When I was in college, I worked in the kitchen. Noooooo . . . I didn’t do cool stuff, like invent dishes or cook or bake. I worked in the dishwashing department. Yes. I was one of those lucky people who scrubbed thousands of dishes every day, in a huge cafeteria frequented by thousands and thousands of college students. I saw all sorts of interesting things– like oranges made into weaponry because they had been stabbed with hundreds of metal forks, food smashed into words for us to read, or sometimes even phone numbers or pictures with hastily written messages like “Call me!” We used to pass the time by inventing stories about the pictures that came through– “Oh no! This is a picture of a couple ripped in half and sent through to the trash– we have a fresh breakup, Nurse!” A few times I dug through bags of trash up to my chest, helping people find lost ID cards, jewelry, or even, in one case, a lost retainer. Man . . . I hope that girl washed that thing after we found it (after straining through 3 huge cans full of sopping trash).
One of my coworkers in our little piece of heaven was a girl named Rebecca. She was one of those rare people who always had a smile, no matter how disgusting or back-breaking our work was. She was always willing to give anyone a hand or offer a word of encouragement when the work was as smelly and disgusting as it was possible to be. Eventually, Becca married a nice guy named Mark, and soon they were excited to find out that they were expecting a baby. Tragically, the doctors somehow missed the fact that their baby had the umbilical cord wrapped around its neck, and the baby died. We were stunned. After some time had passed, everyone was overjoyed to find that Becca and Mark were expecting, again. I literally let out a small yell when I heard. I knew they had wanted a child for ages, and after the tragedy of their first, it seemed like a well-deserved and fitting blessing that they would finally have a child of their own.
But tragedy, like life, is not fair. After a healthy, full-term pregnancy, Becca gave birth to a perfect baby girl. And, again, doctors were stunned when their second, perfect little girl went home to heaven within hours of her birth. Everyone mourned the loss of such a tiny little life, snatched away before her parents even had a chance to say a proper hello, much less a final goodbye.
We may never understand why things happen the way they do. Why are some children hungry, or cold, or afraid, with parents ignoring their needs, while others would do anything to have a child of their own to love and care for? I don’t know. We are told that “to everything there is a season.” There is a season for grief, but there is also a season for joy. Becca and Mark are choosing to see joy through their circumstances– to refuse to give up hope, in the very face of the terrible tragedies they have endured. They are starting the process of adopting a baby– of sharing the love they have in 2 broken hearts with a child who needs all the love they can give. Becca has been baking cheesecakes round the clock for her fundraising event– “Mark and Becca Doane’s Fundraising Adventure”– and has started a page telling more about it here. If you have a minute, please go check out their page. Offer a word of encouragement or advice, if adoption is something that you or a loved one has experienced. If you’d like to offer support for lost infant awareness, please send her a line. I know she’d love to hear it. Becca, this cheesecake is in your honor. And when you hold your baby in your arms for the very first time, we will all rejoice with you.
What are we waiting for? Let’s do this!
Vanilla Bean Cheesecake
(adapted from allrecipes.com)
1 sleeve graham crackers (about 9 crackers), crushed
5 tbsp. melted butter
4 (8 oz.) packages cream cheese, softened
1 1/2 cups white sugar
3/4 cups milk
1 cup sour cream
1 vanilla bean, scraped and caviar removed
1/4 cup flour
Beat softened cream cheese with your mixer until it is smooth, with no lumps remaining. Add in white sugar and mix well. Add in milk and eggs, slowly mixing so the batter doesn’t splash. Scrape the bowl well and mix again. Add in your sour cream, vanilla bean caviar (throw away the bean pod– do not put it into the recipe), and flour. Mix well until smooth. To make crust, mix your melted butter and crushed graham crackers together into damp crumbs. Spray a springform pan with cooking spray and cover damp sections with parchment paper. Respray paper with cooking spray and press graham cracker mixture into bottom of pan with the bottom of a measuring cup. Pour in cheesecake custard and carefully wrap bottom and sides of pan with foil (do not cover top). Bake at 350 degrees for 60-75 minutes, with a hot water bath (more on this in a moment) until cheesecake is lightly brown and set in the middle, with a teeny shake in the 2 inch direct center. Turn off oven, crack door, and allow cheesecake to rest for 1 hour in cooling oven. Remove from oven and allow to cool until comfortable to touch. Cover top with a paper towel (to absorb moisture) and a piece of foil to seal. Place in fridge overnight. Chill completely before opening springform, cutting, and serving.
Normally, when something goes terribly wrong, you can say, “Oh CRUMBS!!!” In this case, though, “Crumbs” are a good thing. Mix your crushed graham cracker crumbs (I gave mine a whirl in the food processor, to the absolute delight of my 4 year old, who thought there was a tornado in the kitchen) and melted butter together. The crumbs shouldn’t be wet, but they should be moist enough that they kind of clump together, when you press them with a spoon.
Now this part is going to seem weird, but stay with me, here. To start with, you want to spray your springform pan (a pan where the sides can be removed after baking, leaving a free-standing cake) with cooking spray. Next, cut out a circle and several strips of parchment paper, and “stick” the parchment to the sprayed pan. The spray will kind of help the paper stay on there. If your parchment is having trouble sticking, I have a super difficult and expensive solution for you. You practically need to work at NASA to understand it . . . well, I’m kidding about the difficult and expensive part, but not about the solution part. To help the paper stick, just use a couple of handy dandy “chip clips” and stick it on there. Presto. Your paper is instantly behaving. Too bad they don’t make chip clips for toddlers.
