My grandmother, Winifred Alice (McLean) Curran, was not the warm and fuzzy kind. In fact, when we kids would misbehave, my mother (her daughter) would threaten to send us off to "visit Nana." Truth is, she was a pretty serious woman, but she sure did know how to make a Lemon Cheese Pie, but more about this misnomer later.
Her dour demeanor was not totally without cause. Born November 23, 1891, Win emigrated to America in 1910 at the tender age of 19, not meeting and marrying my grandfather Bartholomew until 1923, a full thirteen years later. That’s a long time to live in a new country, alone in the small town of Norwood, Massachusetts.
My grandfather passed long before I was born in 1961, so once again, Nana was solo for a large part of her life.
“I am smiling.” Win’s U.S. Citizenship photo; Win with 13 of her 15 grandchildren. The author is next to her cousins Kevin (with the mustache) and Greg (eyes closed); and my mother on her wedding day, January 3, 1953, pinning a corsage on Win.
Conversely, my own mother, Mary Alice, Nana’s middle child, was about a silly as you get, quick to laugh (usually at herself) and extremely loving.
I learned much later in life that she made up her mind to instill in her own family, by example, the importance of public displays of affection. To this day, we Turners and our extended family of Currans are a very huggy-kissy bunch.
Sweet Mary Alice and Colleen at ChrisTurner’s wedding, October 15, 1983. Note: the red beret I am sporting is saved from her professional working days in the early 1950s, just before she married my father.
Aside from always telling me she never pursued her driver’s license because "those dang automobiles are just a fad," Nana was one of those cooks who pan fried the ever-lovin’ daylights out of meat and made the best lumpy Cream of Wheat (I never did figure out how to give that backhanded compliment without earning said backhand).
But when it came to sweets, she exhibited a much softer touch. Her pie crusts were legendary and every holiday season she would make her signature Lemon Cheese Pie. Unfortunately, she refused to share the recipe. When she passed in 1980, it passed with her.
Flash forward to my own sweet mother. Mary Alice did not like to cook. Sing, shoot hoops and chick-chat ’til the cows come home, yes. Yet, with a family of six, she was pressed into meal prep multiple times a day and she was quite talented, despite her lack of enthusiasm. Desserts, as a result of this aversion, were relegated to special events and birthdays.
She, too, loved her mother’s cheese pie, but could never quite replicate it, so she came up with a cheater’s version she called Lemon Chiffon Pie as her go-to treat. It was a delicious, light, fluffy custard complemented by the sweet crumbly crunch of a graham cracker crust (again, her disdain for cooking precluded the making of pie crusts). The primary base was sour cream and a Lemon Chiffon pudding made by Jell-O. In the 70s, when Jell-O discontinued the product, Mom discontinued making the pie. Insert sad face here.
I, however, always wanted to figure out what made Mom's and Nana’s pies so delicious, somewhat similar, yet completely different from one another.
Enter Mildred Martha Theresa Studley Kelly (she of Perfect Pumpkin Bread fame whom you met previously). Milly helped me decipher what was in each pie culled from collective family recollections and she correctly pointed out that based on the described taste and texture, Nana’s Lemon Cheese Pie was probably more of a custard-like cheesecake. And Mom’s Lemon Chiffon Pie using Jell-O as well as sour cream as the base may have tasted similar, but was in fact, more of a pudding.
I now had a mission. Tracking down and tasting different cheesecake versions, be it at a restaurant, party, store or bake sale, became my focus. And let me tell you, there are numerous iterations of cheesecake. From the dense NY style to the no-bake variety. Some with crusts, others without. Fruit topped or swirled with everything from chocolate to pumpkin. And despite my many attempts to find something similar to Nana’s pie, especially, every recipe fell woefully short.
Until one morning as I watched a morning news show before work, a chef came on talking about her recipe for creamy, pudding-like cheesecake that will win you over in an instant. This was back in the 80s, before everything could be found on the internet, so I grabbed pen and paper and scribbled furiously as I watched her make this magical dessert. I knew I was close to the perfect version of Win’s dessert, this just from watching.
The original scrap of paper that I scribbled the recipe on while watching the chef make it on TV.
Milly, again, comes to mind when ticking off why this particular recipe struck a hopeful nerve with me. She taught me that a creamy, pudding-like texture in a cheesecake results from slow cooking in a steam bath. Check. She also explained that mixing the ingredients in a particular order is a science and must be followed to the letter. Check. I couldn’t wait to dig out my own springform pan and purchase all the necessary ingredients.
The TV version used ladyfingers as the crust (ick) and no lemon zest (egads!), encouraging me to improvise right from the start. After a bit of tweaking over the years, this is what many have told me is the lightest, most creamy and delicious lemon cheesecake they have ever tasted. And, frankly, I have to agree. It’s foolproof and will dazzle at any event, just don’t skimp on the cooking and resting times listed. This process ensures a crack-free cake and the perfect consistency.
1 1/4 cups finely crushed graham crackers (8 whole pieces)
1/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup butter, melted
1/4 cup pecans, coarsely chopped (optional)
Preheat oven to 375ºF. Mix all ingredients until well blended. Pour mixture into a springform pan and evenly press firmly onto the bottom, pushing up sides approximately 1/4-1/2 inch (use a 1/4 cup measure to push crust tightly into the edge). Bake 8-10 minutes until lightly browned. Let cool completely.
2 8-ounce packages cream cheese (Philly brand is best), room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Zest of that lemon
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 cups sour cream
In a stand mixer (or large mixing bowl if using a hand mixer), place cream cheese and sugar. Mix well. Add eggs and cornstarch. Mix well. Add lemon juice, zest, salt. Mix well. Add sour cream. Mix well. Consistency should be smooth and creamy.
Take cooled graham cracker crust and wrap outside of pan in foil (two sheets in a crisscross pattern is best). Pour in filling. Gently tap pan against countertop to remove any air bubbles.
Place tinfoil wrapped pan into baking dish and pour in enough hot water to reach up two inches on the pan. Bake on middle rack in a 350ºF oven for 1 hour. Turn off oven and let cake sit in cooling oven for 1 hour. Remove cake from water bath and let sit on a rack on the counter for 1 hour. Place in refrigerator. Let sit on counter for 1 hour before serving to enjoy the creamiest texture. For slicing, a thin knife dipped in warm water or dental floss (seriously) ensures a smooth and accurate cut.
Truly a sight to behold. And yes, it really is that smooth and creamy! Serving tip: use dental floss (unflavored, of course) if pre-slicing for serving to large crowds. Simply stretch a strand across the center and pull straight down, through the crust. Cross that line and pull straight down again (you should have four even wedges). Rotate and continue slicing until desired slice count is reached. I opt for 16 slices, but 32 can work as well.