A CHEESECAKE FOR VEENA

May 13, 2012

I won’t get to see my mom for Mother’s Day today, since we’re in different states; happily, I will get to see her in just a few days when I fly home to attend a wedding.  For today, I figured since my mom’s been mothering me for nearly thirty years, I would like to offer up:

Thirty Things About My Mother

1)    She was so glamorous.  No wonder she earned such big tips in the years she worked as a bartender.

2)    (She looks really good in red.)

3)   She has two Masters degrees.  She earned the first in India, but American universities wouldn’t, at that time, honor foreign graduate degrees.  So when she came here she got another one.  Oh, and a few years ago, for her job, she took more graduate-level classes–for credit.  No biggie.


4)    She doesn’t want me to send her flowers, contrary to what all of the Mothers’ Day ads and grocery store displays suggest.  An obsessive gardener, my mom has no patience for store bought, greenhouse-grown blooms.  She’s much more concerned about the flowers in the ground in her front and back yards.  When I was a kid, it was my job to go outside at dusk and coax her to come inside after having spent an entire Saturday digging, weeding, transplanting, watering, and mulching.

5)     She never once told me “I’ll tell you when you’re older” or “You’re too young to understand.”  Whenever I asked a question—no matter what its nature, or how busy she was—she would find away to answer me.

6)    She has this weird thing for Cool Whip.  My dad used to make special fun of her, teasing her for eating “foam.”  Since my mom is on the same discount grocery card account as me and Jill, we will occasionally get a targeted coupon for the stuff; I send it to mom in the mail to support her little habit.

7)    She married my dad after meeting him just twice.  In their wedding pictures, my mom looks guarded and my dad looks scared.  They both look crazy-young (twenty & twenty-five, respectively) and so beautiful.

8)    She left little love notes in my lunchbox for years, which I occasionally got made of for but inwardly cherished.  Would that I had saved a few for posterity.


9)    She has simply atrocious handwriting.  This made it quite convenient to learn how to forge her signature.

10)    She loves: pistachio ice cream, peanut butter, the aforementioned Cool Whip, tuberoses, the “f” word, Mexican food, foreign films, anything pickled, sour candy, well-written books in which very little happens, and Jon Stewart.

11)    She hates: goat cheese, Christmas card newsletters, the smell of scrambled eggs, fake politeness, Newt Gingrich, last-minute plans, people who do not vote, being called a “widow.”

12)    She has mad baby skills.  I have never, ever, ever seen a baby who wouldn’t go to her, smile at her, be soothed by her, play with her, etc.  The tiny ones can sense her thirty-plus years of experience in early childhood education, I think; at the very least, they know they are safe with her.

13)    She curses like a sailor.  Seriously, the woman has a fouler mouth than I do.  I think it’s hilarious, but I like to pretend to be scandalized by it.


14)    She loves classic American rock.  When my parents first came here, the only entertainment they could afford was a radio, so she fell in love with the music of the 60s and 70s, and passed that love on to me.  She’s the reason that Jill calls me the “jukebox,” because I can sing along to even the most obscure song on the oldies station.


15)    She was a tiger mom before it was fashionable—not the scary, chain-you-to-the-piano kind, but the strict, you-will-take-responsibility-or-else kind of mom.  She did not let me do everything I wanted to do.  She did not reward me for good grades, because good grades were expected.  She did not try to be my friend.  She tried, and succeeded, in being a relentlessly consistent parent whom I respect, feared a little, and still do my best to honor.

16)    She is deadly funny.  It’s when she isn’t even trying, of course, that she’ll deadpan or make some kind of sarcastic remark in passing and I snort with laughter.

17)    She’s not afraid to tell it like it is.  I learned, at some point, that this means one should be careful when asking for her opinion—“Does this outfit look okay?” for example.  Veena isn’t one to tell you what you want to hear.  I love that about her.

18)    She is naturally generous.  From her, I learned that you always send people home with leftovers, you make a double batch of an easily freezable food and drop it off at the house of a friend, just because.  You send birthday and condolence and congratulations cards in the mail.  At the holidays, you give gift cards to the men who mow the lawn, leave trays of cookies for the people who pick up your trash.  You always have time to make a pot of tea for a visiting friend.

19)    She can make anything taste good, and distinctively hers.  I’ve never eaten anything she’s made that wasn’t absolutely delicious.  She doesn’t use any recipes, and she taught herself to cook.

20)    She cares not a whit for professional sports, but she often sat with my dad in the den, crocheting while he cheered his teams on.

21)    She spoiled my dad.  His favorite foods were almost all incredibly high maintenance—complicated pickles, fried snacks, meticulously brewed tea—and she indulged him in all of it.  I miss him, of course, but almost miss them together more.

22)    She is loved by all of my friends.  I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard “Your mom is so awesome” after someone meets her for the first time.

23)    She is organized to a fault.  The woman writes more lists, files more files, color-codes more folders and types up more plans than anyone I know.

24)     She is brave.  To have me, she faced miscarriages and the heartache of infertility.  When my dad lost his job in high school, she managed to carry our family without losing her mind and while doing her utmost to preserve our quality of life.  Since we lost my dad, she has shown more courage and strength than I knew she had—and I knew she had a lot.  I am amazed by and so proud of her.

25)    She was, she tells me, giggly and chatty as a kid.  I find this very difficult to believe.

26)    She’s like an elephant, with reels and snarls of various personal and intellectual trivia: the scientific names of various animals, the names of almost any flowering plant you can point to, various prayers and invocations of half-a-dozen religious traditions, political trivia, pieces of Indian folk wisdom, details about a family vacation we took a fifteen years ago.

