BY BRYAN LAVERY
At one time Mother felt certain that owning and managing a restaurant, even with an experienced partner, (me) was probably the toughest job in the world. Her thoughts of sipping champagne with Stepfather in the front window of our restaurant, La Cucina, while everything ran smoothly, were dashed within the first few days of our opening. When I suggested that she didn’t actually have to get down on her hands and knees and scrub the kitchen floor after each shift, she replied, “Really,” acting as if I were questioning her work ethic and her belief in the moral benefit of hard work. This continued night after night until we sold the restaurant a couple of years later. It was the truth, she did not need to wash the floor but for whatever reason, if she was on the premises at closing time she chose to wash the floor herself. It allowed her a certain moral authority.
If you were to ask about the difficulties inherent in running a restaurant my mother can and will illustrate her point with the example of unreliable and thoughtless dishwashers who don’t show up for a scheduled shift. “Have you ever scrubbed pots and pans for 10 hours while trying to keep up with the dishwashing and all the time staff are demanding clean dishes and polished cutlery?” Mother gesticulates, exercising her flair for the dramatic arts, “All the while you’re attempting to do prep and a million other things that need to be done .” Now twenty five years later, Mother seems to be reconsidering her position about the toughest job in the world. On her blog she has posted a story which I encouraged her to write entitled, My Day with a Cheesecake. It is about an event nearly a decade ago which she describes as a trauma. When I think of trauma, my mind goes to emotional or psychological injuries or life threatening situations. We are “food” people and serious about our vocation. This is why I understand and am sympathetic to her hyperbole. It all started when the regular recipe columnist suddenly became unavailable. In the spirit of helpfulness, I suggested I could pick up the slack by producing several autumnal recipes that needed to be cooked and photographed last minute for an upcoming issue.
Finding myself too busy with other pressing projects and a looming deadline, Mother (who could add professional baker to her resume if she wasn’t long retired) volunteered to bake my recipe for Spiced Pumpkin Cheesecake with a Chestnut Crust for the photoshoot. She and Stepfather know all the tips and tricks for making baking a cheesecake a breeze. Their velvety mincemeat cheesecake with the perfect calibration of flavours is legendary.
The first obstacle was to locate chestnuts weeks before they are in season. They are needed both for the crust and to be candied for the top of the rosettes that will decorate the cheesecake. After some initial panic, the roasted, peeled and ready to eat, vacuum-pack variety became the logical answer. Even though Stepfather (also a professional cook and baker) has tried to candy them, the sugar solution would not adhere. Undaunted we forged ahead. On her blog, Mother later posted what she referred to as the difficulties involved in baking, decorating, styling and photographing what she calls an “uncooperative cheesecake.” She does not tell the reader that it is an unseasonably hot and humid late September day, which in retrospect was instrumental in explaining several of our mishaps. The trouble, the way she views it, begins with getting an unfamiliar recipe that she has never attempted. She claims that it is a challenge. Mother is a perfectionist who has a passion for baking. She is excellent at attending to every little detail, and likes things done in a specific way, her own. We are a family who have collaborated on many different food themed projects throughout the years and our individual culinary beliefs are deeply ingrained. When we are working together we believe that constant intervention and attention to detail is beneficial and absolutely necessary. We derive a genuine sense of accomplishment and camaraderie, however fleeting, from the labours of our painstaking efforts and the solicited and often unsolicited advice we so helpfully offer each other.
To hear Mother tell it, the chaos began with a trip to the supermarket. "Why do they keep these stores so cold, she later asks her readers," When questioned she admits that it is to her detriment that she doesn’t shop aisle by aisle, instead she shops as she remembers the ingredients that she requires. She moves quickly from place to place all the time providing a running commentary. (Read complaining softly or muttering under her breath). The items she needs have either been moved from where they should be located or are out of stock. Finally, she has everything she requires, however, not in the most convenient sizes. Nonetheless she purchases the quantities required for the recipe. With groceries in hand, heading for her car, she remembers that she has forgotten to buy the whipping cream. (Read edible oil products in an aerosol can.) Back into the store, now where in the name of mankind do they keep it? At last, she finds and purchases what she believes to be convenience in a can. Back home and to the kitchen with recipe in hand, she begins to assemble the ingredients. She begins with the crust and immediately realizes that she has forgotten to purchase the graham cracker crumbs. After a quick check through her pantry, drawer by drawer, all the time complaining loudly about an unnamed interloper, the inference being my step father must have moved them from their proper home. The graham crackers are eventually located and that is when she comes to the realization that they may be to stale to be palatable. “Oh well, we don't have to eat that part of the cheesecake if it turns out they are "funny tasting,” she later confides in her blog, much to my horror.
