Part I: A precocious child begins to show signs of a sweet tooth
Growing up in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia, I was not accustomed to eating many desserts as a child. Though I was not overly greedy – at least, not in my view – when it came to food, I had an unfortunate tendency to put on weight. By the time I reached the age of 10 I had grown so roly-poly the doctor ordered my mother to place a lock on the refrigerator and ban me from the kitchen altogether. To add insult to injury, my cholesterol rate was ludicrously high, and I was forced to eat turkey breast every day for a year; I still hate turkey, twenty years later. My brother, blessed with a much higher metabolism but also unfortunately prone to similar tendencies in the cholesterol department, was also fed turkey for a prolonged period of time and today we share the same hostility towards that ungainly creature.
At school, I looked on in unabashed longing as my childhood classmates polished off candies, toffees, pies, cakes, and brownies, while I struggled laboriously through my brown-bag lunch consisting of a bologna, ham or swiss cheese sandwich on white bread and an apple, often mushy after having spent the morning rolling about my school bag. It seemed cruelly unfair that while my erstwhile companions could eat such quantities of desserts without growing fat (though in hindsight I do wonder what their teeth were like), I would expand into an even larger piggy if I indulged in similar pleasures. Occasionally, I would be allotted a special treat, perhaps a handful of pretzels or a smattering of blue chips, but never, ever anything sweet, much to my chagrin. Sigh. I vowed to myself then that one day, all of this would change.
Owing to the fact that I spent much of my childhood as a porker, my mother did not bake often. Nor did she particularly enjoy the activity and on the rare occasions – holidays, mostly – that there were sweets gracing the dining table or family kitchen, they were not made from scratch: the cookies were Pillsbury, the apple pie Mrs. Smith’s, and the cakes from Duncan Hines. However, she did have one closely-guarded cake recipe that was legendary in the family: her cheesecake. Unfortunately, this recipe was also well-known in the household and beyond for its finicky nature. The hours required to make the batter completely smooth, the eons of time the cake had to remain in the oven after it was baked, and the ease with which it would crack if disturbed, say, by the stomping of moody adolescents or a handful of rambunctious pets, meant that she did not prepare the cheesecake often. In fact, I can only remember tasting it a handful of times.
Ah, but that cake! It remains one of my formative ur-cake memories. A fluffy, light-as-a-cloud texture, with a silkily smooth mixture of cream and cheese, a slithering softness provided by cornflour, some warmth owing to a generous dollop of vanilla extract, and a final touch of freshness provided by the squeeze of a lemon: this cake was heaven. Upon tasting it, I wanted more, much more, and I would gladly eat a few slices now if they were on hand. Find the recipe for it here.
Perhaps it is the rarity with which I ate desserts while growing up that contributed to my fascination with them. They were tantalizingly unapproachable, which made them objects of fantasy and desire. Also, my family collectively did not have much of a sweet tooth. My brother, whose cholesterol I mentioned earlier, to this day never eats dessert at all, which frankly doesn’t bother me in the slightest: more for me. My parents – originally from New York where they had access to far more delectable sweets – weren’t anti-dessert like my brother, but frankly and quite understandably found that there was never room after the heavy meals we would eat at restaurants. Unfortunately, when I was growing up and until fairly recently, there was a veritable dearth of decent restaurants in our corner of Virginia. The area was littered with roadhouses that are nowadays fairly ubiquitous across the country, the type that serve gargantuan meals and whose ‘Americana’ decor doesn’t amount to much more than a higgledy-piggledy collection of junk found in the nearest dumpster or flea market. What’s more, the desserts were rarely of any interest and half the time looked as if they had been drowned in whipped cream and chocolate sauce: a quick look around at the rotund diners at neighboring tables happily guzzling down mountains of aerosol-based whipped cream did not exactly encourage any of us to fill ourselves to capacity. I enjoy whipped cream and chocolate sauce as much as – or perhaps more than – most people, but I am also selective in what I eat.
As I like to say, you can never have too much of a good thing. But make sure that what you are eating is worth it. Fortunately, the future had great desserts in store for me, and I can assure you they were most definitely worth the pleasure I have had in enjoying them over the past ten years since I moved first to college, and then to Europe.