Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Many years ago when I was a newspaper reporter, I worked in a little town that has a summer festival in celebration of the local (now mostly defunct) egg-producing industry. There is a parade and carnival, with the usual rides and crafty things for sale. There is, or at least there was that year, a cheesecake-making contest. Local gourmands compete fiercely for ribbons and recognition. The only requirement is that each cheesecake recipe must include at least three eggs.

It was judged that year by an assemblage of representatives from various media and news outlets. It is an ingenious way to guarantee that your event gets ample news coverage - to feed media members cheesecake.

So the contest was at 10:30 a.m. I was there, the other paper sent a representative, the local weatherman guy from Bangor was there, and a few radio and sales people I didn't recognize. There were something like 20 cheesecakes and they were split up into categories for plain cheesecake, flavored cheesecake, and "special" cheesecakes - the uber-fancy ones.

I had never been a judge in such a contest, but the organizers were very ... well ... organized about it. First we all went though and judged each cake on its appearance. We were given little score cards and golf pencils to mark them. Then a slice was cut from each cake, placed on a small plate next to a cup of plastic forks. We went down the line, taking a new fork at each piece of cheesecake, taking a bite, discarding the fork, and judging the dessert on things like flavor, texture and "mouthfeel" whatever the hell that is.

The fanciest cheesecake was a double-chocolate-raspberry swirled thing that the chef had then decorated with pansies. It was truly a work of art. And it tasted fabulous and looked beautiful and I suddenly understood what "mouthfeel" meant. And I loved it.

By the end of the tasting, what at first seemed like the greatest story assignment I had ever encountered in my still-very-new career had turned into a grim gastronomical endurance test. Twenty bites of oh-my-god-rich cheesecakes before lunch is really not the great idea one might first think. We judges looked at each other with relief in our eyes as we tossed our last forks into the provided trash bin.

Except there was a three-way tie for one of the non-"special" categories. So we had to go back through those three cheesecakes anew, with cards and pencils, offering our opinion. Then there was a two-way tie. Dear god in heaven, is there no mercy?? We barely took a taste of the remaining two offerings, and peeking at each other's cards, conspired for one to win over the other, we really didn't care whose it was, just so we didn't have to eat any more. And only then, having fulfilled our judgely duties, we were mercifully dismissed.

Just in time for lunch.

No thanks, I think I'll pass.

On the up side, the contestants had all agreed to allow their winning recipes to be published, and so I offer you my adaptation of the Double-Chocolate-Raspberry Cheesecake that won the 1994 Pittsfield Egg Festival Cheesecake Contest. I have no memory now of who the creator of this marvel is, only that she was exceedingly proud of herself, and with good reason. It's to die for.

Double Chocolate-Raspberry Marble Cheesecake

version A (the original):
1 stick oleo, melted
1 package (10.25 ounce) brownie mix
mix together and press into bottom and up the sides of a spring-form pan.

version B (adjusted to be soy-free):
3/4 cup flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup sugar
2/3 cup Ghirardelli's baking cocoa (yes, the quality is worth the extra buck a can!)
1 stick butter, melted
Sift the dry ingredients together, then add the melted butter and mix together. Press into the bottom and sides of a spring-form pan.

The Filling:
4 8-ounce packages of cream cheese
6 small or 4 large eggs
1 cup whipping cream
1 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 cups sugar

Raspberry Puree:
1/2 cup raspberries
1/8 cup sugar

version A:
1/2 ounce unsweetened chocolate, melted

version B (because I didn't have any unsweetened chocolate handy):
1 Tbsp melted butter
3 Tbsp cocoa

For filling, beat cream cheese until smooth and creamy. Add eggs one at a time, scraping the sides of the bowl and beating well after each one. Beat in sugar, cream and vanilla until very smooth. Pour all but 1 cup into the prepared pan.

Add 1/2 cup of the filling to the raspberry puree, and the other half cup to the chocolate. Blend each well, then drop spoonfulls of each onto the top of the filling, and swirl gently with a knife until you get the desired pattern.

Bake at 350 degrees F for one hour. After 1 hour, turn off the oven, open the door, and allow the cheesecake to cool slowly until it gets to room temperature. Then place in the refrigerator and chill for at least 8 hours. Garnish as desired with raspberries or chocolate (or pansies).

Now along the right side are the pictures of what it looked like going together:

From top to bottom we have butter, dry ingredients sifted together, melted butter, added to dry, mixed enough, the lined pan and then the crust formed into the pan.

Of course there is a story behind why the pan has waxed paper in it. It got lent out over the summer and came back with its shiny black coating all shredded and peeling. Yeah, ick. So I buttered it and stuck the waxed paper to it and am now shopping for a new 10" spring-form pan.

