Dinner at Home

Friday, January 31, 2014

A Guest at the Table: Author Neil Plakcy Does Cheesecake

Foods of Bucks County
By Neil Plakcy 

In writing the golden retriever mysteries, set in a town very much like the one I grew up in, I’ve had the chance to revisit a lot of memories. Those memories, of course, include food. In the newest book in the series, WHOM DOG HATH JOINED (due out in March), my hero, Steve Levitan describes a visit to the Harvest Festival in his hometown of Stewart’s Crossing, Pennsylvania. Those familiar with Bucks County, halfway between Philadelphia and New York, may recognize a similarity to a festival called Yardley Harvest Days.

“The jazz band from the high school was playing off-key, and someone on the other side of the half-moon driveway was selling candy apples, guaranteed to rot the teeth of even the most careful eaters. The light breeze brought the sweet smell across to us, and I remembered going to Styer’s Farm Market when I was a kid. My mom wouldn’t buy me one of the apples, covered in a shiny red lacquer, but my dad would.”

Flea markets and festivals were staple events of my childhood, where I’d cadge a quarter or two from my parents and head for the funnel cake table, where someone poured a kind of pancake batter out of what looked like a watering can with a funnel-likespout. The ribbons of batter would swirl around on a hot griddle, creating a kind of heavy lace pancake, which was then dusted with powdered sugar.

Back in the 1960s, we had limited exposure to ethnic food. Our next-door neighbors, the Pappases, were Greek and owned a diner where you got coffee in paper cups with a squared key design around the rim and moussaka was an exotic dish. My parents and I drove into Chambersburg, the Italian neighborhood of Trenton (immortalized as “the Burg” in the Stephanie Plum books by Janet Evanovich) for pizza and pasta at Roman Hall, one of those old-time restaurants with maps of Italy on the placemats and posters of the Coliseum and the Leaning Tower of Pisa on the walls.

My family ate a lot of what we called “Jewish food” at home – chopped liver, chicken soup with matzo balls, lox and bagels, brisket and roast chicken. When I was in high school we had a Polish cleaning lady, Helen Wielninski, a heavy-set, big-busted woman in her sixties who came to us once a week in a flowered smock to rearrange the dust. If she was in a good mood, or we were celebrating a special occasion, she brought us a cheesecake, made according to her own special recipe. The cakes were baked in a springform pan, one with a spring on the side so the pan could be opened and a removable bottom, and they cracked in the middle while baking, giving you a sneak preview at all the rich goodness inside.

Making Helen’s cheesecake today is an exercise in nostalgia for me – for the days when I could eat four or five slices of cheesecake at once and not gain a single pound, when I could ride my bike anywhere in town and many of the stores where we shopped were owned by people my parents had grown up with. That’s the kind of place I’ve created in Stewart’s Crossing (though my hero watches his weight now.)

Helen's Cheesecake
1 cup graham cracker crumbs
1/4 cup melted butter
5 eight ounce cream cheese packages
8 eggs
3 tablespoons flour
dash salt
1 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 cups sugar
8 ounces chocolate mini-chips

Preheat the oven to 500° F. Open the cream cheese and leave it out to soften. Combine graham cracker crumbs and butter and press into the bottom of a 9" springform pan.

Cream the cheese with a wooden spoon, and then, using an electric beater, add in the eggs, one at a time. Then mix in the flour, sugar, salt and vanilla. Beat until there are no more lumps, then add in the chocolate mini-chips. (Regular size chips will sink to the bottom of the cake, which is fine if you want a chocolate layer down there. The mini-chips are small enough to remain suspended in the batter. You can also swirl in some chocolate syrup if you want.)

Pour into the springform pan, and bake at 500 degrees for 15 minutes. Turn the oven down to 250 degrees and bake for an additional 40 minutes. Then turn the oven off and let the cake cool in the oven for one hour.

I like this cake best after it has been refrigerated, but if you're too eager to wait it tastes just as good right out of the oven.

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