14 October 2007

Nobody Doesn’t Love Cheesecake

"Cooking is like love, it should be entered into with abandon or not at all." – Harriet Van Horne

I would go further than Harriet here to say that food is love. Without love – love of food, love of people, love of self – food isn't food so much as barely digestible fuel to be shoveled straight down the gullet as quickly as possible, hopefully bypassing all taste buds in the process. Love is what guides our hands to the spice rack, to the tasting spoon, to the finger dipped hastily into the brownie batter while grandmom's back is turned. Love is getting your hands into the food and putting your mark on it, your own individual twist. Love is what is lacking from the college dining hall.

That isn't to say that there aren't a few lovely people working in my college's cafeteria; it's just that, in the mind of the corporation, they're used as cogs in a machine. Where's the wonderful stir-fry wiz who taught me (albeit indirectly) how to properly exploit every ounce of flavor out of garlic? Shuttled to the cashier's post in the student center's convenience store or not seen at all. Perhaps he is backstage, doing what he can to fix the overly bland food coming from the kitchens, but who knows. And where's the "omelet guy" who made weekend breakfasts – a scarce and unimaginative wasteland of breakfast sausage and syrupy pancake mush – worthwhile? Gone, in all probability, to make way for the new corporate regime. And there are others, shunted to shuttling burgers and French fries, restocking salad bars, and refilling milk bladders in the juice machines.

As an institution, WCDS squashes creativity and individuality. Recipes are corporately owned, ingredients come from Sysco in bulk, and food sits in cold trays from breakfast 'til dinner, leftover from a catered event for people more important than students. The stir-fry bar – such a hit with students that the line is often 30 minutes long – lies dormant at most dinners, and more and more frequently at lunches, too. The main dishes are almost all interchangeable: brown, starchy, and bland. Potatoes, chicken, spaghetti, rice, lentil cakes, French fries, burgers, pizza.

WCDS has to serve roughly 2000 people per meal, that's including staff, guests, and all enrolled students plus a bit of overestimating. WCDS's solution is to try to please everyone, with the philosophy that nobody doesn't like the most basic of basics. But what ends up happening is that they please almost no one. It's no wonder that when they actually serve a dish with some personality to it, like General Tso's Chicken (which was as bland as I've ever tasted that dish), the tray is decimated in less than one minute.

The next time that something remotely edible is served, watch the students. They line up, sometimes for twenty or thirty minutes at a time. When, finally, the (vastly underappreciated) dining hall worker fights her way to the top of the line, the saran wrap is barely pulled back before ravenous hordes descend on the "delicacy." Of the fifty or so die-hards hanging around in line for this one dish, only ten to fifteen people get a reasonable serving. Before Ms. Dining Hall Worker has made it back to the safety of the kitchens, her fresh steaming tray lies empty, scraped clean of everything remotely edible. Time it sometime. It's the most entertaining event the dining hall has to offer.

But where was I going with all of this? Well, my well-worn rant against WCDS culminates with dessert offerings. Nothing says I couldn't care less about you than pre-packaged desserts. "Nobody doesn't like Sara Lee" indeed. There are quite a few WCDS desserts that this nobody doesn't like. And it's not that their desserts are awful, just that they have no love in them. I've worked in a bakery before – albeit as a lowly sales drudge who wasn't allowed anywhere near the actual ovens unless I had a mop in hand – and I feel that the quality of desserts at WCDS is going rapidly downhill. Although the bakery I worked for claimed to be gourmet, the great majority of their offerings came to them pre-mixed and pre-measured, only wanting to be popped into the oven to be called "cookie" and not "dough." I actually lost weight working in the bakery because the only things worth eating were the master baker's specialty cakes, and those came few and far between. Those specialty cakes though, man those were ACE. Rich, buttery rum cake with layers of bitter-sweet chocolate ganache dripping down the sides. Those cakes were loved, they were art. It was no wonder they sold faster than we could ring them up. Lucky for us, even lowly bakery drudges got samples before they went on sale.

