First I weeded out the cluttered basement and rediscovered my collection of Gourmet magazines dating back to November 1984. Then I spent a few hours rifling through and reading the spines of one dusty magazine after another in search of a particular issue. Once I had it in hand, I knew I would be able to make the birthday cake I craved for my own celebration this year.
In January 1991, Gourmet turned 50 and published a commemorative anniversary issue to celebrate the milestone. Gourmet had come a long way from founder Earle MacAusland’s somewhat crazy idea to launch a food and fine living magazine in the wake of World War II and food rationing, and had indeed quenched the longing he was convinced was present in Americans despite the hard times: our undeniable “thirst for discovery.” Turns out he was right about American curiosity, and in 1991, Gourmet had fifty years of restaurant reviews, foreign and domestic travel articles, and recipes that challenged the home cook to look both locally and globally under the publishing belt. In honor of the accomplishment, Gourmet staff pulled together “fifty of the magazine’s all-time favorite recipes, one for each year, plus a treasure trove of twenty-five wonderful dessert recipes” wrote then-editor-in-chief, Jane Montant.
When I found the January 1991 issue on that dusty day in my basement, I was reunited with that treasure trove of desserts and the one cake in particular I had been longing for – Katish’s cheesecake, “one of the most requested recipes in the magazine’s history.”
The popular recipe for the cheesecake was first published in 1945, the year that Gourmet operations moved into new offices in the penthouse of New York’s Plaza Hotel. During those early years of the magazine, food writer Wanda Frolov contributed a series of articles about her Los Angeles family’s Russian émigré cook, Ekaterina Pavlovna Belaev (nicknamed “Katish”), that included both recipes and descriptions of the great skill the talented cook employed in order to make a living once she had fled the Russian Revolution for a new life in California.
I usually find cheesecake unpleasant: too dense and tongue-coatingly fatty. Not Katish’s. Rich but lightened with egg whites, its sweetness cut with the addition of sour cream to the batter, and flavored with with nothing more than a little vanilla bean, this is the only cheesecake I will make and eat. Served at room temperature, the cake is similar to a fallen mousse, a little wiggly still and slightly airy. When refrigerated overnight before serving, the cake becomes firmer, but without the dense, bar of cream cheese texture of most cheesecakes. The cake is a delight, and a real treat for a special occasion.
Katish’s cheesecake also epitomizes what I love best about collecting and using recipes: history and continuity. Take a bite and consider as you do that Katish “alone and virtually penniless, a refugee of the Russian Revolution” made this cake for Frolov and her family circa 1924. You, making the same cake today that was served way back then, become a part of that past and also a recorder of the recipe, bringing it to future generations. Recipes make enjoyable history lessons, especially when the food being prepared is also absolutely delicious. And Katish’s cheesecake is.
In 1947, Frolov turned her essays into the book, Katish: Our Russian Cook, for Farrar, Straus. Here is an excerpt relating Katish’s introduction to the writer as a young girl, and to her mother and brother, Bub, over a slice of this very cake:
“I’ve found just the girl for you, Mary,” (Aunt Martha) announced breathlessly to Mother the minute she entered the living room.
“Girl? What are you talking about, Martha?”
“Why, a girl to cook for you, and to help with the housework, of course…”
Katish, Aunt Martha explained, talking very fast so that Mother couldn’t interpose and objections, was…a young Russian woman of good but simple family, widowed in the war…that Katish could cook was immediately apparent…the cheesecake that Bub munched so contentedly was the first we had ever tasted that did not have the regrettable texture of peanut butter. That cake was later to win Katish a proposal of marriage.
Here is the recipe as it was originally printed in 1945 and reprinted in 1991, with two minor changes. 1) I added fresh raspberries and a raspberry sauce for a little birthday flair, otherwise garnish beyond the suggested lemon slices suggested below is not necessary. 2) Nabisco ceased production of zwieback (plain but crunchy infant teething biscuits) in 2008, something I only discovered when I went ingredient shopping for the cake last week. In place of zwieback, I used equally dry and crunchy vanilla wafers, about 6 ounces ground fine in the food processor, together with 2 Tbsp. of soft butter and no additional sugar.*
FOR THE CRUST
- 18 pieces zwieback, crushed fine (about 1 cup) – *see note above
- 1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into bits, and softened
- 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
FOR THE FILLING
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
- 2 pounds cream cheese, softened
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- A 1-inch length of vanilla bean, minced
- 3 large eggs, separated
- 1 cup sour cream
ACCOMPANIMENTS: thin slices of lemon, halved, for garnish if desired
MAKE THE CRUST:
In a bowl stir together the zwieback (vanilla wafer crumbs*) and the butter until the mixture is combined well and press the mixture into the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan.
MAKE THE FILLING:
In a large bowl with an electric mixer cream together the sugar and the cream cheese until the mixture is light and fluffy, add the flour, a pinch of salt, the vanilla bean, and the egg yolks, beaten lightly, and combine the mixture well. Stir in the sour cream. In a separate bowl beat the egg whites until they just hold stiff peaks and fold them into the cream cheese mixture gently but thoroughly.
Pour the filling into the prepared pan.
Run a rubber spatula through the filling in a circle about 1 inch in from the rim to help the cake rise evenly. Bake the cake in the middle of a preheated 350° F. oven for 1 hour, turn off the oven, and let the cake stand in the oven for 30 minutes. (The cake will be puffed but will sink as it cools. The top will crack slightly as the cake falls.) Let the cake cool completely, or until it is set, in the pan on a rack. (For a slightly firmer consistency, let the cake cool completely and chill it, covered, overnight.) Remove the cake from the pan and garnish it with the lemon, if desired.
Also delicious served plain or topped with raspberries.
Recipe from Gourmet 1945, 1991
Excerpt from Katish: Our Russian Cook by Wanda L. Frolov, ©1947 (out of print)
Miscellaneous quotations about Gourmet’s 50th Anniversary attributed to Editor Jane Montant, January 1991
©2012 Jane A. Ward