Oh, here's a tip that never gets explained anywhere: once I got it mixed well, I divided the crust in half and pressed one portion into the bottom of the pan, then set the pan on edge and pressed the rest to the sides, a little bit at a time, all the way around. It was kind of a pain, but it came out looking beautiful. I smoothed it with the back of a spoon, too.

And for the record, I have tried both the package mix and the home-made versions of the crust, and the home-made version is the better of the two, no question.

Below that we've got the beginnings of the filling. Four of the BIG blocks of cream cheese - I use the local store brand, plus eggs and whipping cream. This is not a low-fat thing. It's a cheesecake. You want low-fat, go make yourself a nice salad and leave me the hell alone. Go. Now.

Another thing that is useful to know is that while cream cheese might be smooth when it is still cold, the "smooth" you're looking for in the mixing process is "smooth and creamy and spreadable like peanut butter on hot toast" as opposed to "smooth but still stiff".

The recipe says to add the vanilla after the eggs, but long history has taught me that I never remember to add it there, so I put it in with my first egg. I do this no matter what I am baking. If it frigs with the end flavor, then so be it. If I don't do it that way, it simply never gets in at all.

It's important to make sure you scrape down the sides of the bowl when you add each egg or else you get big lumps of non-whipped cream cheese, which make funky pockets of goo in the middle of the cheesecake. Even in non-elite culinary circles, that is considered bad form.

As you can see, I made the raspberry puree in my Magic Bullet. I love that thing. It is truly one of the most useful gadgets in my kitchen. Oh, when you get berries - if fresh are not available or too expensive out-of-season, make sure to get frozen whole berries that are not packed in any kind of syrup. The recipe depends on the pucker of the berries to counter the heavy sweetness of everything else.

I think this is the recipe that finally killed Old Yeller, my grandmother's circa 1938 Sunbeam Mixmaster stand mixer. Gawd but I loved that mixer. It was sturdy as hell, the base had a little metal spinny thing that allowed the white glass bowl to spin this way and that for easy scraping of the sides or adding ingredients here and there. Oh, man, it was just a marvel. Unfortunately, the motor gave out and even the old guys who fix appliances were unable to do more than clean it up and oil it. The parts simply are no longer available. I think it now serves as a boat mooring. Damned thing weighed a ton!

When the cheesecake has been in the oven for an hour, turn it off and open the door. This time the cheesecake was taller than I have ever made one before! As the cooler air of the kitchen hit it, the center began to sink, but not to black-hole-like proportions. It settled softly, and much of the rest of the cheesecake settled with it. I had to let it cool gently there for a couple hours before putting it in the fridge to set. It is the rapid temperature change that causes the sink-hole in a cheesecake.

By the time it was fully chilled, including a final blast of cold from 90 minutes spent in L's car in a howling snowstorm, the center of the cheesecake had sunk to just over two inches high. Not beautiful, but not horrid, either.

We brought it in from the car and took off the spring form pan, then carefully peeled off the waxed paper from the sides and bottom. It was touchy going, but not impossible. Not a thing you want to hurry through, that's for sure.

We tried to cut off the toasted brown top, but gave up when we realized that we would have to sacrifice some of the wonderful chocolate crust on the outside edge of the thing. Screw that! was the sentiment. It's not the prettiest, but we didn't want to throw away any of the flavor. So we cut it. The crust was nice and firm, sort of with a toasted feel to it (must be that stick of butter!) and the hot knife had no problem slicing through. Per usual, the first slice looked like monkeys had cut it with a grapefruit knife, so we didn't get a picture of that. But you can see how the other pieces came out.

As we cross over from the last dark year of the Bush regime into the promised light and hope of our president-elect, my wish for you is health, happiness, prosperity, peace where you are, and if making a cheesecake will brighten your day, then please take this recipe. It is the best one I have ever tasted. Happy New Year.




Laura D. on MDI said...

OMFG!! What a wonderful way to ring in a new year. That was udderly devine.

Dawn on MDI said...

No kidding, babe. Moo.

quing said...

monkeys had cut it with a grapefruit knife LMAO!

Oh, Dawn, I wish were there munching on that cheesecake now. I know how you cook.

Robin said...

Oh. My. God.

Here's to a happy, healthy, peaceful new year.

Anonymous said...

Whimper...oh how I wish I could fall face-first into a slice of that! Excuse me while I wipe the monitor clean, I may or may not have been licking the screen. ;)
Happy New Year, dear! May this year be many, many times better than last.

msladydeborah said...

I am a foodie. So this post was right up my alley.

The cheesecake looks marvelous! I love good food and desserts.

Carlita said...

That looks fantastic.

Happy New Year!

Bull said...

Oh yeah...think I'm going to make this...soon.

Marc said...


Distributorcap said...

and i didnt get a piece?

happy new year to all of you up in Maine