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.
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