There’s a revelatory moment in every budding romantic relationship, one that the players inevitably exploit to their full advantage. It’s the first time you find yourself alone in the home of your would-be beloved, and you can snoop. And judge.
For this cook, such a pivotal occasion took place 15 years ago, in the kitchen belonging to the guy whom I now have the great good fortune of calling my husband.
While Robert retrieved a forgotten ingredient from the corner store, I finally availed myself of the opportunity to peruse, unobserved, his cookbook collection. What would the various titles reveal about his character?
As it turned out, plenty. There was a ratty copy of “The Silver Palate Cookbook,” a clear indication he’d been throwing dinner parties, and lots of them, for years. So far, so good.
Flipping through a church cookbook from his tiny Wisconsin hometown, I discovered a number of recipes submitted by his mother. Aw, sweet.
“The Complete Armenian Cookbook” signaled a pride in his family’s heritage, an exotic draw for this white-bread Scandinavian. This is getting better all the time, I remember thinking.
And then, an oddity: “The Joy of Cheesecake.”
Huh? I remember rolling my eyes. Cheesecake? Really? It ranks among my least favorite desserts — so ponderous, so one-note — and here was an entire cookbook devoted to the subject. Yikes. I couldn’t help but add a demerit to his PHM (Potential Husband Material) score.
A month or so later, when we decided to throw our first joint dinner party — always a relationship milestone, right? — Robert offered to handle dessert duties. A cheesecake, he said. He could make it in his sleep, that’s how often he’s prepared this particular recipe. “Everyone goes crazy for it,” he said.
Turns out he wasn’t kidding. Despite his go-to recipe’s nonsensical name — get this, it’s “Kilimanjaro Cheesecake” — it was fabulous, a lusciously creamy indulgence that was somehow not overbearingly rich. Its no-frills, not-too-sweet simplicity was inherently, instantaneously appealing.
No wonder it was the dessert that everyone in Robert’s circle asked him to make. I quickly became one of those people.
The author next door
Plenty of time lapsed before my clueless self finally noticed the name of the book’s co-author. By that point, Jeremy Iggers had been my cubicle neighbor in the Star Tribune newsroom for several years. How did I not know that he’d published a cookbook?
Before becoming a restaurant critic at this newspaper — a job he held for 22 years, ending in 2007 — Iggers had teamed up with a friend and operated a wholesale cheesecake bakery.
They supplied Twin Cities restaurants with vanilla, hazelnut and chocolate marble cheesecakes. It was a short-lived enterprise.
“After a few months, we finally did the books, and we realized that we were making about 10 cents an hour,” Iggers said. “That was the end of the cheesecake business.”
A month later, serendipity: Iggers got a call from a former college roommate, Dana Bovbjerg, who was working in an Iowa City restaurant, baking — you got it — cheesecakes (what was it about the 1970s and cheesecake?). They got to talking, and Bovbjerg — now a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute — suggested that they team up and write a cheesecake cookbook.
Why not? “By that point, we had both learned a lot about how not to make cheesecakes,” said Iggers.
After a sample chapter received nine rejections, they got a nibble from Barron’s Educational Series. The duo eventually ended up producing the first of the publisher’s series of “The Joy of …” titles, which later tackled such subjects as pasta, chocolate, ice cream, cookies and hors d’oeuvres.
The Bovbjerg-Iggers “Joy” is certainly thorough, with more than 100 cheesecake recipes (plus instructions for a dozen different crusts) as well as plenty of how-to tips.
Barron’s went all-out, enlisting noted graphic designer Milton Glaser to create the book’s showy cover.
“He’s the kind of guy who gets museum retrospectives,” said Iggers. “His work really helped sell our book.”
It did indeed, because when “Joy” debuted in 1980, it took a flying leap off bookstore shelves.
“The last time I checked, it has sold more than 200,000 copies,” said Iggers. “I’m still getting checks from Barron’s. My comfortable retirement will be thanks to ‘The Joy of Cheesecake.’ ”
It’s no longer in print, but used copies are easily acquired at Amazon.com and eBay.com.
A clear favorite
Thirty-one years ago, Robert received his now heavily annotated copy as a Christmas gift, and “Kilimanjaro” is clearly the favorite, because the book’s spine automatically cracks open to page 87.
The recipe’s appeal can be traced to two ingenious techniques.
First, an airy meringue helps lighten the heavy cream-cheese load. Second, a top layer of sweetened sour cream, spread just before the cake comes out of the oven, provides a tangy finishing touch. It also sweeps a pristine, snow-white blanket across the cake’s top, an effective trick for concealing any unwanted cracks.
Iggers chuckled when I asked him if he recalled the origins of the cake’s mountainous nomenclature. Was it the reference in the recipe’s introduction to that “ivory-white” top? You know: ivory … elephants … Africa … Mount Kilimanjaro?
“We were sitting around making up names,” he said with a laugh. “We ended up calling it that because it’s very tall. I wish it were something more than that.”
Despite his status as a bestselling cheesecake authority, the dessert has disappeared from Iggers’ radar.
“Most restaurant cheesecakes just aren’t very good,” he said. “They cut corners. For one reason or another, I’m usually disappointed.”
He hasn’t baked one for probably a decade. But you should, for your Valentine.
“There’s a reason why people like cheesecake,” said Iggers. “They’re rich, they’re sensual. And they’re surprisingly easy to make.”
Makes 1 (9-in.) cheesecake.
Note: This recipe must be prepared in advance. Adapted from “The Joy of Cheesecake” by Dana Bovbjerg and Jeremy Iggers.
• 1 1/2 c. graham cracker crumbs
• 6 tbsp. (3/4 stick) butter, cut into small pieces
• 1/4 c. sugar
• 1 1/2 lb. cream cheese, at room temperature
• 2 tsp. vanilla extract
• 4 egg whites, at room temperature
• 1 c. plus 3 tbsp. sugar, divided
• 2 c. sour cream
To prepare crust: Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade, pulse graham crackers into fine crumbs. Add butter and 1/4 cup sugar, and pulse until thoroughly combined (alternately, place graham crackers in a tightly sealed plastic bag and break into crumbs with a rolling pin, then transfer crumbs to a bowl, add 1/4 cup sugar and 6 tablespoons melted better and stir to combine). Press crumb mixture evenly across bottom of a 9-inch springform pan, using a spatula or spoon to smooth crumb mixture to an even thickness. Bake for 10 minutes. Remove from oven and transfer pan to a wire rack to cool completely.
To prepare filling: In a bowl of an electric mixer on medium speed, beat cream cheese and vanilla extract until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.
In a bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, beat egg whites until they form soft peaks. Slowly add 1 cup sugar and beat until whites form stiff, glossy peaks.
Gently fold egg whites into cream cheese mixture, taking care to preserve the egg whites’ volume. Pour mixture evenly into prepared crust and bake for 25 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk together sour cream and remaining 3 tablespoons sugar until thoroughly combined.
After cake has baked for 25 minutes, remove cake from oven and increase oven temperature to 450 degrees. Spread sour cream topping evenly over top of cake. Return cake to oven and bake for 5 minutes. Remove from oven and transfer springform pan to a wire rack to cool completely. Wrap springform pan in plastic wrap and refrigerate until completely chilled (at least 4 hours) before serving. Release and remove side of pan before cutting. Serve chilled.