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When she has the kitchen all to herself, Phyllis Grant of Dash and Bella cooks beautiful iterations of what solo meals were always meant to be: Exactly what you want, when and where you want them.
Today: Phyllis brings three important things into our kitchens this week: lemon cheesecake, recipe testing, and remembering what it feels like to be a beginner.
My son hands me a pile of cheesecake recipes.
Where did you get these?
From the internet thingy, mom.
How did you print them?
I hit the print button.
A year ago he couldn’t even turn on the device.
Mom, I think we should combine the recipes. Just mix them all up into one. It will be easy.
What about lemonade cheesecake with Oreo crust? Frozen into squares? Topped with Cool Whip?
I try to remain at least externally open-minded. I propose a scooter ride.
You’ve never scooted in your life, mom.
I just need some time to clear my head, to talk myself back into recipe testing with a seven-year-old, to remember what it feels like to be a beginner.
We go around the block three times, inhaling the early jasmine, taking the corners dangerously. I fall twice. My right hip flexor cramps. My inner thighs start shaking.
We’re ready to make a cheesecake.
Take one has brown butter graham cracker crust. Equal parts cream cheese and goat cheese. Eggs. Minimal sugar. Hella lemon zest. Crème fraîche. A pinch of salt.
He dips his entire hand into the batter, letting the excess drip off like he’s making a five-fingered candle, slowly licking off the creamy, lemony glove.
What’s missing, Dash?
Did you add a packet of lemonade powder?
I pretend I don’t hear his question.
We set all devices in the house for 40 minutes. We wait. We taste.
Mom, it’s a bit like a wet sponge smeared with goat cheese. Have you ever done this before?
Take two gives us hope: Smooth surface. No leaky water bath issues. But as it cools, a cake-wide lightning-shaped crack emerges.
Mom. Don’t worry. It’s going to be okay. We can just push it back together. Maybe we can glue it?
I release the pan’s latch and watch his face fall.
Mom! Why did all of the crust stick to the pan? Why is it caving in?
I forgot to butter the pan. I didn’t use parchment paper. I didn’t let it cool properly.
We scoop up mangled scraps of cake with our fingers.
I was in a hurry to make a perfect cake.
Mom, we’re going to have to make like 27 of these to get it right!
We agree on the next steps: ditch the bland graham cracker crust and tone down the lemon goat flavor. We head to the market for reinforcements.
As I pull into a parking place, I find myself staring at a woman with blindingly white teeth and an expertly sculpted ass. The whole package glows like a painted, primped, pimped, pumped, shaved, lacquered North Star. I look down at my stained sweatshirt and linty leggings. I can smell my armpits.
I burst into tears.
I don’t want to fight that hard. I just want to make cheesecake.
Take three involves lemon cookies and a rocky beginning. I can’t remember how much sugar we used for our first two rounds.
Mom. You have to write things down. You can’t keep it all in your head.
If he only knew.
Mom, why wouldn't you just throw all the ingredients in together. Why do you scrape down the sides. What is cheese? You can do whatever you want so why don't you eat dessert all day long? Are you going to keep getting more and more wrinkles or will they just stop?
I answer every single question in full. Until his eyes glaze over. Until he wishes he never asked.
We effortlessly free our creation from the springform pan, slide it onto a cake stand, encircle it with lemon cookies.
Dash. What’s your verdict? Do we have a recipe?
Yes. But no. I don’t know.
1/4 cup unsalted butter, plus 1 teaspoon (for greasing the pan)
8 ounces cookies (lemon, shortbread, vanilla wafers, or your favorite cookie)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
10 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
6 ounces creamy fresh goat cheese, room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
3 eggs, room temperature
1/2 cup crème fraîche or sour cream
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons firmly packed lemon zest
8 ounces cookies (preferably the same kind you used for the crust)
2 tablespoons of your favorite jam or honey (for gluing on cookies)
Photos by Phyllis Grant