As members of a close group of counselors at a Cape Cod summer camp about 100 years ago, a number of us would gather after our respective young flocks went to sleep. Sitting around a camp fire or maybe inside the rec hall on rainy nights, and with a transistor radio sputtering crackly renditions of Carly Simon’s “Anticipation” and David Bowie’s “Changes,” we got to know one another through new stories and old family secrets, and declarations of our greatest loves (people; places; things). More often than not the talk turned to food.
Throughout the summer, with camp cuisine not quite up to prison fare, the only difference seemed to be that given our proximity to the sea and the accruing bounty on the docks, “cook” saw that we got seafood at least once a week. But except for Oreos, desserts were sorely lacking, and we’d wax poetic about what we missed the most from home. For my counselor friend Terri and me, besides bug-free sleeping quarters, it was cheesecake.
On a trip to the Bronx a few years later to visit Terri, my arrival was marked by cheesecake dreams. Plate outstretched, she greeted me with a giant slice of her homemade New York-style tribute beneath two mounds of vanilla ice cream (note: real New York cheesecake is made with extra egg yolks, which makes it magical). I’d never tried it with ice cream and at first glance thought I’d died and gone to heaven with honey on top.
Piercing the rich, thick, smooth hill of cheesecake and skimming the soft edges of the ice cream with my fork (pure New York cheesecake is not compromised by sticky fruit on top), I recall the tang of that first bite 35 years ago as clearly as I do the quiche I made for dinner last night. In fact I can recount every detail, from the way it coated my lips and tongue so that the taste went on and on to the manner in which my nostrils flared involuntarily–grateful for the heaping fork that passed beneath them again and again. I also remember feeling blissfully sated as the contents of the plate found their way from palate to stomach, bite by slow motion bite, the nutty crunch of the graham cracker crust like music in my mouth. Cheesecake at Terri’s, to say the least, was almost a whole body experience. And I’d be surprised if I were alone in my feelings about this creamy confection!
According to records, the first cheese-type cake (seen as an ancient iteration of the modern version) may have been created on Samos, in the Greek islands, circa 4,000 B.C. It is believed to have been served to appreciative athletes during the first Olympic Games in 776 B.C., lauded for its energy-providing properties. Greek couples also enjoyed a reasonable facsimile at weddings where it consisted of flour, wheat, honey, and cheese. The treat was also reportedly mentioned in Roman agriculture writer Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella’s De Re Rustica circa 200 B.C., and the Romans are noted to have spread cheesecake across Europe in their interpretation of manifest destiny.
In Renaissance times, the first printed cookbook in 1545 described cheesecake as a flour-based sweet food, but it wasn’t until the 18th Century that it began to resemble something close the way we conceive of it today. In the late 19th Century, cream cheese was an American addition to the product, and cheesecake as we know it found its way into culinary history.
As for that afternoon in the Bronx, Terri’s homemade cheesecake and ice cream experience is etched indelibly in my mind, so July 30–a day designated as an all-out hail to the cake–is all right by me. Though creating the perfect creamy-sweet dessert may be more time consuming than the average pan of brownies, recipes vary and can be found to suit your schedule and skill level. What’s more, the results may be etched indelibly onto your palate, as they were with mine. Try these recipes for a cherished cheesecake experience of your own!
Easy Lemon Ricotta Cheesecake Squares
3 eggs, lightly beaten
2 cartons (15 ounces each) ricotta cheese
3/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons grated lemon peel
1 package lemon cake mix (regular size)
1 cup water
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup lemon juice
2 teaspoons confectioners’ sugar
In a large bowl, combine eggs, ricotta cheese, sugar, and lemon peel; set aside.
In another large bowl, combine cake mix, water, oil, lemon juice, and eggs; beat on low speed for 30 seconds. Beat on medium for 2 minutes. Pour into a greased 13-x-9-in. baking pan. Carefully spoon ricotta mixture on top of cake batter.
Bake at 350° for 60-65 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool on a wire rack for one hour. Refrigerate overnight. Dust with confectioners’ sugar; cut into squares. Refrigerate leftovers. Yield: 16-20 servings.