Dad dreams of a lost cheesecake. Three inches high. Airy, not dense. Without a crust. Made at Hagel’s bakery at the corner of Pratt and Ann streets, where my father worked as a teenager in the 1940s, tipping layer cakes out of pans to cool, icing raisin buns and riding in the bakery truck to local markets.
Bakeries dotted nearly every corner of Fells Point back then, Dad tells me, each with its own specialty. Tyszko’s made the best lemon tarts; Kowalski’s baked at night so men like my grandfather, who worked the night shift at Bethlehem Steel, could have fresh bread for supper before catching the streetcar. But no one made cheesecake like Hagel’s.
“It was baked in large sheets,” Dad says. “And it browned on the top. The Hagels were German, so it was probably a German cheesecake.”
“It must have had egg whites in it to be that light,” my mother concludes.
I am lactose intolerant. I dream of french fries and tarte tatin and my grandmother’s coddies. I eat cheesecake only after doses of Lactaid. But because I love my father— and a challenge— I decide to re-create Dad’s cheesecake.
I Google “German cheesecake” and find a staggering number of recipes. One calls for lemon pudding and margarine; another includes raisins; another features meringue topping (intriguing, but not what Dad described). Some call for quark, a German variant of cream cheese, or combinations of ricotta, farmer’s or cottage cheese. Many sound heavy or dense— definitely not in line with Dad’s memory.
In the appropriately titled “The Joy of Cheesecake,” I find a recipe for Cheese Retorte, whose ingredients suggest the light texture of Dad’s lost cheesecake: eight egg whites, whipped cream and strained cottage cheese. (I note here that once you have strained cottage cheese, it is hard to summon enthusiasm for ever doing it again. Even though I was careful as I pressed the curds through the sieve, they flew like the snowflakes in a Christmas globe. I’m still finding them lurking in kitchen corners and on the windowsill behind the pepper grinder.)
The Cheese Retorte baked for a long time, but never firmed up in the middle. When we tasted it, it reminded my parents and I of lemon sponge pie— light with a custard-like layer and grainy texture from the cottage cheese. Though Dad thought it looked right because it browned on the top, he decided it wasn’t the one. It wasn’t light enough.
“This would go well with tea,” I remarked. “Cheesecake goes well with everything,” Dad said.
Thinking I might get closer with a combination of sour cream, cream cheese and more egg whites, I tried “The Joy of Cheesecake’s” Lunar Cheesecake. No such luck. This cheesecake tasted like a lighter version of cheesecake you get anywhere— decent, but unremarkable.
Meanwhile, my mother made some- thing called the “Unbaked Cheesecake,” a custard-based cheesecake containing gelatin, egg whites and cream cheese. She dubbed the results “mousse-like.” I liked it the best so far, except for the pervasive taste of lemon rind that, to me, makes cheesecake taste artificial. But this, too, turned out not to be the cheesecake of Dad’s dreams, though he was ready to try more samples. “I could eat cheesecake every day,” he said.
Sighing, I suddenly remembered potatoes I bought at a farmers’ market in Chicago 10 years ago. They were filthy, covered with muddy gobs of black Michigan soil— but I swear they were the sweetest I’ve ever eaten. Yet if I went back to that market and found those potatoes again, would they taste as sweet? Perhaps the texture of Hagel’s cheesecake or the flavor of new potatoes isn’t attainable in real life— only in memory.
I confide my frustration to my friend Louise. In her own Google search, she finds cheesecake recipes calling for pudding mix. She urges me to try one. I resist; I do not use mixes.
“Remember your dad’s working-class roots,” she coaxes.
“If you think he should try a pudding cheesecake,” I argue, “why don’t you make one?”
Louise tracks down Dr. Oetker’s Vanilla Pudding Mix on the Internet. “The recipe insists you use Dr. Oetker’s German pudding,” she states. “The alternative is potato starch.” She pays a small fortune to have the pudding shipped from Ontario (only later do we learn that it’s available at Mueller’s Delicatessen at 7207 Harford Road for $1.69 a pack) and when it finally arrives, she makes a significant investment in quark and calls me on a Wednesday night to report, “The cheesecake is in the oven.” Out of the oven, it is brown and petite. Louise pronounces it “chalky” tasting. I think it tastes like the Cheese Retorte. Dad takes a bite and says, “This one comes closest. Except for the lemon. And Hagel’s was a little lighter.”
“But it tastes like the first one I made,” I protest.
“Well …,” he says, pausing. “It was a long time ago. I might not be remembering exactly.”