The Tao of Cake

Birthdays. The one day per year that you can channel your inner-child and be blissfully ignorant of your own poor choices from sun up to sun down. An opportunity to go hog wild in gluttony and others can’t judge you (at least not in good conscience). And no such birthday is complete without a cake.

Like most, I have probably eaten my weight in birthday cakes, which is a fun and slightly concerning visual. Growing up all my friends and family had their typical cake – the one they dreamed about for 364 days and then got to devour on the first day of their next trip around the sun.

My best friend always wanted ice cream cake and more specifically, Carvel chocolate ice cream cake with the “crunchies” in the center. My brother still has, and probably forever will have, an obsession with the Funfetti boxed cake that can only be topped with Funfetti frosting — no substitutions. My dad is a chocolate layer cake with chocolate frosting kind of guy, preferably eaten cold with a glass of milk. And I’m the weirdo who always asked for peach cobbler with vanilla ice cream, because I had to be different and I really, really, really like peaches. Cake is personality.

With cake comes memories. There is the spectacle of candle flames, the obligatory awkward singing, the botched slicing of the first piece, the argument over who gets the ‘corner’, and the one germaphobe who is praying to the cake gods that there isn’t too much spit from blowing out the candles. Cake is a vehicle for emotions.

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When Dan and I were planning our wedding, we had plenty of input from others about what type of cake to have (or not have). Wedding planning brings out everyone’s unsolicited advice and the cake debate was a magnet for commentary. Ignoring all recommendations we went with what we wanted: strawberry shortcake. Summer wedding, 4th of July weekend, light and fresh. Boom. Done. Check that off the list.
But like I said before, with cake comes memories. When I attempted to cut our cake at the reception, the layers started falling and we only had seconds to react before it came down onto the floor. In swooped Dan and my brother for what ended up as one of my favorite photos from our wedding reception. Cake brings people together.

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Stephen using the Force?

But, as usual, I digress…

Last month was Dan’s birthday (29 again!). Before I met him he reportedly did not have “his” birthday cake – the aforementioned annual event with pomp and circumstance surrounding the unveiling of the the dessert so longed for since the last birthday. No birthday cake? You can imagine the look on my face when he broke the news. Unacceptable. Not in my house.

I don’t recall how or why Key Lime Cheesecake came to be “Dan’s cake.” I may have been looking for inspiration on the internet and stumbled across a recipe. Dan might have thrown me a challenge involving citrus. There may have been haphazard mention of “we haven’t had cheesecake in a long time.” Who knows?!

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But the result was glorious. And I’ve had almost a decade of Dan birthdays (several 29th birthdays, in fact) to nail this recipe. It is reserved for only one day of the year and can’t make any cameo appearances. You have to earn this one.

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Sour yet sweet. Dense but fluffy. Light but creamy. It’s a conversation starter and a conversation stopper at the same time. The head tilt as you experience a slight pucker in the cheeks? Priceless. It’s become legendary among friends and family. And it’s the most requested recipe that I possess.

This recipe is not the dense and intense slices of Manhattan. It’s more carefree and flexible. A laissez faire of cheesecakes, if you will. The bite from the key limes can be as sharp or mild as you like. Dan and I prefer that it packs a punch. You can ‘cheat’ with key lime juice in the bottle or commit yourself to several hours of extracting droplets of juice from several bags of key limes (your call, no judgment). A water bath is a good idea but not necessary. If the cake cracks in the center, no problem, because you cover it in whipped cream anyway. Cake doesn’t need to be stressful. Especially on your birthday.


 

Key Lime Cheesecake (Dan’s Cake)

Crust:

  • 2 – 2 1/2 C. finely ground graham cracker crumbs
  • 3 T. white sugar
  • 1/2 C. unsalted butter, melted (may need more if too dry)

Cheesecake:

  • 24 oz. cream cheese (3 8-oz packages), softened
  • 3/4 C. white sugar
  • 1/2 C. sour cream
  • 3 T. all-purpose flour
  • 4 eggs
  • 2/3 – 3/4 cup key lime juice (to taste, if more juice add an extra T. of flour)
  • 1 t. vanilla extract
  • Whipping cream (prepared the old-fashioned way)
  • Lime zest and lime slices (for garnish)

 

Graham Cracker Crust

  1. In a bowl stir together the graham cracker crumbs and 2 tablespoons sugar, stir in the butter well. A food processor can also work if you’re starting from whole graham crackers.
  2. Pat the mixture into the bottom and 1/2 inch up the side of a buttered 9 inch springform pan. When pressed firmly it should hold together up the sides.
  3. Bake the crust in a preheated 375 degree oven for about 10 minutes. Transfer the pan to a rack and cool.

Key Lime Filling

  1. In a large bowl with an electric mixer, beat cream cheese and 3/4 cup sugar until smooth, beat in the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
  2. Beat in the sour cream, flour, lime juice and vanilla and mix until it is smooth. Add lime juice to taste for desired flavor and tartness.
  3. Pour the filling into the crust. It will go above the height of the crust.
  4. Water bath option: To reduce cracking, fill a 13 x 9 pan about 1/3 – 1/2 way up with water and place on lower rack of preheated oven.
  5. Bake the cheesecake on center rack at 375 degrees for 15 minutes, reduce the temperature to 250 degrees and bake for 50 to 55 minutes longer, or until center is barely set. If you gently shake the pan, it will jiggle slightly in the center.
  6. Let the cheesecake cool on a rack.  After 10 minutes of cooling, use a paring knife to gently separate the edge of the cheesecake from the pan. Chill, covered, in the fridge overnight.
  7. To serve, cover top of cheesecake with a layer of freshly whipped cream and top with freshly grated lime zest. If making ahead, you can store it covered in fridge or freezer without whipped cream and garnish (top just before serving).

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