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Guestwords: Let Us Eat Cake

Thu, 04/20/2023 - 10:24

It’s been several years since the beginning of Covid lockdown and my significant relationship continues to unravel. Maybe a trip abroad would reduce the tension?

Should we go to the South of France or the heel of Italy? Maybe I could trade my city apartment for an apartment near an ancient town square. I’ll order espresso from the cafe below and do little drawings at the table.

Or maybe we can stay in Normandy with our French cousins, Jacqui and Nancy. I think we’d be welcomed if I made an American cheesecake.

I remember years ago, we were returning from a trip to Brittany when Jacqui had a cheesecake craving.

“Sure, I can make you one.”

On the way home, Michel and Claudine — more cousins — wanted to stop at the Rouen market to pick up local delicacies. We had just gotten back into the car when cheesecake was mentioned again, so we made another stop at a small grocery for the ingredients. Jacqui checked recipes online but none of the ingredients could be found in this small market. I tried to substitute this for that — challenging.

Baby-teething biscuits with a bit of melted butter will make a fine crust. The shelved items in front of us were in grams and milliliters but the quantities of the online recipes were in ounces, teaspoons, and cups. I didn’t have a pencil and paper nor the inclination to calculate the conversions. I muddled through by sight — “that looks like the right amount.” And what’s the conversion from Celsius to Fahrenheit? I used to know.

Once in the kitchen I begin to create. I unwrap the cheese. This Neufchatel is a bit dense, so I add a dollop of yogurt. I’ll make it work. Nancy takes out her grandmother’s mixer — it looks like a large, colorful toy. I have my doubts; it doesn’t even come with a proper bowl. I go through the cabinets until I find a bowl that fits under the beaters.

While I lay out my mise en place, the others are doing their own mis en placing sitting around the living room coffee table. Les petits saucissons, local cheeses, and nuts that Michel and Claudine bought that afternoon are arranged on platters and a vintage champagne is uncorked. I’m still in the kitchen pondering a trajectory for the cheesecake and at the same time trying to listen to the lively conversation from the living room. My French is faltering; I understand only some of what’s being discussed.

I turn on the mixer and hear grinding sounds — they also hear this in the living room. Smoke soon envelops the area. I can barely see and my eyes sting. The mixer sputters and it looks like sparks or maybe flames are coming from the motor. This machine has been passed along from one generation to the next — now it is toast. Our cousins sitting on the floor around the coffee table look concerned. There’s a pause in their chatter. Satie is put on the player to cover up this kitchen mayhem.

I open some drawers; it takes a few minutes to find a whisk. The cheese mixture is too dense — I can barely move this whisk in the bowl. After a few seconds in the microwave, the mixture is a bit more pliable but still stiff. I add eggs and a pinch of sugar. I notice a blender. Will this bring the cheese mixture to the right consistency? It doesn’t. After a few seconds, the mixture becomes soupy; not what I wanted. I put it in the fridge, blender and all, close the door, and hope that in a few hours it will congeal to a proper consistency.

I join the others for a glass of champagne — salut! Jacqui goes into the yard and begins cooking dinner on the new state-of-the-art barbecue grill, staying out of the kitchen and soon plating a lamb roast with potatoes and veggies — all cooked to perfection.

After dinner, I tentatively open the fridge to check on the cheesecake batter — miraculously it has firmed up a bit. It’s ready to pour into the springform pan that I prepared three hours earlier and lined with a mix of baby biscuit crumbs. Dare I turn on this 70-year-old oven? Will it explode? Will this old farmhouse go up in flames and will tonight’s cocktails be our last?

Thankfully, there is no need to do Celsius to Fahrenheit conversions; the temperature gauge fell off long ago and a discolored ring remains in its place. I take a guess and turn the knob until I hear a flame ignite. I put my arm into the oven to check the temperature. Every few minutes I repeat — arm in the oven. After a few adjustments it seems okay and I carefully slip the cheesecake into the pan of warm water resting on the bottom rack.

I’m now ready for bed. I will sleep on the third floor. The last set of steps is problematic. Whoever built this staircase miscalculated. The heights of the bottom two steps don’t match the others and I miss that last step a few times in the middle of the night when I go down to check on the cheesecake.

I open the oven door; finally this cheesecake has the look of doneness — a few prerequisite cracks on its surface. I turn off the oven. The cheesecake must slowly cool in place before putting it in the fridge. I carefully climb up that last flight of steps and go back to bed for a few more hours.

I’m now awake and go back downstairs to put the cheesecake in the fridge. Did Jacqui say this fridge was recently purchased? I wondered what might have gone wrong with the old one. Why had this been replaced and not any of their other ancient kitchen appliances? Maybe food storage is most important to the French.

At sunrise, I hear the bathroom door on the second floor open and close as one by one they go to wash up. Soon I smell coffee and hear chatter coming from down below at the kitchen table. I stop on the second floor to splash water on my face before descending that last flight of creaky wooden stairs to the kitchen. I carefully remove the cheesecake from the fridge and finish the top with more yogurt — French yogurt is almost like sour cream. I ceremoniously bring it to the table — oooh-la-la-la-la! It measured up to the confection of their dreams.

“Would you like me to make you a cheesecake?”

Judy Freeman is an architect living in East Hampton.

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