Baking small apple-caramel cheesecakes while listening to the superlative album Spark from Alain Johannes, which he wrote and recorded after his wife's passing, I reflect anew on the death of my uncle's wife a few years ago. Theirs was a storybook kind of romance, starting with young love, being torn apart by circumstances, separated by whole lives and life experiences, reuniting later in life. They seemed to fit as much of a lifetime together as they could into the years they did spend together, elated by the love they regained and lived a second time, enduring sorrow and eventual loss as they faced a bitter fight and eventual death.
"Oh my heart/That you stole so long ago/Has returned to me this day/So full and empty"
Certainly, her death was deeply sad, exacerbated by the back story of finally being together again with the person who was very likely the love of her life, only to have that cut short. However, I know that she lived each day fully (to the fullest extent she could) and probably would not look back with any great measure of regret.
"It's killing me that I must go on living/Just to fill this cup of promise/With meaning/It's tearing me apart we're so connected/It's the you in me/Each day I'm resurrected"
As always, music and poetry weave their way into the events, reflections and wounds of daily life.
Making cheesecake, of all things, I remembered how she (heretofore referred to as "G") told us she had not had the traditional bridal shower or other such niceties for her first marriage, so my mother and I threw her a shower for this second-time-around marriage. I made several varieties of cheesecake, her favorite dessert, and as a shower gift gave her a handwritten recipe book, which mostly included my wide array of cheesecakes. I recall writing an inscription inviting her to use the book less as a recipe book and more as a menu. She never had the chance (I moved abroad again before she could ever have placed an order).
"Laughing with God at this unfinished plan/Watch it all go in flames and waves/Erasing the sand, erasing the sand…/…You almost got the truth out of the lie/Then folded into the weave/To never say bye/No, never goodbye"
G passed away when I happened to be back in the US visiting. I have never been at ease with handling death, grief, emotion in general but do end up expressing myself, my condolences, via the best means available, baked goods and poetry/music quotations. I recall writing my uncle a condolence letter, in which, among other things, I cited the poem "Cremation" by Robinson Jeffers, which captures best the passion of living life versus the pain of losing life.
It nearly cancels my fear of death, my dearest said,
When I think of cremation. To rot in the earth
Is a loathsome end, but to roar up in flame—besides, I
am used to it,
I have flamed with love or fury so often in my life,
No wonder my body is tired, no wonder it is dying.
We had great joy of my body. Scatter the ashes.
This all seems tangential to a blog about baking, I suppose. But baking cheesecake always makes me think of G; coupled with the evocative Johannes album, it's impossible for these things not to intersect.
While I cannot be sure, I feel that G would tell us to eat what we want (plenty of cheesecake). Life is too short not to indulge.
Individual apple-caramel cheesecake
1½ cups graham cracker crumbs (or other cookie crumbs that you like; I cannot get graham crackers so I use either plain digestive biscuits or sometimes pepparkakor
3 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon
5 tablespoons melted butter
½-¾ cup caramel (here you can save time by using pre-made caramel sauce that can be purchased almost anywhere; I make mine from scratch – a recipe below)
1 cup chopped pecans
Preheat the oven to 375F. Combine the cracker or cookie crumbs, sugar, cinnamon and melted butter. Mix until all the crumbs are moistened. Put a small amount of the mixture into the large cupcake papers (I bought some "American-style" cupcake/muffin papers that are made from reinforced material that can stand alone (too large for a standard cupcake pan) and press the crumbs evenly into the bottom and up the sides of the papers (maybe half or two-thirds of the way up the sides, if possible). Bake for 5-7 minutes until golden. Let cool for about 10 minutes. Add a spoonful of caramel into the bottom of the crust and then sprinkle evenly with the chopped pecans. Refrigerate the crusts while you prepare the apple filling.
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup cream
1 cup brown sugar
Combine the ingredients in a saucepan and heat on medium-high, stirring constantly. When the mixture boils, lower the heat to medium. Continue to boil until thick (about ten minutes). Remove from heat and let it cool a bit before spooning over the crust. (You will want to reserve some for later for the garnish.)
5 tablespoons butter
½ cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
5-6 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and chopped or cubed
Melt the butter in a large pan over medium heat. Mix in the brown sugar and cinnamon and cook for 1 minute until bubbling. Mix in the apple slices and stir. Cook over medium for about 20 minutes until apples are tender but not too soft and most of the liquid has been reduced. Let cool for a few minutes before pouring over the prepared crusts. Set aside.
Turn oven heat down to 350F.
8 oz. cream cheese (this is one standard package in the US, but in Europe you will need about 225 grams)
¼ cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Beat the cream cheese and sugar on medium speed until smooth, about 1 minute. Mix in the vanilla and egg until smooth, about 1-2 minutes. Spoon the filling into each cup, on top of the apple layer. Bake until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Remove from the oven, transfer to a wire rack and let cool to room temperature. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours.
TOPPING (if desired; I did not go the whole nine yards here)
¾ cup heavy cream
3-4 tablespoons powdered sugar
¼-½ cup caramel (again, use the pre-made kind if you want to save time or use more of what you made yourself)
Beat the heavy cream and powdered sugar on medium-high speed using the whisk attachment for mixer until stiff peaks form (do not overbeat). Spread gently on top of the chilled cheesecakes. Top with caramel sauce and swirl with a knife to create a marbled effect. Sprinkle handfuls of chopped pecans on each cake, if desired.
Lots of steps… but life is too short not to go all the way. 😉