Next, re-spray your parchment paper with cooking spray. (What? Are you an envoy for the cooking spray people?). No . . . I just want your cheesecake to come out perfectly 🙂 It’s a difficult animal, is the cheesecake, and you’re going to knock it out of the park the very first time. You’re welcome. Next, use a measuring cup to press the graham cracker crumbs into the bottom of the pan. The cup’s bottom just kind of helps to get everything nice and packed and smooth.
Next, we will perform an action that I wish worked on myself . . . beating out all the lumps and making this look good as new. 😉 Place your 4 blocks of softened cream cheese into the bowl of your stand mixer. Honestly, most recipes can be made with any mixer, but this one needs a good, tough mixer, like a Kitchenaid, since you’re working with so many ingredients. Find out more about my favorite mixer here. Start out on the lowest speed, and then gradually increase the speed (you may need to stop to scrape the beaters and sides, to get all the cream cheese incorporated) until your cream cheese is completely beaten together. It should look like this– nice and smooth, with no big chunks remaining.
Next, add in your sugar. Since we are dealing with such a large amount of cream cheese, you may have to stop periodically and scrape down your beaters and sides, again, to make sure that everything gets mixed in. Ahhh . . . look at that velvety loveliness!
Next, add in your milk and eggs. This part can be a little messy, so start on the lowest speed so you don’t get “baptized,” and gradually increase when things start to get incorporated. You definitely need to scrape the sides and bottom of your bowl to make sure that grumpy cream cheese is playing nice with the other ingredients.
Now, let’s talk vanilla beans. Did you know that vanilla beans are actually the “fruit” of a special kind of orchid? Cool, huh? There are 2 kinds of vanilla beans– Madagascar and Tahiti beans. Either one works fine, but Madagascar ones are cheaper, so that’s what I’m using (as I am poor. haha). Start by using a sharp knife to split your bean down the middle– I just carefully sliced it, with the bean lying on a cutting board. Don’t push hard enough to go all the way through– just enough to slice through the top layer. Go ahead and use the knife to kind of pry open the bean so you can see all the “guts and glory” inside.
Once you have the vanilla bean split open, gently scrape the “caviar” (the black stuff) out of the inside. This is concentrated vanilla flavor, as well as those adorable little black specks that tell you you’re eating a product with real vanilla in it. Well, they either tell you that or they tell you that Grandma lost her glasses while she was cooking again . . . and why does this cheesecake have a weird, peppery taste?!?! Just kidding 😉
Scrape the caviar off into the mixture (I scrape mine right off onto the beater– it’s easier) and mix thoroughly. See all those pretty little black specks? MMMMmmmm. This smells amazingly “vanilla-y,” too. Don’t put the actual bean shell/pod in there. You can throw that part away or let it simmer in, say, maple syrup, for a nice little vanilla flavor. Just make sure you don’t eat the bean shell. It’s gross.
Carefully pour your cheesecake filling into your sprayed springform pan and over your prepared crust. Now, this part is kind of weird, too, so stay with me . . . take 2 long pieces of foil and place them like a (+) sign over a small cookie sheet (I use a round pizza pan– the cookie sheet will just help support the cheesecake while it’s cooking and when you move it around). Place the cheesecake in the center and carefully wrap the foil up around it. Bend the foil down at the top, so the cheesecake’s pretty little top is exposed to the heat.
There you go! It’s all tucked in, nice and cozy. Some people like to put this whole ‘shebang into a water bath– that is, submerge this foil-clad pan into a larger pan of hot water. Personally, I find that the water, like junk mail, always somehow finds its way inside. So I wrap with foil to ensure that my springform doesn’t leak any butter from the crust (burning oil = the kitchen smells disgusting! I must sell my house to escape!), and I place a “fake” water bath beneath the pan. Let me show you what I mean . . .
Here is my setup: I have my foil-wrapped springform pan up above, positioned in about the middle of the oven (move your oven racks around, if necessary). Then, right below that, I have a small round baking pan about halfway full of hot water. This water will steam while the cheesecake bakes, keeping everything nice and moist so your cheesecake doesn’t crack. Check your water periodically throughout the baking, to make sure that it hasn’t dried up. Bake the cheesecake at 350 degrees until it is nice and golden brown on top, but still a teensy bit jiggly (but not liquid) in the center. I look for a spot about the size of a golf ball to be not quite “hard” in the center. You can also insert a toothpick into the center, and if it comes out completely covered in liquid, the cheesecake needs more time in the oven. If it’s clean, the cheesecake is overdone. You want it to kind of look like it was dipped in hand lotion– there will be some cheesecake substance on it, but it won’t be completely runny or completely dry– just somewhere in the middle. When you get that consistency, turn off your oven, crack the oven door open, and let the cheesecake sit in that “cooling” oven for about an hour. This step helps the cheesecake to cool, gradually, which helps prevent your top from cracking. It also takes care of that little jiggle in the center, which will firm up as the cheesecake finishes up in the still-warm oven.
When the cheesecake is cool enough to handle, I take it from the oven and put a few folded paper towels on top. I then cover the entire thing with foil and let it sit in the fridge, overnight. The paper towels absorb the moisture that the still warm cheesecake will emit as it cools, and that way your cheesecake top will be nice and dry when you remove the damp paper towels tomorrow.
Cut into this delicate beauty. See all those cute little vanilla beans and swirl a little whipped cream on top, if you want. Mmmm. Who says that vanilla has to be boring?
I’m sorry– did you say something? I was drifting off to Bliss-land. And when you try your first bite, you will, too.
You did it. And I’m just so proud of you.
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