This Christmas, I made my first ever cheesecake. This was also my first Christmas without my children since they were born.
In the days leading to Christmas, I planned ahead so it wouldn’t be shit without my girls. Being on the other side of the world from my family, I was invited by a South African friend to share Christmas Day with her, her husband and some of their friends who were also far away from home. I gratefully accepted, and she asked me to contribute dessert: cheesecake.
I baked it on Christmas Eve, after dropping the girls off to their father. I’d found the recipe on the internet: “Eric’s best ever cheesecake”. It was a baked New York Cheesecake, gluten-free with no base. I have no idea who Eric is, but his gluten-free cheesecake recipe is excellent. Here it is: allrecipes.com/recipe/erics–best-new-york-style-cheesecake/
Then things started to wrong. First of all, the baking paper caught fire in the oven. I don’t think it’s supposed to do that. Turned out it was touching the element, so I took it out, trimmed it with scissors, tweezered the burnt flakes of paper off the top of the cheesecake and put it back in. I did some bits and bobs, had a shower, got ready to go out to visit a another friend down the coast, and checked on the cheesecake again. This time the cheesecake itself had burnt across the top, falling short of actually being on fire. I switched off the oven, sighed deeply at my failure to be a domestic goddess (again – as usual) and left the house thinking that my cheesecake was ruined.
Somewhere along the coastal road South, I began to miss my kids. I also thought about my sister and brothers and my mother, all back in England. I didn’t exactly miss them, but thinking about my family made me feel nostalgic and a little lonesome with it being Christmas, and I was looking forward to some distraction at my friend’s house. This time of year is especially unhappy for me as we lost my father to cancer a couple of days before Christmas six years ago. I cry for my father still. I cry for him most at Christmas.
The friend I was visiting is of the male variety, pleasing to the eye and clever. We watched two episodes of Breaking Bad (Fantastic!) and then had a conversation that made me feel very sad. I’m told it’s okay to feel sad. I’ve been scared of ‘sad’ for most of my adult life, but I embrace it now, and express it. Suppressing any emotion makes you very ill indeed I’ve found, and must be avoided. So, I cried all the way home feeling more alone than ever, missing Dad and my daughters like crazy, and sure that this Christmas was going to be as shit as my cheesecake.
When I got home, I nearly threw my cheesecake into the bin, but decided on the fridge instead, thinking I may be able to do something with it in the morning.
As morning came, the house was absolutely still and silent. It was horrible. No little savages leaping all over me or snuggling in for their morning cuddle. Just silence. On Christmas morning. I got up and made a coffee, pushing empty pots of cream cheese and whipping cream to one side. With a sad heart still, I sipped while I stared at my burnt pathetic cheesecake. Then I got to work rescuing it.
I got a knife and carefully sliced away the burnt skin on top, hoping that the burnt flavour hadn’t permeated into the flesh beneath. It took some time, and all the while I was thinking, thinking, thinking. Then I tried to slip the thing off the bottom of the cake tin onto the platter. Nope. So I covered it with my serving platter, and tipped it out upside down.
All of a sudden I was looking at something beautiful. By looking at it from a different angle, it had become clean and creamy and perfectly round. As I’d rescued the cheesecake, that sad conversation from the night before had become a blessing, and a silent house had become calm.
I was looking at a perfect cheesecake. I had some quality 85% cocoa chocolate in my pantry and I grated it all over, and perfect managed to get even better. A few strawberries on the side later and there I was – roll over Nigella Lawson, there’s a new goddess in town!
I got all dolled up, put the perfect cheesecake on my passenger seat, and went to the party a lot happier than when I’d woken up puffy-eyed and blue.
At that party on Christmas Day, conversation flowed, as did the liquid refreshments, and we were soon grinning and chattering like a bunch of kids. I had more fun than I’ve had for months, even years. I laughed till tears ruined my mascara, ate delicious food (the meal was 8 courses long and lasted over 7 hours) and made some wonderful new friends. Everyone at the party were natural and intelligent people, and I felt completely at ease. Most importantly, I felt deeply happy.
There was a moment of despondency when I thought of how Christmas with my family used to be growing up, that fantasy version of nostalgia. But then I recalled the reality version of Christmas past: the booze, the screaming rows, the food being flung across the table, the anger, the blurred speech and bitter eyes of the adults who were supposed to love me, and who didn’t. I had a mental picture of me as a girl wearing a stupid paper crown and reading out a joke, trying to break the tension and failing. And then there I was all grown up, amongst other Christmas refugees in gorgeous New Zealand on a deck with panoramic views of the sea, relaxed and having genuine easy fun. Infinitely better than Christmas with my broken family and our shared disease.
When I carried my cheesecake to the table, I announced: ‘In the spirit of truth and authenticity, I have to tell you that if you don’t all make a big fuss of this cheesecake, I’m going to be really upset.’ It got a big laugh from the crowd and they all made a heck of a fuss of my cheesecake. Everyone had seconds, declaring that it was the best cheesecake they’d ever eaten. In fact the course I’d provided was the only course where anyone had second helpings, and that really made my day.
I don’t know if it really was the best cheesecake these kind people had ever eaten, but that was certainly true for me.