The Examined Life, Through Dessert

This is a story about a girl, staring at a million internet browser tabs, wishing for one to present a cheesecake recipe that doesn’t fill her with dread.

It is true that I document and recall historical moments in my own life using the “B.C.” epoch. Before Cheesecake.

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My aversion for creamy white condiments is something I still grapple with. Club sandwiches are ordered frequently and always dry. Chipotle creations are expedited due to the absence of sour cream. And while I will always prefer piles of melted butter on my bagels (and convulse at the smell of a nearby knife that’s touched cream cheese), life Before Cheesecake was, admittedly, incomplete.

Luckily, high school brought a number of changes and newly acquired tastes: for coffee. for Dylan. for cheesecake.

Just like you need to fill your inaugural cups of coffee with gingerbread creamer before taking it black, just like you need to let the grandeur of “Like a Rolling Stone” wash over you hundreds of times before being able to appreciate “Simple Twist of Fate,” you need to ease into cheesecake. Chocolate and peanut butter and raspberry swirls do a sufficient job of masking any sensory trace of cream cheese.

After a while, I was well-adjusted enough to enjoy  true strawberry cheesecake at the only establishment worth paying $12 a slice for.

But ever since I came around to the realization that cheesecake is wonderful, worthwhile fare, I’d wanted to make one myself. Research yielded treacherous terminology like “springform pan” and “water bath.”

Not until after college could I finally say out loud that maybe the strange, multi-component pan would be a worthwhile investment, an accomplishable feat. On my 21st Christmas, my dream came true – underneath a gift bag filled with cookbooks and Pitch Perfect, my own springform pan. I waited at least six months before building up the mental and emotional fortitude to use it.

People will tell you that cheesecake is unforgiving. What if it cracks! What if it sinks! What if it burns!

It probably won’t sink. You bake this low and slow so burning is a rarity. If you’re human, it probably will crack. But that’s what fruit and melted chocolate and other toppings are for.

Life is too short to spend most of it in the B.C. era.

Strawberry Cheesecake
Makes 1 cheesecake. Adapted from A Beautiful Mess.

Crust
1 c crushed graham crackers
1/4 c unsalted melted butter

Cake
5 (8 oz) packages of PHILADELPHIA cream cheese (bring it to room temperature before starting, unless you’re working on your biceps)
1 3/4 c sugar
2 tbsp flour
2 tsp vanilla extract
5 eggs + 2 egg yolks
1/3 c milk
1 1/2 tsp lemon zest

Topping
1/3 c water
1/3 c sugar
32 oz fresh strawberries (=2 standard packages)

For the crust, pulverize the grahams in a food processor or blender (or in a sealed sandwich bag with a rolling pin.) Stir in the melted butter until it forms a sandy paste, then press the crust into the bottom of a greased springform pan.

Preheat the oven to 325°F. In a large bowl, mix together the softened cream cheese, sugar, flour and vanilla until well combined and fluffy. Gently stir in the eggs and yolks until just combined. Stir in the milk and lemon zest. Pour the batter over the prepared crust and bake for 1.5 hours. Let it cool for 15-20 minutes before refrigerating.

While the cake is baking or even once it’s cooled and in the refrigerator, start the topping. Chop the tops off of all the strawberries, and set 15-16 aside set aside for the very last step. In a small pot combine the water, sugar and remaining strawberries and cook over low heat. Mash the strawberries into a paste and allow the mixture to simmer until the liquid reduces just a bit. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Reserve about 1/4 of the liquid.

Once the cheesecake has chilled for a little while, spread the strawberry “preserves” over the top. Arrange the 15-16 fresh berries around the surface as you see fit, and drizzle the saved liquid over it to coat them. Pop the cake back in the refrigerator and serve cold.

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