Minchenden School Reunion, North London, in 1999: My friends Julie Ward Duncan and Frances Carter with our teacher Frankie Stabler and my famous cheesecake
Occasionally called “a veteran” and, more attractively, “a seasoned member” of Canada’s food media, I’ve been around for a while waxing eloquent about my consuming passion: food.
It’s been 30 years since I got my first real job in this delicious field when, in 1983, the Toronto Sun hired me as its first food editor. Six years later, I accepted that position at the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest newspaper, where I spent 18 lively, action-packed years.
Resigning from that job in the summer of 2007 was a somewhat impulsive, adrenalin-fuelled move. You know the fantasy – telling the boss to take your job and … in a nice way, of course.
Me to my editor at the time: “I’ve interviewed the Mafia cook Joe “Dogs” Iannuzzi while he was under the witness protection plan. Julia Child cooked me breakfast in the late ’90s at her home in Cambridge, Mass. I was the first food writer in Canada to interview and write about Jamie Oliver etc. etc.” Then the clincher: “I feel the need to move on to new challenges.”
What ensued were about three months of kick-up-your-heels freedom and joy followed by – well, sheer panic.
Now, six years later, I’m over that and in transition. Self-employed, I quip that I haven’t yet given myself a job. My business card reads: Marion Kane, Food Sleuth, writer, broadcaster, cook.
My new passion (not too lucrative at this point but exciting enough to compensate) is making audio podcasts – short and longer documentaries about food and the folk who eat and/or make it.
At this age and stage in my career, I have a lot of contacts (many of them friends) in the wonderful world of food and cooking. As Julia Child once told me: “My advice to young people is to get into the food business. You’ll be part of one big family.”
I also get to channel my constant curiosity and to tell stories – now with the spoken instead of the written word. Whenever I have a yen to write, I pen a blog post like this one. Upside: no editor. Downside: no paycheck.
All of this is a long-winded way of introducing – what else? – cheesecake!
Growing up in a white-bread, white-collar North London suburb in post-war Britain with a Holocaust refugee mum from Latvia and a dad born and raised in the once working-class Jewish ghetto of Montreal was – well, different.
Both parents had accents. My dad, although a clever doctor and medical researcher at University College, London, talked like a Mafioso wise guy using expressions unintelligible to our British friends. To wit: “clip joint, don’t make me sore, scram, go fly a kite” – you get my drift, all of this in a Canadian accent. (Aside: He once told my brother Eric he got into medicine because it was “the best racket going.”)
My mother, also a science alumni of McGill, grew up speaking Russian and German and has traces of a foreign accent. She was wont to read Anna Karenina and Goethe in their original – and cooked weird food.
In the latter category were Wiener Schnitzel, Beef Stroganoff, salad with vinaigrette and European desserts like Linzertorte, her specialty.
My school chums, whose fare at home featured jam sandwiches, Toad-in-the Hole, Shepherd’s Pie and cream buns, had never encountered these “foreign” food items – not to mention the bagels and caraway rye purchased by my father at a lone Jewish deli in North Finchley near our house.
So it’s not surprising that the cheesecake I brought to school – my first effort at baking at age 14 – gained a fair bit of attention.
I made this “exotic” confection using a recipe from my mother’s early edition of the Joy of Cooking – a book she bought in Montreal in the mid-1940s in an effort to teach herself to cook.
The cake was surprisingly simple to make – basically a dry form of cottage cheese, purchased by me at the local Sainsbury’s and called “curd cheese” in 1960s London, mixed with sugar, a little flour , eggs and lemon juice, then poured over a graham cracker crust before baking.
It turned out perfectly first time – a success I boasted about at school. This included telling the tale to my favourite teacher – the rather flamboyant (gay, I now realize) Frankie Stabler who taught German and French at Minchenden Grammar School in Southgate where I was a student.
One thing led to another and cheesecake orders were placed by him every few months.
