Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Filling

Before I get too far ahead of myself, I'm was at home in San Antonio, in the house my folks bought when I was a freshman in high school. My oldest niece, my sister Mony's daughter, graduated high school Saturday, June 2, and we had a bar-b-cue that was kind of in her honor. I got the chance to hang out with my father, sisters and younger brother and, as I told them, I had a great time! It was hard on my stomach muscles, though, because I hardly stopped laughing! It was a bittersweet visit because we've been without my mother for almost four years, now. The five of us are finding ways of filling in for her presence in each others lives and that's made us all stronger and closer than ever. But we miss her terribly. This was the first time I'd been back there since the funeral.

And that underscores the significance of my decision to make a dessert for the bar-b-cue. I wanted to fill in for my mother in that regard. She would have happily made something delicious for us, so I took on the responsibility of doing just that – despite the fact that I haven't had much success baking in that kitchen. (Astro Dome Apple Pie, remember?). But which dessert? It needed to be something that was evocative of past celebrations. My mother's favorite dessert to make was cherry cheesecake with pecan crust and if she were alive, that's what she would have made. I even had the recipe, which she gave me many years ago, so that's was that.

I've actually made this dessert a few times but I've always swapped real whipped cream for the Cool Whip the recipe calls for. I would stick with that alteration this time. Why change the recipe from what she did? Why not go for authenticity, you might ask? Remember who you're talking to here. Let's see: take the time and effort of making actual whipped cream to mix with the cream cheese for the filling or use a tub of ready-made conglomeration of who-knows-what? Extra work versus easy-to-spread-could-be-plastic? Heavy whipping cream, here I come! Besides, I don't like not knowing what's really in Cool Whip.

My older sister doesn't bake these days – although she used to be fond of popping a batch of Toll House or oatmeal cookies in the oven from time to time when we were kids – so I made sure she had a few basics: blender, mixer, measuring cups, pie plates, Pyrex baking dishes, etc. When I arrived there were two boxes waiting for me – a blender and a hand mixer. I was hoping to use the Sunbeam mixer that both my parents used for so many years but my father told me it gave up the ghost when they checked to see if it was still working. That was disappointing but life goes on. So far so good. I was less successful with wooden spoons, rolling pin and pastry blender but another quick trip, or two, to the grocery store took care of first two, and I could use the old "two knives in scissor fashion" technique for cutting in the butter for the crusts.

A word about grocery stores: For the last twenty years I've called New York City home. There are no large grocery stores here. Oh, there are stores that think they're large, and, yes, they're bigger than the corner bodega but they're not large. I was born and raised in San Antonio and the the small grocery stores there could swallow three "large" New York grocery stores and still have room for a bodega for dessert. Talk about your one-stop-shopping! Practically the only thing you can't get at a grocery store in San Antonio is your tires rotated, or, apparently, a pastry blender. You can, however, get tires at some of them.

Though all the ingredients and equipment was assembled, I'd have to wait until after my siblings and father, along with some other friends and family, assembled to watch the Avengers assemble. Yes, it was my third time seeing the film. I'm a geek; sue me. Consequently, I didn't get started on the crust until almost midnight. That actually went very well. It's been ages since I used knives instead of a pastry blender but the technique worked for the pecan crust. I always have a more difficult time using it for a regular flour crust.

Not being in my own kitchen, where I have access to a marble slab for rolling out crust, was an experience. I had to improvise with wax paper and a cutting board because there's nowhere near enough counter space to work with in that house. Oh, rolling the pecan crust isn't what my mother did when she made this dessert; she patted the crust into the baking dish instead. We'll add that to the ways my version is different from hers. Also, she usually made one big cheesecake, in a rectangular Pyrex dish but I used two 9.5" pie plates because of my little brother, Rob. He likes strawberry but I like cherry, so I decided to make both of us happy.

While the crusts baked, I turned my attention to the cream cheese part of the filling. And immediately found out that the Hamilton Beach hand mixer wasn't as heavy duty as it thought it was. Even though I've been without it for years (the beaters got lost in a move and I've yet to replace them), I'm still used to my Kitchen Aid hand mixer, which had power to spare. Sixteen ounces of cream cheese had that Hamilton Beach motor wheezing! I decided to put the filling back in the refrigerator because there was no way I'd be able to finish the cheese cakes that night. It was nearly two in the morning and I was so tired that I could see myself getting into a tragic kitchen accident that I'd never live down. I devised a good way to cool the crusts, since I was also without a cooling rack, and tucked myself in bed. "Nighty, night! Sweetums go to bed now," (which was something my mother used to quote to me when I was a kid because she knew she could crack me up by doing Sweetums' voice.)

When I woke up, I dove right back in because I knew Karla and Rob would need the kitchen to work on the bar-b-cue meat and Mony and company would arrive soon. I divided the cream cheese in half to spare the poor Hamilton Beach. It handled whipping the cream well enough, though. After I blended the whipped cream and the cream cheese together, being very careful not to lose any volume in the whipped cream, I filled in and topped the crusts. The completed cakes went into the freezer to set up in time for the bar-b-cue. If I had been able to finish them the night before, I would have put them in the refrigerator. Oh, well.

The Results

Two cheesecakes and a piePad
The majority of the folks who were at the bar-b-cue had tasted my mother's cheesecake, so I had a bit of anxiety about how they'd like my version. But I could almost hear her saying "Baby, if you think you can do this, I have no doubt that you'll do it well." She said stuff like that to me all the time. I had her love with me and that was all that mattered. They were very well received. And at the end of the night, after everyone had left, my father had a second slice.

Me: "So...what do you think?"
Daddy: "It's very good. But I'll tell you what: it's not your mama's."
Me: "No. It's not," I had to admit. "But I'll tell you what: this version's better for you because we know what's in whipped cream."
Daddy: "You're right about that, son."

We all miss her. And I can't do things exactly like she did. I'm just doing my best to fill in.



  1. See, so now I'm hungry. Wish I could have joined you all :)

    Plus and also, cutting the butter in with two butter knives is the way I learned to make pie crust. Not that I do that anymore seeing as I have a Guy Who Bakes in the kitchen now ;)

    1. Everyone wished you were there, too, honey.

      I think I'm going to have to make a couple of test pies to see if there really is a difference between using two knives and the pastry blender.

  2. I have two pieces of granite (square and rectangle) left from remodel of Galveston kitchen. Haven't known what to do with them. Eme said cheese tray but they weigh a ton...each. Now it dawns on me, how about a place to roll out pastry? Think it will work as well as your marble? the same?

    1. Well, I think the reason marble is the preferred material is that it keeps its cool better than most other rock. You can certainly give it a try, Jen. Let me know how it goes.

      I'm giving serious thought to finding a way to keep our marble slab in the refrigerator until I'm ready to dough and roll. I'm not sure it'll fit on any of the shelves, though.

  3. This is a very touching post. So glad you were brave and decided to cook in the kitchen that held so many memories for you. Even though the pies couldn't be exactly like your mother's, they were much appreciated—and, thanks to you, there is now a new special memory made in that same family kitchen! Both pies look delicious.

    1. Thanks Elizabeth. It was a challenge and a joy, to be sure! I'll be posting a bit more about the visit soon.