Mother pulls out her Cuisinart to make crumbs from the crackers. It doesn't take long, but a mess is now starting to accumulate on the counter and she doesn’t like a messy kitchen. She puts the Cuisinart aside to be washed later. Then she hauls out the consolation prize for her years as a restaurateur, a Kenwood Industrial Restaurant Chef Mixer. It is extremely heavy so it is kept on its own shelf in a purposely built cupboard. “It is the same type of shelf that the old manual typewriters used to sit on”, blogs Mother, referring to the days when she did office work. When it's in use the space between the counter top and the free-standing kitchen island becomes almost impassable. My parents have an enviable and large open-kitchen, custom designed so that two people can cook together. Nevertheless Mother is beginning to feel mild anxiety, the kitchen intervening and closing in around her. She presses on with the batter. By the time she finishes mixing, adding and stirring, she has batter on herself, the mixer and the counter top. It should be easier to add ingredients without coming into contact with a messy beater every time. She cuts and presses parchment paper to bottom and sides of the springform pan. She follows the recipe directions to a tee and pours the ingredients into the prepared pan, baking for 1 hour. With the oven door ajar and the heat turned off, the cheesecake is left in the oven for additional hour. The recipe clearly states leaving the door ajar will allow the cheesecake to cool slowly and prevent cracking of the surface. Anticipating a perfection but to my mother’s dread, and later mine, the cheesecake is cracked. “A small fracture not exactly crater size. Just enough to lend the cheesecake an air of rusticity," offers Stepfather.
Mother blogs, “Waiting now for my son the chef to come over and decorate the cheesecake and oversee the taking of photographs for the magazine. Almost the first thing Chef tells me when he arrives, is how busy he has been for the past several days and so he is quite tired.” I was trying to source quince a few weeks before they were ripe and in season. Painstakingly preparing a complicated Moroccan-inspired chicken and quince tagine at my friend Kathy’s apartment we stayed up late making certain everything was perfection. I was unable to see the cheesecake until early the next morning. In the refrigerator for a second day, mother alleges that the properly covered cheesecake began to shrink away from its sides, and as she put it, “To top that off, it looked like a large bread bowl with the contents starting to spill over the sides. Oh dear...”
It is now time to decorate the cheesecake, this proverbial dog and pony show takes "three cooks." Mother blogs that the experience is chaotic, “For starters I purchased whipped cream in an aerosol can. A definite no-no, as my son, never uses anything that sprays out of a can – never ever. So then I have to do the decorating – not really my forte. If that wasn't bad enough, instead of regular whipped cream I had purchased the light variety.” Shaking the aerosol can with all her might, the synthetic edible oil, whipped cream product emerges half-heartedly from the nozzle. It immediately began to weep on the plate. It would not stand up on the plate, never mind it being used as piping for a decorative rosette border. Stepfather and I hop into car to go to the supermarket to buy real 35% cream for whipping. Mother stayed back and started the process of clean-up, at which she says,“ Ì am very adept.”
Now we're all set, we have a new litre of whipping cream. Out comes the Cuisinart again, my choice as I thought the other option would be a metal bowl and a wire balloon whisk. A great deal of spinning and beating occurs but, the cream is not light and fluffy, there are no soft peaks forming. The whipping cream is doing its own "thing" and is quickly turning into buttermilk. Immediately we realize that we need to stabilize the whipping cream. Cook number three ( Stepfather) has suggested using some gelatin to stiffen the mixture. But he forgets that the gelatin should be dissolved first in water for five minutes. Immediately we find out that if the gelatin is just slightly too hot it will deflate the whipped cream when it is added. If it is allowed to cool too much it will not incorporate into the cream. It still doesn't want to whip. Try, try again. I suggest adding icing sugar, then more icing sugar, when that doesn't work I suggests a bit of cream of tartar. Later I realize that it wasn’t cream of tartar but corn starch that we should have been using. Nothing is working to bring the whipping cream back to the desired consistency. Stepfather washes piping bag and dries it with his hair dryer as this is his favourite piping bag and no other will do. Stepfather gets ice from freezer, a clean bowl and freshly dried piping bag and it’s his turn. Hurray, rosettes in place, chestnuts on top of each rosette and now time for a photo. Disaster, no one would want to try something that looks like that. Take off chestnuts, remove rosettes and I start carefully cutting off the ridge of the cheesecake. With each new challenge, I remind the other two just how tired I am. Meanwhile Stepfather cooks additional pumpkin pie filling in the microwave. He begins to even out the surface as if sculpting, filling in the offending crack in the cheesecake and smoothing out any irregularities on the surface. It is near perfection, flawless an absolute work of art, the crack has miraculously disappeared. Now I am in charge of the whipped cream in the piping bag. The cheesecake sits regally on a fancy elevated cake plate, and after several attempts by all three cooks, toothpicks are carefully placed at proper intervals so that flawless rosettes can be piped around the newly levelled top. Twenty rosettes, twinned with twenty chestnuts. Picture perfect, it is time for the photographs. The counter is draped decorously with a white linen tablecloth. The cheesecake is placed in position and various seasonal props are added to the background for additional flair. Gourds of various sizes, a large decorative wicker chicken my brother Gary purchased in China, plus an assortment of flowers, leaves and stems that Stepfather has gathered from his garden. The only thing missing is Grandpa’s farm tractor pulling a flatbed of hay.
