Sometimes you just have to throw caution to the wind, laugh in the face of danger, and stare death in the eye until it blinks, which is a pretty impressive thing to do when you’re staring at an eyeless skull.
For many people this involves feats of physical derring do, adventurous visits to risky places, or open defiance of the laws of nations or physics, but for us it meant going into a mid-20th-century recipe book to look for a cheesecake recipe.
Let me tell you, ol’ Betty Crocker does NOT fuck around when it comes to cheesecake.
Dustin has been staying with us for a week now and it turned out that yesterday was his birthday so we figured there ought to be a celebration. Oliver said that back at Small Liberal Arts College they usually would have a cheeseboard for dinner on the occasion and that was pretty manageable for us – we often do that, though we call it “Swedish Breakfast,” and we had just been to the local Sheep and Wool Festival last weekend and very quicky located the cheese booth where our friend Karen was working. You have to buy some cheese if you’re going to monopolize someone’s time that way, and it was good cheese after all.
So, we asked, what kind of cake do you want after dinner? And the answer was “Cheesecake.”
Kim found the recipe and after our eyes popped back into their sockets we thought, “Yes, Yes, YES – this is absolutely the cheesecake recipe we need to make.”
It calls for two and a half pounds of cream cheese, which is rather more than a kilogram in metric. Nine eggs total – five whole and four yolks. Sugar. Heavy cream. The zest of two lemons and an orange. The barest hint of flour, because there must be some legal requirement about that. A few other things that I no longer recall because I was still kind of reeling from the cream cheese requirements. It’s quite a cake.
Clearly the American Heart Association had not been invented when this recipe hit the presses.
It was, as you would expect, remarkably good.
We feasted on cheeses, meats, crackers, fresh bread, olives, and jams (including a bergamot jam that we found at an Italian deli in Kenosha) for dinner, and then after a suitable period to allow for digestion, we hauled out the cheesecake, sang “Happy Birthday,” and dove in.
We cut the pieces pretty narrow. Betty Crocker herself says that the recipe – which is supposed to fit into a 9” spring-form pan though in the end we were very glad to have substituted a 10” one – feeds 20 people. The four of us got through about a fifth of it, so that works out about right. There were no moves for seconds.
The rest of the evening was spent poring over other mid-20th-century cookbooks, reading the most striking recipes out loud and wondering how anyone survived, although to be fair you never know how things will turn out until you actually make them.
We’re all big fans of Dylan Hollis, who has gathered a following of several million people by putting out 90-second TikTok videos of himself making vintage recipes, about a third of which he ends up liking, often against his better judgment. If you’re over 40 you can also find the videos on YouTube. They’re worth it.
Someone once told me that recipes made in the 1920s through the 1940s tend to be fairly reliable because they were made by people trying to feed their families, while recipes from the 1950s through the 1970s are to be treated skeptically until proven otherwise because too many of them come from companies trying to get you to buy their ingredients. I’m not sure when this recipe was created, but it’s definitely a winner. It had the feeling of something you’d keep in reserve as a special treat in hard times – a blowout sort of thing that would use up scarce resources for a celebration and then you’d talk about it for the rest of the winter.
There’s still a lot of it left.
There will just have to be further feasting. It’s a dirty job, and we get to do it.