Talk about food issues--I grew up never knowing my cheesecake's father. Since childhood, the rich, golden dessert had been my mother's signature dish: a dairy-laden delight that sliced like butter and tasted like a wedge of pure sunlight. My mother wasn't much of a cook--she married my dad with only two recipes in her repertoire: hamburgers and chocolate chip cookies. But she made up for her lack of experience with an adventurous zeal (who else would serve tabbouleh to a second grader?), an approach that paid dividends since the day she met a certain cheesecake recipe.
She claimed the recipe was introduced by a friend of a friend whom she'd met via my great-uncle at a holiday party 30 years ago. My mom and the cheesecake apparently hit it off, and that night, or shortly thereafter, the recipe went home with her.
The cheesecake's appearances usually were confined to holidays or special occasions. But as I grew older and rumors about my mom and her sinfully rich companion spread throughout town, it became a much more frequent guest at the dinner table.
Over the years I bonded with that cheesecake and credit it for making me (at least) half the man I am today. It taught me how to trust (no peeking inside the oven); how to be a hit at any dinner party (be rich but look plain and people will always adore you); and, most important, how to approach life (we all start with the same simple ingredients--success comes with how we choose to mix them).
As a child, it didn't matter where my edible lesson plans came from. But as I grew older, I wanted to know more about the cheesecake's past. When I asked, my mother offered only an unsubstantiated rumor. It originally came, she thought, "from a famous New York restaurant."
With little else to go on, I stopped looking. Then, a few months ago, I read about an L.A. teen who had typed his name into Google's search engine to find that he was listed on a website for missing children. On a whim, I dug out my mother's recipe. I nervously typed into the query line a string of words: cheese cake egg whites egg yolks sour cream cream cheese vanilla. I pressed "enter" and almost instantaneously my screen filled with recipes.
The second recipe caught my eye--"Maxim's of New York cheesecake recipe" (referring to a famous restaurant that once stood at Madison and 61st). It seemed almost too easy. I compared ingredients: The only difference was lemon juice (my mother's recipe had it, theirs didn't). I compared amounts: They varied slightly (five eggs versus four). The major distinction was in the preparation: Maxim's recipe was done in two stages, my mother's in one.
There's no way to know if I've really found my dessert's daddy--all I can say is that they look an awful lot alike. But I do know I'm adding a final step to the recipe. When you're done making the cheesecake, rip out this article and stash it with your recipes. When it comes time to explain how the two of you met, you will be glad you did.
Serves 8 to 10
1 1/2 cups finely crushed graham crackers
3 tablespoons melted butter
2 tablespoons, plus 1 cup sugar
2 8-ounce packages cream cheese, softened
5 eggs, separated
2 cups sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Mix the graham cracker crumbs with the melted butter and 2 tablespoons sugar. Press the mixture into the bottom and up the sides of a 10-inch springform pan using a juice glass or an egg cup. Set aside.
Combine the cream cheese with 1 cup sugar and mix well. Stir in the egg yolks, sour cream, vanilla and lemon juice. Do not over-mix.
In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites to form soft peaks and fold into the cream cheese mixture. Pour into the springform pan. Place on the center rack of the oven. Place a pan half-filled with hot water on the lowest oven rack. Bake for 1 hour (do not open the door). Turn off the oven and let the cake remain in the oven for another hour. Prop open the oven door and leave the cake in for an additional 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and let the cake cool slightly. Cover and refrigerate overnight before serving.