Even though my mom is an excellent cook, I can’t say I learned all I know from her. She taught me how to make chocolate chip cookies, and pizza dough. She taught me to serve vegetables with every meal (even though I don’t always follow her example). She taught me spaghetti sauce and beef stroganoff and cheese potatoes, but I don’t think she ever really taught me how to cook. Instead, she taught me to cook. Which is a fine distinction. What I mean is that I learned from my mother that moms cook for their family, and so it is something I do for mine as well.
Something I enjoy doing for them.
My sisters are good cooks, too. From Michelle I learned chocolate zucchini cake. From Suzette I learned chicken noodle soup and chili and meat loaf. From Becky, guacamole salsa and *.
Books taught me, too. Not just cookbooks, but novels. Every time I eat avocado, I think about the scene in The Bell Jar with the avocado pears stuffed with crab salad and I am a little bit more careful with my cooking methods. Heidi’s grandfather taught me the redemptive power of cheesy toast. And I cannot read (or watch, for that matter) anything set at Hogwarts without immediately baking something delicious.
If you pay attention, you can pick up cooking tips and tricks from almost anyone who cooks. My library friend Julie taught me about All-Clad pans (I’m still saving up!). My friend Sophia taught me about how food, really good and memorable but never fancy-in-that-expensive-way food does more than meet just nutritional needs. One of my co-workers from twenty years ago taught me a cheesecake trick that I still use, and just last week my sister’s sister-in-law taught me how to make perfect hot fudge sauce. Because it’s not just technique or motivation—recipes are so good to share. Family recipes are the best ones, I think, tried and made true by years of repetition. Tweaked to perfection.
I don’t really watch a lot of TV, but I like the Food Channel to be on sometimes if the house is feeling too quite. It’s good background noise because whenever I stop to pay attention, I learn something new.
I’m not an especially inventive cook. I think I have the basics down, but I don’t have that creative spark that allows a person with a bag of frozen lima beans, some corn meal and a fresh piece of fish to turn out a gourmet meal. But if I know what I’m cooking, I can generally do it well. (Albeit fairly slow. In fact, I might be the world’s slowest chef!) I love to bake, and if you need a dessert, I am generally your go-to girl.
It is a skill I’m grateful for.
Especially as my kids are getting older, I am finding that I cannot always have an answer or a solution for them. We don’t always get along or see things the same way. But there is something restorative in eating together. I feel a little bit like I sprinkle into spaghetti sauce and whisk into broccoli soup the things I cannot say or they cannot hear, so that when they are eating they are consuming my advice or knowledge or love. I have baked I’m-sorry-for-throwing-a-piece-of-cheese-at-you macaroni and cheese for Jake, I-miss-you red bean burritos for Haley, thank-you-for-knowing-I-needed-your-help chicken curry for Nathan. I scramble every ounce of love I have into every pan of scrambled eggs I make for Kaleb.
Food binds us together. We eat to celebrate, to have a reason to get together, to have an excuse to be in the same room at the same time. But cooking binds in a different way. It’s one thing to eat at a restaurant but an entirely different thing to eat at the dinner table. We might squabble over food and I might get frustrated over everyone’s pickiness. But I am grateful that I learned from my mother that being a mom is partly being a cook. I’m grateful I can cook things that at least one of them loves, things that nourish their bodies and hopefully their spirits. I’m grateful that cooking helps me feel, in a small way, creative. I’m grateful for all the people—from celebrity TV chefs to the lady at the grocery store who helped me pick out a better spaghetti squash—who have taught me what I know. I’m grateful every day brings another chance to try again.
And I’m grateful for how food unites us.
Last night, we had Nathan’s 15th birthday dinner, which is our family tradition: the birthday kid gets to pick the meal, and the grandparents come. We eat with a tablecloth and pretty dishes (because that is part of it, too…the food, but also how the food is served, and whose hands have also used those dishes); we tell stories while we eat. Nathan chose Shanghai Buffalo Wings for dinner and cheesecake for dessert.
Baking: one of my skills. Cake decoration: not so much.
As I made the cheesecake, I thought about that long-ago coworker, Pat, whose secret to good cheesecake is to put some cornstarch in the filling, to help it set well. I remembered making the same cheesecake for Christmas last year, and the first time I made a cheesecake (I set off the smoke alarm in my kitchen because I didn’t know the butter from the crust would seep out from the sides of the pan), and how much Jake and Haley also love cheesecake. That is part of the pleasure of cooking as well, how it is wrapped up in memory and tradition. The cheesecake cracked and it was slightly runny in the middle, but it didn’t matter to Nathan, who was happy to eat it anyway. It didn’t matter to anyone, actually, except for my own little inner Alton Brown cooking critic, but I hushed him with a little chocolate fudge sauce.
I’m just grateful I could try to make a cheesecake!
Pecan Pie Cheesecake
(modified from this recipe)
1 ¾ cups gingersnap crumbs
¼ cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/3 cup butter, melted
¼ tsp nutmeg
¾ tsp cinnamon
1 cup sugar
2/3 cup dark corn syrup
1/3 cup butter, melted
1 ½ cups chopped pecans
1 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 tsp cinnamon
3 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
1 ¼ cups firmly packed brown sugar
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tsp corn starch
2/3 cup heavy whipping cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
Mix the crust ingredients and press into the bottom and sides of a spring form pan. Bake at 350 for 8 minutes.
Make the pecan filling while the crust is cooling. Combine the sugar, corn syrup, and butter in a pan, and bring just to a boil, stirring often. Whisk the eggs in a separate bowl. Temper the eggs by whisking in about 1/3 cup of the sugar mixture, then whisk them into the rest of the filling. Add the pecans and cook, stirring constantly, until thick, about five-six minutes.
Let cool while making the filling. Meanwhile, bring a pot of water to boil.
Beat the cream cheese, brown sugar, flour, and corn starch together until smooth and entirely lump-free. Whisk the eggs, cream, and vanilla together in a separate bowl. Pour into the cream cheese mixture and mix again, until all of the ingredients are incorporated.
Spread the pecan filling on top of the crust, the pour the cheesecake filling on top. Smooth the top with a rubber spatula. Wrap the pan with tinfoil.
Pour the boiling water into a 9x13 glass casserole dish, and put that on the bottom rack of the oven. Change the heat to 325. Put the cheesecake in the oven, and cook for 70 minutes. Turn the oven off and let the cake continue to sit in the oven for one hour. Then, slide a knife around the edge, and put it in the fridge to chill. At the very least, give yourself four hours for chilling, but it’s really better if you serve it the next day.