We spend a lot of time placing gourds "just so." Where is the camera? Accusations fly, “Someone must have moved it!” But it is sitting on the counter right in front of Mother, exactly where she left it. She leaps up on a step stool and takes photographs from several different angles. She removes the gourds, the chicken is relegated to the background, and flowers are arranged and rearranged. Mother takes more pictures from different angles. This goes on ad nauseam. Mother thinks she is Annie Leibovitz. Stepfather returns to the garden looking for more flowers and leaves. Finally the photographs are downloaded to the computer for inspection. We all have an opinion but the consensus is that most of the photographs won't do. The chicken’s head is far too large, there are too many gourds, too many chestnuts, and on top of that there is a dark spot in the far corner of the shot. Another white table cloth is procured and I am instructed to hang it as a backdrop. Mother searches for the camera, again. "In the future, please don't touch it!" (It is right under her nose.) More pictures with alternative decorations. Looking for the money shot. Lights, Camera, Action! Hooray, some of the photographs look good.
Now it’s time for a close-up of the cake with a slice removed. The cake is cut, a slice placed on dessert plate with a fork. Again, look for the camera; it is hidden under the newly arranged tablecloths. Set up the shot again. Take a zillion more pictures, download to computer. "Well, those won't do, the cake slice is messy looking. Egad, will this ever end? Another dozen or so more shots and at last we have the pictures we need. "With freshly brewed coffee we now try our cheesecake for taste, it is delicious, the texture perfect. Thank heavens for that. Mother and Stepfather both think it needs more ginger less lemon. "For me, every aspect of the food business I have been involved with can be time consuming and stressful. It is no wonder we celebrate the finished product. “Great food, now I look forward to the next adventure in the kitchen. That's how I see it, anyway", blogs Mother.
Cheesecake with a Chestnut Crust
A Great Seasonal
Cheesecake with Warm Fall Spices and a Hint of Chestnut.
1/2 cup (125 mL) melted unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups (375 mL) finely ground gingersnap or graham cracker crumbs
2 tbsp (25 mL) light or dark brown sugar
1/3 cup (75 mL) roasted chestnuts, finely chopped
2 tbsp (25 mL) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups (375 mL) cream cheese, at room temperature
3/4 cup (175 mL) packed light or dark brown sugar
1 1/2 cups (375 mL) puréed cooked pumpkin, fresh or canned
2 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
1 cup (250 mL) sour cream
3 tbsp (45 mL) all-purpose flour
1 tsp (5 mL) vanilla
2 tsp (10 mL) ground cinnamon
2 tsp (10 mL) ground nutmeg
2 tsp (10 mL) ground ginger
1 tbsp (15 mL) lemon zest
2 tbsp (25 mL) freshly squeezed lemon juice
Whipped Cream Topping
1/2 cup (125 mL) 35% whipping cream
1 tsp (5 mL) sugar
1. Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C).
2. Line sides of a 9-inch (2.5-L) springform pan with parchment paper and then brush sides of parchment with 2 tbsp (25 mL) melted butter.
3. Stir together ginger snap crumbs, sugar, chestnuts and remaining melted butter. Mix together and pat into bottom and sides of prepared pan. Chill crust in refrigerator while preparing filling.
4. Make sure your eggs are cold and have all the other ingredients at room temperature.
5. In a large bowl or a food processor, cream butter and cream cheese together. Scrape down sides, add sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Scrape sides again and beat in pumpkin.
6. Add eggs and egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in sour cream, flour, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, lemon zest, and juice.
7. Pour filling into chilled base. Bake cake in centre of oven for 1 hour. Leave oven door ajar, turn off heat, and let cake sit in oven for an additional hour to cool. (Cooling in the oven will prevent the cake from cracking.) Let cake cool slowly and completely before unmoulding. Chill in the refrigerator for at least 6 hours, but ideally you should let a cheesecake settle for 24 hours in the pan before unmoulding.
7. Whip cream until soft peaks form then beat in sugar. Pipe or dollop 20 rosettes of whipped cream around the top edge of the cheesecake. Top each rosette with a candied chestnut.