I can’t have been the only person in America balancing a ham on my hip on Christmas Day, reliving a memory. With a little imagination, ignoring the refrigerator chill, an 11-pound smoked ham feels a lot like a bundled baby. I took a few steps between the stove and sink and stove again, fully immersed in 1986 and 1988. My ham baby leaned placidly against the crook of my arm. Here, I said to First born, who was watching me with one eyebrow raised. I handed her the ham. Check out that weight, I said; you weighed about half that much when you were born.
She accepted the ham with a wary look I’ve seen lots of times from both of my daughters. “Huh,” she said after a moment, not very impressed, and handed me back the ham. I returned to 2013.
My Christmas menu was coming together. With our ham we would have cranberry, cherry, and walnut chutney; sides of roasted asparagus and a potato casserole, and fresh buttermilk biscuits with jam made from last summer’s ripe strawberries. Dessert was a cheesecake baked the night before, served with more of those local strawberries that I sugared and froze back in June. I’d already had the melt-down moment on Christmas Eve, faced with gifts yet to wrap and not a single Christmas cookie made. I texted a couple of friends, planning to ask if either or both would be willing to run away from home with me, but one was filling stockings and heading to bed, and the other had a much longer list of Christmas magic to accomplish before retiring and still had a festive attitude**, so I decided to put my knapsack down and get back to work.
On Christmas day, I jettisoned elements from my to-do list like sandbags from a hot air balloon. There would be no sausage rolls. (Would my husband file for divorce? I wasn’t sure.) Dessert choices would be limited to one, non-chocolate offering. (What? Blasphemy!) Christmas cookies just wouldn’t get made. (Santa might not come. It was a risk.) Family members tidied, ironed napkins, and arranged flowers, and I cooked. It took a village, like always.
In the end, we had a full table, full plates, and full hearts. My husband, probably seeing the whites of my eyes, never mentioned the lack of sausage rolls, and we celebrated our 31st wedding anniversary yesterday. Santa buried his resentment and left gifts. And the non-chocolate offering was received with delight and gusto.
Classic Cheesecake, adapted from a recipe published in Bon Appetit magazine around 12 years ago.
[Have ready a large roasting pan lined with a kitchen towel, into which you will place your cheesecake, followed by hot water halfway up the sides of the pan.]
Graham cracker crust
1 1/4 cup graham cracker crumbs (Crush your own crackers. That stuff sold as crumbs in a box is brown dust.)
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Pinch of salt
Preheat oven to 375°F. Wrap the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan with three layers of foil. Combine all of the crust ingredients in a bowl, stirring thoroughly with a fork to distribute the butter evenly. Dump the mixture into the foil-wrapped pan, and press the crumbs evenly along the bottom and about 1 1/2 inches up the sides of the pan. Bake for 10 minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack while you make the filling. Reduce the oven temperature to 350°F., and make sure oven rack placement will allow room for handles on your roasting pan, if it has any.
4 8-ounce packages of cream cheese, softened to room temperature
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
5 large eggs, at room temperature
2 large egg yolks, at room temperature
1/3 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
Pinch of salt
Place the cream cheese and sugar into the large bowl of an electric mixer, and beat until smooth. Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl with a spatula to make sure all of the cream cheese is incorporated. Beat in the 5 eggs and 2 yolks, one at a time. Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl periodically. Add the heavy cream, and beat until smooth. Beat in the flour and a pinch of salt. Scrape the bowl again, then beat another minute to ensure the filling is completely mixed.
To assemble and bake:
Pour the cheesecake filling into the baked crust, smoothing the top. (The bubbles that appear on the surface of the filling magically disappear while it bakes, so don’t waste time trying to pop them all. You have more important things to do.)
Place the cheesecake on top of the kitchen towel inside the roasting pan, and add enough hot water to come halfway up the sides of the foil-wrapped springform pan. Carefully place the whole thing in the oven (which you remembered to reduce in temperature down to 350°F, right?). Bake until the cheesecake is set around the edges and jiggles just slightly in the middle when gently shaken, about 1 hour 35 minutes. If the cheesecake top begins to brown too much before the filling is done, coat a square of foil lightly with non-stick spray and place over the top of the cake (nonstick-side down) until baking is done.
Carefully remove the roasting pan and cheesecake from the oven and place on a heat-proof surface, then lift the cheesecake out of the roasting pan. Be mindful that, if you use terrycloth pot holders and bare hands for this process, the pads will wick up the hot water lickety-split, making you want to drop the whole hot mess on the floor while you ice your fingers and swear. I recommend wearing rubber dishwashing gloves at this point.
Transfer the cheesecake to a baking sheet while you remove the foil wrapping from the pan, which will release more hot water. (And, possibly, some leaked, molten butter. Keep the gloves on.) Once all of the foil is removed, transfer the cheesecake to a rack to cool slightly, then move it to the refrigerator to chill completely. Don’t cover the cheesecake until it is completely cold, and keep the springform pan clamped closed through this process. Do not store smoked venison sausage in the same fridge as the cheesecake at any time.
Remove the cheesecake from the refrigerator about 30 minutes before serving. Gently run a knife (plastic if your pan is nonstick) between the pan and the cheesecake before releasing the springform clamp. Transfer the cheesecake to a serving plate, and offer sugared berries as a topping.
**Spiked eggnog-related, I think.