27)    She has a crazy-accurate sixth sense.  If she doesn’t get a good feeling about someone she meets, that bad feeling always proves to be well-founded (I learned this the hard way as a teenager).

28)    She made me listen to “Sound Money” on NPR as a kid, because she wanted me to be financially literate.  She signed me up for ice skating lessons, because they were on Saturday morning and that way, I’d never ask to watch Saturday morning cartoons.

29)    She speaks four languages (Hindi, Punjabi, English, & Urdu).

30)    She is going to be the absolute best grandmother in the whole wide world.  I cannot wait to watch that happen.

Happy Mother’s Day, Amma.  I made you a cheesecake.

CHEESECAKE WITH MINTED BLACKBERRIES
barely adapted from Dan Barber, as published in Gourmet

The cheesecake pictured here was made in my sweet little 6-inch spring form pan; I made the same amount of crust called for in the original recipe, but cut the recipe for filling: 2 packages cream cheese, ½ cup sugar, 2 eggs, ¼ cup half-and-half with a 2 tablespoons removed, 1 ½ T flour, & ½ tsp. vanilla.

My mom prefers a very classic cheesecake recipe, which this is—creamy, not too sweet, dense.  If you like a fluffier cake or one with more tang, substitute in fresh ricotta for some of the cream cheese.

If blackberries aren’t your thing, you can serve this cheesecake with all kinds of fresh summer fruit: strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, mango, etc.

for the crust:

6 T unsalted butter, softened
½ cup packed light brown sugar
¾ cup all-purpose or spelt flour
½ cup sliced almonds, finely chopped

oven: 350ºF with a rack placed in the middle

Line a 9-inch square baking pan with two sheets foil, leaving generous overhang on all sides.  Lightly butter the foil.  Alternately, if using a spring form pan, butter the bottom and sides.

Beat the butter and brown sugar at medium speed, until light at fluffy.  Reduce speed and add the flour and almonds, mixing until combined and the dough clumps together.

Press the crust onto the bottom of baking ban (if using a spring form pan, press up along the edges as well).

Bake until the crust darkens a shade and begins to shrink, 20-30 minutes.  Cool crust completely in the pan on a wire rack.

for the filling:

3 (8 oz.) packages cream cheese, softened
2/3 cup granulated sugar
3 eggs
¼ cup half and half
2 T all-purpose flour
1 tsp. vanilla extract (almond extract is also nice)

oven: reduce to 325ºF.

Beat together the cream cheese, sugar, and flour at medium speed until smooth.  Reduce the speed to low and add half and half, then the eggs one at a time, then finally the vanilla.

Pour the filling into the cooled crust, then place in a water bath and bake until nearly set (a tiny bit of wobble in the center is okay).  This will take between 40-45 minutes.  Cool the cheesecake on room temperature for several hours, then chill, uncovered, in the refrigerator for at least two hours.

If you used the square pan, lift the cheesecake out using the foil overhang, then cut into squares.  If you used a spring form pan, run a knife along the edge of the cheesecake before removing the spring form side and slicing.

The cheesecake will keep in the fridge, loosely covered after being fully cooled, for three days.

for the minted blackberries:

2 cups fresh blackberries, rinsed
1 T sugar
1 T mint, finely chopped
finely grated zest of 1 lemon

Combine all ingredients and leave at room temp for 30 minutes.  When ready to serve, drain blackberries with a slotted spoon and place atop cheesecake.  You can also prepare the blackberries ahead of time and keep in an airtight container in the fridge for a few hours.

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8 Comments »

  1. Bachajee, you are so sweet. Thank you for being a very caring and thoughtful daughter. I am eternally grateful that you came into our life. You are the best gift I ever got! I would love a slice of this cheese cake now.
    Much love and God bless – Amma

    Comment by Veena Mehra — May 13, 2012 @ 6:23 pm

  2. NIshta – love this – an honest, heartfelt tribute to your mom. I miss you and I too would love a slice of this cheesecake now. Thanks, Veena for doing such a great job.

    Comment by Mikie — May 13, 2012 @ 6:44 pm

  3. This was amazing and very nice of you to take time to write about your awesome mom and commend your mom on this very special day in both of your lives.

    Comment by L — May 13, 2012 @ 8:20 pm

  4. Not sure where my comment went, so I’ll try again …
    Your mom IS awesome. She does have mad baby skills, and you will too.
    Also, I totally see you in her in the second picture.

    Comment by Katherine — May 13, 2012 @ 8:51 pm

  5. What a beautiful love letter! Your mother sounds like a true class act. I have it on very good authority that this cheesecake is off the chain! Great blog, Nishta.

    Comment by Michael — May 13, 2012 @ 9:37 pm

  6. The cheesecake looks fab, but I love, love, love your Mom List. Love. I cracked up at the fact that she curses like a sailor and loves peanut butter and Jon Stewart. Your list really gave me a picture of what your mom is like, and she sounds wonderful. Happy Mother’s Day to her!

    I want to gobble one of those berries now. 🙂

    Comment by Paris Karin (an alien parisienne) — May 14, 2012 @ 6:26 am

  7. I simply adore your mom and have no doubt that I’m one of those people who exclaimed “You’re mom is so awesome.”

    Comment by Sharon — May 14, 2012 @ 7:50 pm

  8. She also hates WalMart with the passion of a thousand fiery suns. I love that about her.

    Comment by stephen — May 25, 2012 @ 8:28 pm

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