But even on a home-based scale, I bet you could tell the difference between your grandmother's brownies and ACME's. There's no comparison. Even if granny relies on Betty Crocker to do most of the work for her, they'll still taste better than anybody else's grandmother's brownies. And that's because of love. Poured into every baking tin and absorbed from the atmosphere of family. Sugar, butter, eggs and baking chocolate never tasted better than when I was swinging my legs beneath my grandmother's laminate kitchen table, using my finger to clean the bottom of the mixing bowl. It was love, and it was delicious.

I'm not really sure what WCDS could do to put more love into their desserts. They are, as previously mentioned, preparing food for a largely anonymous, needy, unappreciative crowd. But when considering how ridiculously easy it is to hand-prepare even the simplest of cheesecakes, which would be child's play to convert to larger quantity without sacrificing quantity, it seems well, ridiculous that WCDS should serve pre-packaged, dry, and unloved cheesecake. And if that cheesecake they've served is not from Sara Lee, or Jell-O, or the venerable Ms. Crocker… then something is seriously wrong.

To combat the scourge of the loveless cheesecake, I propose this recipe. Nobody doesn't love cheesecakes. (Unless you're lactose intolerant. Or just plain weird.) They fit every qualification for my kitchen: fast, cheap, and easy. Fast: the actual preparation time is close to five minutes. Ten tops. This is because all the baking can be done while you studious students are otherwise occupied. Cheap: every ingredient in this cheesecake was filched from the dining hall on top of a regular meal. Finally I'm getting my money's worth. Easy: see Fast and Cheap. Also, once made, these babies can last up to a week (if you hold off your roommates and, most especially, yourself with saint-like abstinence and a pointy stick), providing no-fuss breakfasts and desserts. This is a good recipe to make ahead whenever you have a free half-hour at home. Once made, anytime is cheesecake time.

The only problem I ran into in this recipe was the filling of the crust. The crust that I came up with – crushed Life cereal baked in a mixture with 3 TBSP butter – tended to pull away from the dish in a failed attempt to run away from home with the filling. Not that I blame it, the filling is so delicious that I would certainly run away with it if I had the chance, and the cereal crust itself never quite got to the gooey quality of graham cracker. (Perhaps I should have used more butter ;-P)

However, this was only a problem because I wanted my finished result to look extra pretty for the camera. A loved food does not have to be a pretty food. It will still taste much, much better than pre-packaged even if you have a few grains of crust dusting the top of the filling.

But enough of that fiddle faddle, let's get started.

Nobody Doesn't Love Mini-Cheesecakes

Things you can pilfer from the dining hall:

2 cups cream cheese

3 Tablespoons butter

2 cups LIFE cereal

1/3 cup sugar

Sprinkle of cinnamon

Things you will probably have to buy:

1 teaspoon vanilla

4 ceramic ramekin or Pyrex baking dishes (Two for a dollar at Target, and found cheaply at every big box chain store around the country. Look for something 8 oz in size and oven safe.)

  1. Preheat toaster oven to 350O F.
  2. Double bag the life cereal. Now here's the fun part: crush the living day lights out of it. Crush it until everything is the same size as the gigantic sugar crystals that find their way to the bottom of the bag.
  3. Mix the crushed cereal with 3 Tablespoons melted butter. (20-30 seconds in the microwave should do the trick). Line the bottoms and sides of your 8 oz dish with the mixture.
  4. Bake crusts 14-16 minutes or until golden brown.
  5. Mix cream cheese, cinnamon, vanilla, and sugar. This will take some time (and can be done while the crusts are baking) as well as some book-toting muscles if you either a) don't have a mixer or b) don't use soft cream cheese. Luckily, most dining hall cream cheese is soft and served in a tub. Try the blender if you must, but I found that hand mixing worked better and wasted less filling.
  6. Remove crusts from oven and let cool 10 minutes.
  7. Fill crusts with cream cheese filling.
  8. Chill in refrigerator at least 3 hours. Eat whenever.


1 comment:

AJ Star said...

oh man nobody doesn't love cheesecake is right. this recipe and article excite me to no end because for years i was saying that there are never good desserts in the d-hall. there is only one time that i can think of in my entire college career where i actually enjoyed the dessert--the marble brownies. they were even better than the betty crocker boxed version. props to you for finally speaking out and doing something about this horrifying injustice.