I was a serious person in my teens – into politics (the ban-the-bomb movement in particular) and not a part of any clique. My unusual home life made me an outsider in an environment where there was plenty of pressure to conform.
Happily, that home life included a love of food. Mealtimes were a mostly enjoyable ritual in a somewhat chaotic household. Parties attended by my dad’s colleagues, a smattering of actors and schoolteacher friends of my mum were also highlights. Here, I would relish passing hors d’oeuvres with special attention to dad’s handsome graduate students.
The cheesecake I brought to school confirmed to many that I did not fit in. Few had heard of this confection, let alone seen or tasted it. However, it gave me a certain cachet and the thought occurred to me that being different may not be all bad.
Soon, cooking and telling stories (preferably funny ones) became ways to get attention and my claims to fame. Today, they are the back-bone of my career and professional identity.
After returning to Canada (Edmonton, Alberta to be exact) with my parents at age 19, getting a degree in languages, working as a social worker, getting married and having my older daughter Esther, I wound up in Toronto in the mid-1970s.
In the summer of 1999, my school chum Frances Carter (nee Ainger) informed me that Minchenden, our alma mater, was holding a reunion.
My mum (now 90 and widowed since 2000) had returned to London with my dad in the mid-’80s. I stayed with her that July, baked the cheesecake from the Joy of Cooking in her kitchen and took it to the reunion.
Our teacher Frankie, looking almost the same as he had 30 years earlier, was there. We ate the cheesecake together. It was a beautiful moment.
Sadly, Frances tells me that our beloved teacher died earlier this year. But the cheesecake story lives on. Hear me tell it to my clever friend and fellow audio podcaster Sean Rasmussen who produced this lovely piece:
I recently made the vintage European-style cheesecake from the Joy of Cooking as featured in the story above and it was fine. However, it’s tricky finding the right cheese. I prefer to bake this one. It’s a cinch to make, creamy, delicate in flavour – and delicious.
Use your basic firm cream cheese sold in supermarkets. For the crust, I make coarse crumbs by grinding graham crackers in the food processor rather than use the finer, store-bought ones. Don’t be alarmed if the batter is runny but be sure to use a springform pan in which the bottom fits tightly so it doesn’t leak. Serve with fresh berries or poached fruit if desired. The Berry Glaze is yummy but optional. You could also use my Red Currant Sauce.
1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs
1/3 cup (6 tbsp) butter, melted
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 lb/500 g cream cheese, at room temperature
2/3 cup granulated sugar
Grated rind of 1 lemon
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup sour cream
1 cup sour cream
3 tbsp granulated sugar
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
Crust: In bowl, combine graham cracker crumbs, butter and sugar. Press on to bottom of 9-inch (2.5 L) springform pan. Chill in fridge.
Filling: Preheat oven to 350 F (180 C).
In bowl and using electric mixer, beat cream cheese until fluffy. One at a time, beat in eggs. Beat in sugar, lemon rind and juice until smooth. Stir in sour cream. Pour into chilled crust. Bake about 35 to 40 minutes or until puffed around edges but still slightly jiggly at centre. Meanwhile, prepare topping.
Topping: In bowl, combine sour cream, sugar and lemon juice. Spread mixture evenly over hot baked cheesecake. Return to oven; bake 5 minutes more.
Cool cheesecake to room temperature on wire rack. Refrigerate overnight. Serve with fresh berries, poached fruit or top with berry glaze.
Makes 10 servings.
Berry Glaze: Place one 300 g package frozen unsweetened raspberries, strawberries or blueberries in strainer set over bowl; thaw. Measure drained liquid; add enough cold water to make 1 cup. In another bowl, stir together 3 tbsp granulated sugar and 2 tbsp cornstarch; stir in 2 tbsp of berry juice to make smooth paste. Bring remaining berry juice to boil in small saucepan. Whisk in cornstarch mixture; return to a boil, whisking constantly. Remove pan from heat. Cool. Stir in thawed berries. Spoon over whole cheesecake, or serve in separate dish on the side. Makes about 1-1/2 cups.