to the peaches, "It wasn't always like this."
When an alarm pierces the dark o’clock of Thursday morning, a baker immediately believes the worst. Digging into the abyss of an exhausted subconscious, this baker wonders if she forgot to turn off the oven.
Convinced I am responsible for a house engulfed in flames, I open one eye. The floorboards are creaking followed by the interruption of the incessant beeping. Mr. Sweet As Pie returns from the third floor and assures me the house is not on fire. He continues, “It’s the carbon monoxide detector.”
“Whaaaa???!!!” I mumble from the depths of my striped percale. Suddenly I’m wide awake. “That’s the one where you die in your sleep, right? Or is that the one in Death of A Salesman, second act, second to last scene, Willy Loman?”
Mr. Sweet As Pie is both sensible and calm under crisis. He’s the guy you want standing next to when you’re stuck in a maddening crowd, seeking a safe exit strategy. It occurs to me we might need to evacuate.
“Do we have to leave the house?” I’m starting to panic, not because I’d hate for my neighbors to catch a glimpse of my mismatched pajamas, but because I don’t want to leave my freshly baked pie behind; I've yet to tuck into it. If I have to spend the rest of the night sitting in the car, the blackberry silk pie is coming with me. The fact that it is a refrigerator pie complicates things. I’ll need a cooler and ice, and the cooler is possibly in the basement or stowed in the garage. I may be unconscious by the time it's located. It appears the pie will need to remain in the fridge. This is sobering news.
My husband is busy opening every window in the house. He assures me the fresh air will dissipate the toxic air. I’m not so certain and lying in the dark, I begin composing my will. This feeble exercise will preoccupy my anxious self. For dramatic effect, I take a few audible breaths and begin mentally divvying up my jewelry, the pie plates, the rolling pins, and my Pyrex mixing bowls. Mr. Sweet As Pie appears to be going back to bed.
“What are you doing? You shouldn’t go back to sleep! What if we don’t wake up?!”
He suggests that if truly concerned, I can wait in the car. Squinting to focus on the digital clock on the other side of the room, it reads 3:30 am.
“Shouldn’t we call somebody?” I implore. “Who do we call in a case like this? Is this something for the fire department or is it gas related? Quick- what’s the number for 9-1-1?”
“It could be any number of things. I’ll call in the morning.”
“Don’t you understand? We might not be here in the morning…” With every window open, I’m about to complain about the drop in temperature. Blindly reaching for the blanket and a quilt, the blurry clock has inched its way to 4:15. With less than an hour before my alarm goes off, sleep is elusive.
“What kinds of things? You said it could be any number of things…”
“Maybe the hot water heater, or the chimney or the gas fireplace…”
Waiting for my alarm, trying not to over think the invisible toxicity that may kill me before sunrise, it occurs to me that Mr. Sweet As Pie has a birthday coming up. I wonder if carbon monoxide detectors and smoke detectors come packaged in gift sets?
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm