I spend a lot of time reading cookbooks from communities and churches that I’ve never seen written by people that I never knew. I’ll do some basic internet research to learn about the community and what it must have been like way back when, but it’s rarely possible to connect the dots completely. Food can be intensely personal, and I wonder how many of the recipes – even the simple or weird or gross ones – have sentimental value for the people involved. And it’s not like the church websites and local histories and obituaries are going to tell me about how much Betty K. loved Microwave Turkey Divan or whatever. I don’t know and can’t know, and I worry sometimes whether I’m doing a recipe justice without understanding the story behind it.
So I’ll tell you the story with this recipe, which is a signature and beloved dessert from our family history. The only thing in our family more legendary than Grandma’s Cheesecake was Grandma herself. Born and raised in the thick of the Great Depression and married to a sharecropper’s son, Grandma was wired to be cost-conscious and frugal about everything. Everything except for Sunday dinner with the grandkids. Now it’s not like we were dining on caviar and filet mignon every Sunday, and I’m sure most of our vegetables were frozen or canned, but Grandma was deliberate about what she cooked and knew when to insist on quality. The meat for the Swiss steak had to be a particular cut from a particular grocer. There couldn’t be a speck of skin in the mashed potatoes. The fried chicken had to be cooked just-so in a specific cast iron pan. Preparing for Sunday dinner was often an all-day affair.
Now for dessert we usually had Jell-O or Drumsticks or something from the freezer. Occasionally she’d make a pie, and during the school year she’d make a batch of cookies for our school lunches. But on holidays, and sometimes just because, she’d whip up a cheesecake. The cheesecake. And the standard by which I’ve measured every cheesecake I’ve tasted since. Now in the intervening years I’ve had cheesecakes in impossibly fancy restaurants from extraordinarily talented friends, I still keep coming back to the original. And while I’ve certainly had creamier cheesecakes or fancier toppings, Grandma’s Cheesecake is the whole package.
Over the years I’ve refined the process a little bit but there’s nothing significant to fix or improve upon. The base cheesecake is pretty simple, and the crust is perfect but admittedly nothing fancy. What sets this apart is the chocolatey sour cream topping. There’s a little bit of sugar and just enough chocolate syrup to give it some color, but it’s not really all that sweet. And it takes the base cheesecake and the caramelized graham cracker crust and tops it with a velvety and just-a-little-bit-tangy nothingness. And when you get the crust and both layers in a single bite you get a sophisticated not-too-sweet dessert that a kid my age shouldn’t have enjoyed.
This was one of a few recipes that I was happy to have collected from Grandma before she passed. And so a couple of times a year, and usually on her birthday, I’ll whip up one of Grandma’s cheesecakes. I’ve gotten to the point where I can make it as well as Grandma ever did, and where my kids – even the ones who never knew her – know a little something about who she was.
For the crust:
- 8 or 9 double graham crackers
- 1/4 lb butter (melted)
- 1/4 cup sugar
For the filling:
- 16 oz cream cheese (at room temperature)
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 3 tbsp heavy whipping cream
- 1 tbsp vanilla
- 2 egg
- one squirt lemon juice
For the topping
- 1 pint sour cream
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla
- chocolate syrup (to taste, about 2-3 tbsp)
- Put graham crackers in a freezer bag. Use a rolling pin to crush to fine crumbs.
- Mix the graham cracker crumbs with sugar and stir in the melted butter until fully combined. Press the crumbs into the bottom and all the way up the sides of a 9 inch pie tin. Dab with a paper towel to remove excess grease. Set aside.
- Preheat oven to 375 F.
- In a large mixing bowl, stir together ingredients. Then blend with a hand mixer for 2-3 minutes on medium speed until you can't see any more 'lumps' of cream cheese.
- Pour into the pie crust and bake for 20-30 minutes until edges are brown and center is mostly set. Remove from the oven and cool completely before proceeding.
For the topping
- Heat oven to 450 F
- Mix together topping ingredients until the color is uniform. Add chocolate syrup as needed to achieve desired taste and color.
- Spread topping on completely cooled cheesecake. Bake for 5 minutes until topping is ever-so-lightly browned. Chill before serving.
I’m usually not a stickler for particular brands, but Philadelphia brand cream cheese is so much better than the store brand that I’d never recommend using anything else for this recipe. Nor would I recommend using the reduced fat Neufchatel variety. It’s cheesecake for heaven’s sakes – live a little.
For the chocolate syrup my Grandma would always insist on Bosco, which I haven’t been able to find reliably for years. I can find it occasionally at the local discount grocer, but I’ve found that Hershey’s Special Dark brand chocolate syrup is the next best thing.