For those gloomy days, when everything seems to be turning into dross, I have this note of encouragement to offer: We are living in the great age of cheesecake.
It's a minor consolation, to be sure, but it's the best I can come up with at the moment.
The decade of the '80s, notable for so many epochal events, also managed to bring cheesecake to new heights. The fashion for culinary Americana that set in during the mid-'80s brought cheesecake, always a popular standard, to high-profile dining.
It's always been the dessert of choice at places like delis, diners, steakhouses and seafood dives. But now it shows up in any setting, regardless of price range, and there's probably more cheesecake around these days than ever before.
If you're so minded, you could argue that tiramisu, a dessert that nowadays is hard to avoid at Italian restaurants, counts as a kind of cheesecake, seeing that a primary ingredient is mascarpone, the Italian version of cream cheese.
Among standard baked types, variations have blossomed forth in endless profusion. A popular Southern California restaurant chain called the Cheesecake Factory regularly stocks some 35 flavors.
Two recent books on the subject -- "Cheesecake Extraordinaire" by Mary Crownover (Taylor) and "Mother Wonderful's Cheesecakes and Other Goodies" by Myra Chanin (Holt) -- up the ante to more than 200 possibilities.
The origins of what we know as cheesecake are pretty clearly Eastern or Central European. The Austrians like their topfentorten, and the Hungarians go for turos racsos, both made with pot cheese; similar fillings show up in strudels.
The Germans are fond of using quark, a fresh cheese somewhat similar to ricotta but only distantly related to the subatomic particles of the same name. The lavish Russian cheesecake, pashka, is traditional at Easter.
Another ancestor of the American cheesecake, particularly in the lighter variations, would be the Italian ricotta puddings and pastries.
Still, there's nothing quite like our cheesecake, which seems to have been developed by Jewish delicatessens, particularly those in New York. This is an uncompromisingly rich and luscious creation, actually more of a cheese custard than a true cake.
Cheesecake is among the easiest of desserts to prepare, essentially a matter of beating the ingredients together and baking. No-cook versions have long since made their appearance, and so have those with less than the usual load of calories.
Preliminary note: Authorities agree that the quality of finished cake depends a lot on the quality of the cream cheese. Choose a good brand, such as Philadelphia; the fewer additives, the better.
The classic among cheesecakes must be the one served at the legendary New York restaurant Lindy's. The original restaurant has long since departed, but recipes for the cheesecake abound, including one at a successor house of the same name.
Of four published versions, three agree that this is the original. In any case, it is very much a cheesecake in the classic New York style -- impossibly rich, heavy as lead and quite irresistible. We have adapted the crust to the food processor.
Lindy's cheesecake, consensus version
Makes 12 to 16 servings.
FOR THE PASTRY:
1 cup flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon lemon zest (see note)
1 stick (8 tablespoons) butter, softened
1 egg yolk
FOR THE FILLING:
2 1/2 pounds (40 ounces) cream cheese, room temperature
1 3/4 cups sugar
3 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 teaspoons grated lemon zest (see note)
1 1/2 teaspoons grated orange zest (see note)
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
2 egg yolks
1/4 cup heavy cream
In a food processor, place flour, sugar and lemon zest. Pulse together. Add butter and pulse until mixture resembles a coarse meal. Add vanilla and egg yolk. Process until dough just clings together. (Add a very little cold water, if necessary.) Working quickly, form into ball, wrap in plastic and refrigerate.
By hand, mix together flour, sugar and lemon zest. Cut in butter. Add vanilla and egg yolk, mixing until dough just clings together, adding a very little cold water as necessary. Form into ball, wrap in plastic and refrigerate.
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Butter base and sides of a 9-inch springform pan. Remove sides. Roll out one-third of dough about 1/8 inch thick; place on base and trim to fit. Bake 15 minutes or until golden. Let cool.
Heat oven to 550 degrees. Make filling by beating cream cheese with an electric mixer until smooth. Add sugar, flour, lemon and orange zest and vanilla; beat well. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating after each, until just incorporated. Add yolks in same way. Lightly beat in cream.
Fit sides of pan over base. Roll out remaining dough, cut in strips and line sides of pan almost to top. Pour in filling. Bake for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 200 degrees; continue baking for 1 hour. Cool on rack.
To serve, carefully loosen and remove sides. If you are careful, you can slide cake from base of pan. Otherwise, leave it on base and serve from there.