photo: State Library of New South Wales via Flickr

I frankly don’t have any food news for you all today because the past 24 hours have been filled with other stuff and we went off to a picnic at a park in Ithaca, New York (lovely, as always; I think Ithaca, NY has the largest per capita number of state parks anywhere and they are all spectacular). So, I am going to weasel my way out of this by writing about (as a two-fer Food and Father’s Day gig) how my father affected my food choices, cooking, and my relationship with eating. I think dads are largely ignored when it comes to the role that they have in terms of food. When the DH talks about his childhood and food, the person he mostly talks about in terms of that period is HIS father, who died when he was 13. After his father’s death, the family’s whole menu changed and his mom’s Costa Rican dishes came center stage.

But, I digress.

My father was a first generation American; his father came from (depending on what period you are referring to) Austria/Russia/the Ukraine, and married a woman whose parents were basically from the same area as he was from (when you come to a new country, marrying someone who’s a ‘landsman’ is sort of a piece of security, I guess), so the selection of family dishes was pretty consistent: lots of dairy food, lots of onions, cabbage and potatoes, chicken or fish, and when the family got a little bit ahead, ‘gedempte fleisch’ (boiled meat – what is referred to now in that chic way as ‘brisket’ because the back end of the cow can never be Kosher, no matter what you do). Eating cheap was basically all my dad knew how to do — even after he became a doctor, his favorite meal was cottage cheese with pepper and onions.

But, he had really strong feelings about food and I think a lot of it was what he got from HIS father. “Let me tell you something,” he’d say (as if I would ever have had the nerve to say, “No, Pops; I’d rather you didn’t.”); “When you are traveling, always get ‘gedempte fleisch’ (and HE meant pot roast, frankly). If the meat’s gone bad, you’ll be able to smell that right away and if the meat’s good, then the dish is great.”

How can you argue with THAT?

Or, his feelings about cheese cake. Now, what has been perpetrated on the American public as ‘genuine New York Style Cheesecake’ is a shame, really. I’ve always felt that the standard stuff actually has the flavor and texture of cream cheese flavored glue, but never knew just how bad it was until I lived in Bensonhurst years ago and was given a piece of what was described as ‘cheesecake’ from an Italian bakery. This was light! Flavorful! I didn’t feel as if I’d swallowed fishing sinkers! When I described it to my father, he replied, “Oh, well, Italian cheesecake is delightful, but if you want real Jewish cheese cake, I’ll have to make it for you. No one makes it now because you can’t find ‘farmer’s cheese.’”

Farmer’s cheese? I didn’t even know what that was and it was not something that any store in our area carried because it’s sort of like really intensely dry, microscopic curd cottage cheese, pressed into a brick. Perhaps in New York City, it could be found, but not around where we lived, so, as my father always taught me: Be creative – if things really required a specific ingredient for us to eat, we’d have starved a long time ago.

So, he bought several big tubs of small curd cottage cheese (this was a long time before ricotta was available outside Italian neighborhoods), lined a colander with washed cheese cloth (who knew that this stuff actually had a use?), poured the cottage cheese into it, and then, using the sprayer attachment on the sink, washed the cheese to make sure there was no extra creaming in it. Then he gathered the cheese cloth up, attached it to a handle of one of the kitchen cabinets with a bowl underneath overnight. That is what he used for his cheese cake. No cream cheese. None at all. Lots of eggs, the juice of a lemon (and he also grated the outside of the lemon into it) and just enough sugar so that it tasted just to one side of lemon-sour – just a little bit sweet. It was baked without a bottom crust of any sort – no graham crackers in Odessa, I guess.

Was it great? No, but it was interesting. As I remember it, we had it with cut up fruit. From a nutritional standpoint, it was probably first class protein. But the lesson learned was that sometimes, going back to the beginning on a thing to see how it became what we now eat, is a very good thing (as Martha Stewart would say). See — cheese cakes have been around for probably since a) people have been making cheese of any sort and b) since the idea of making something a little bit special or even having something at the end of the meal that would be a little bit sweet as a treat took place. And that has been for probably just as long. I suspect that immigrants’ versions of cheese cake took on two items once they came to the US and became acculturated: sugar, which has been cheap in the US for at least 150 years and cream cheese (at least the American version), which started being produced in Chester, New York in the 1870s. The benefit of cream cheese in a cheese cake is multifold: first, the higher fat content and dense texture has the ability to hold the whole thing together and second, it also gives the cake a smoother and more luxurious mouth-feel. Now, there is a cross over point between ‘more luxurious mouth-feel’ and ‘sticking the inside of your mouth together and promoting the gag reflex’, but between the sugar and the cream cheese, the modern ‘genuine New York style cheese cake’ was born.

However, another lesson from this from my dad is that there is nothing wrong with trading one item for something that is sort of like it in a recipe to see if it works. Now, this is practically a running joke at the Chez Siberia household (one of the famous stories here is my making Peking Duck using turkey legs..but that’s a story for another time), but I just made a cheese cake and made a discovery I want to pass along (and Dad, if you are listening in from whatever heavenly kibitz session you are involved in, this is for you): at least in cheese cakes, you can substitute one for one Greek plain yoghurt for sour cream. It has no effect on the difference on the final product.

Oh, you want the recipe too? I thought you’d never ask:

Aunt Toby’s Riff on Josette’s “Infamous” New York Cheesecake (from cooks.com)

Crust: 2 c. graham cracker crumbs
2 Tbs. sugar
1 stick of melted butter plus enough light olive oil to make the crumbs stick together (that’s about 3 Tbs.)

Mix well, pat firmly into the bottom of a 9″ springform pan, covering the bottom and 1 inch up the sides.

The Cake:
2, 8 oz. packages of cream cheese (I use the Neuchatel cheese – the stuff that has 1/3 less fat – it works)
1/2 cup of sugar
1 c. plain Greek yoghurt
Riccota cheese – get the two pound tub, take out half and use that plus 1/3 cup.
2 tsp. vanilla
5 large eggs

In a large bowl, beat up the cream cheese until light
Gradually beat in the sugar, yoghurt, ricotta and vanilla.
Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each one.
Pour batter into the crumb lined pan. Bake at 325 F for as long as it takes for the center 2-3″ to still shake while the rest of the outside is firm. When I did this, it took an hour and a half – your mileage and your oven might vary. Yes, there will be a crack along the outside. Once you see that center section still shaky, turn the oven off and leave in the oven for another 20 minutes. Cool at room temperature and then refrigerate uncovered.

Rating: Very yummy.