My second husband and I started dating in February 1984. By the time Steve’s birthday was approaching a few months later, I knew that he wasn’t a big dessert fan but did love cheesecake. So I borrowed a spring-form pan, determined to make him an authentic New York–style cheesecake.
As soon as that notion solidified into a definite ambition, my radar should have been on alert. I had once tried to make a special dessert—special only in the sense that I didn’t really bake, so everything was a challenge—for my first husband. We had married in January 1979 but hadn’t been able to live together until May. I had no obligations until graduate school started in August. But FH had to work that summer so that we had money to live on. Figuring that it was my responsibility, in return, to fix our meals, I spent a lot of time browsing through cookbooks. (This despite the fact that I’d never liked cooking or shown any natural talent for it.)
At some point I’d learned that FH liked custard pies. I looked up a recipe and saw that I had all of the necessary ingredients except for nutmeg. Since FH needed our car to get to work, I was without transportation. But I didn’t want to wait, and I wanted to surprise him. So in the summer heat, I walked a mile round-trip to buy nutmeg at the nearest grocery store.
Mixing the pie filling seemed to go well. When I poured it into the ready-made pie crust, it was almost brimming. (Yes, ready-made pie crust. Even as an ambitious new wife I wasn’t crazy enough to tackle pie crust.) No, I didn’t forget to put in the nutmeg. And I’d been careful to preheat a cookie sheet along with the oven. With high hopes, I slid the pie onto the cookie sheet and went back into the living room to read.
Shortly thereafter I heard a sonic-boom–like sound and knew immediately what had happened. Despite my precautions, the cookie sheet had flexed. I opened the oven door a crack and peeked. The pie was now sitting at a jaunty angle, with the filling touching the outer edge of the crust on one side of the pan and at low tide on the other side. Absurdly, I couldn’t figure out anything to do about this. I knew if I touched the pie the filling would spill. So I decided to just leave it alone.
When the pie was done baking, it resembled something a three-year-old might concoct. The surface slanted crazily, with a huge, nearly burnt surface bubble covering half of the pie pan and almost all of the custard on the other half. FH was game enough to eat the thing, or try to, but it wasn’t the pie of his dreams, unless he was having nightmares.
Consequently, I should have been alert to the potential for future baking disasters. But I’d forgotten about the custard pie incident in my determination to make Steve a cheesecake.
I didn’t have to walk to the store for anything this time, which was just as well. I was both a novice and a klutz, and making cheesecake turned out to be an aerobic exercise. For one thing, I didn’t have a stand mixer. My hands, which were scrawny and weak, almost didn’t survive the experience.
I also am a slow person in the kitchen. It took a ridiculous amount of time, something around 2 1/2 hours, for me to assemble the nascent cheesecake. Pressing the crust alone seemed to take half of the afternoon. I was afraid the ingredients would spoil before I got it into the oven. Just how long could that cream cheese mixture sit out without going bad, or at least surly? But I was too deep into this project to turn back. I ignored my concerns, pressed on, and finally got the damn thing into the oven.
What I ended up with was, by golly, a New York–style cheesecake. Except…heavier. The finished product had the approximate weight and density of a neutron star. Flung like a Frisbee, it would have been a deadly weapon.
Surprisingly, it tasted pretty decent. But it was so thick it took some effort to eat a slice, and so rich that I’m surprised it didn’t kill us on the spot. I kept thinking of Woody Allen’s line, written in reference to eating a slice of cheesecake, about feeling his aorta congealing into a hockey puck. We couldn’t even finish it. This marked the first time for either of us that we actually threw away part of a cheesecake—something that normally would have been unthinkable.
I had learned my lesson. From then on, Steve got bakery cheesecake for his birthday. (All gratitude to Cristaudo’s, our wonderful local bakery.)
I’ve dated a couple of guys since Steve died, but both were diabetics and had to go easy on sweets. Even if they hadn’t been, I never would have been tempted to make them some special dessert. Depression is mostly a bad thing, but it does help you thwart unrealistic ambitions. In fact, I’ve been living in my current house for three years, and I don’t even know if the oven works. I’ve never turned it on.