Friday, February 14, 2014

Cake is a symbol of celebration and begets togetherness. We bake cakes on birthdays to celebrate the person, their new age and new year. It is a deliberate message of affection, as even the simplest cake takes a bit of time and care. Often I spend days pouring over cookbooks and blogs, rummaging through new and old recipes in order to find the perfect fitting cake. Then there is a trip to the grocery store, the prep and clean up, the measuring, stirring, baking, cooling and waiting to taste. The labor of love, really. My cakes do not always turn out perfect but that is not entirely the point. The point is to say I love you. I made you this cake because I love you.

Some may think that it is silly to bake a cake for a half year old's birthday. Perhaps it is. It did not matter that the baby girl was not quite old enough to have even a bite. What mattered was that we got together in the late afternoon, in the middle of the week to celebrate our newest little love. Surely she will not remember the cake or the day but I know with certainty she felt love.

In honor of the Hallmark holiday of love, we ventured out on a very overdue date. It was refreshing and much needed. On our first Valentine's date I was 16. I remember getting ready after school. I ate chocolate mint truffles while I waited for the rickety white truck to pull up in the driveway. We went to dinner at a small French restaurant and sat out on the back patio under a strand of white lights. I ordered lavender chicken but can't remember much else about our meal. I felt very grown-up but I imagine to everyone else we looked like babies. Fourteen years later our Valentine's Day date transpires over breakfast at a small downtown French cafe a few days ahead of the actual holiday. We look tired because of our babies we left at home and feel relieved to have uninterrupted conversation that is not via text message. I had a latte and poached eggs with wild mushrooms and sage-truffle beurre blanc. The man across from me had a triple espresso and steak frites with a poached egg. We shared orange juice. We agreed that our meal tasted exceptionally good. I felt a bit adolescent sitting there, momentarily disconnected from our family life and daily responsibilities. Things felt the same for a moment while we pushed pause and celebrated love.

London Cheesecake

This recipe comes from Nigella Lawson and though I made it once before, I had forgotten how lovely it is. In true Nigella fashion this cheesecake is luscious, rich and understatedly simple, as a good cheesecake should be. A sweet berry sauce would likely be a wonderful accompaniment, but then you would miss the subtleties of the flavor of the cake. This recipe yields an 8-inch cake which required me to go out and buy a new pan at the kitchen store. I almost settled on another recipe because of this, but am now very thankful that I did not make that mistake. Eight inches is exactly the right size for this decedent cheesecake.

Cooking Note: This recipe, like most cheesecakes, calls for baking in a bain marie - the French term for water bath. I promise that this is no big deal. All it means is that you grab a roasting pan (In this case the cake pan is eight inches, so a regular old 9 by 13 glass Pyrex dish will do the job well.) and boil some water in the kettle. You put the cheesecake in roasting pan, place in oven, pull out rack, pour in some hot water, push back rack and close oven. That's it.

Serves 8


5 ounces graham crackers (about 1 packet)
6 tablespoons butter, melted

20 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
3 large eggs, at room temperature
3 large egg yolks, at room temperature
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 ½ tablespoons lemon juice

¾ cup sour cream, at room temperature
1 tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

8 inch springform pan
large roast pan or baking dish
aluminum foil
food processor

To make the crust, pulse the graham crackers in a food processor until they become fine crumbs. Add the butter and pulse until combined. Pour the mixture into the bottom of the springform pan and press down an even layer of crumbs with the back of a spoon or your hands. Place the pan in the refrigerator to set.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

To make the filling, beat the cream cheese in a large bowl (with either a hand held beater, a mixer attachment or a strong arm and spoon). Add the sugar and beat until smooth. Add the eggs and beat until smooth. Then add the egg yolks, vanilla extract and lemon juice and beat again until very smooth.

 Meanwhile, heat some water in a tea kettle. Remove the chilled crust from the refrigerator and cover the bottom and sides of the springform pan with a large piece of aluminum foil. Do this again with a second piece of foil. This will prevent the water from leaking into the cheesecake. Pour the cheesecake filling over the crust and place in the large roasting pan or baking dish. Place the cheesecake in the roasting pan in the oven on the middle rack and pull the rack out a few inches. Pour in the hot water from the tea kettle into the roasting pan so that it comes half way up the side of the springform pan. Be careful not to over fill the pan with water or it will be difficult to remove from the oven.

While the cheesecake bakes, make the topping. Whisk together the sour cream, sugar and vanilla extract. Set aside. Bake the cheesecake for about 50 minutes, or until set. “But not rigidly so,” as Nigella instructs. She states, “you just need to feel confident that when you pour the sour cream over, it will sit on the surface and not sink in.” (My oven seems to bake on the slower side so I added an extra 7 minutes of cooking time before pouring over the sour cream topping.) Pour over the sour cream topping and bake the cheesecake for another 10 minutes.

Remove the roasting pan and cheesecake from the oven. Carefully remove the cheesecake out of the water and remove the foil. Let the cheesecake cool completely on a rack; then cover and refrigerate for at least 8 hours or overnight. This cheesecake can be made even two days ahead of time. It was a group consensus that this cake tastes even better on the second day. To serve the cheesecake, run a sharp knife carefully along the sides of the pan; then release the pan clasp and carefully remove the side piece. Use a sharp knife to cut and wipe clean each time if you desire unmessy pieces of cake.


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