Layers: A Recipe for Tiramisu Cheesecake and What Else Can Be Made of Liquor, Language and Love.
“Is there too much Kahlua?” It struck her as a strange question. She, for one, didn’t know a way to remove an ingredient from peaks of whipped cream, once it had already been incorporated. But she answered her daughter, anyway. After all, it was she who may have given this to her — the compulsive need to check.
On the other hand, Martha seemed rather grounded in the task. She was attempting a Tiramisu-Cheesecake, which read like a question as much as a title — “How is that going to work?” One wanted to ask, without sounding rude.
But when the tedious work of smoothing batter along the steep edges of the pan had been rendered meaningless upon their immediate collapse in the oven, Martha had simply shrugged — “Whatever.” She let the attempt go like the loose strand of blonde hair that now freed itself from her bun and stuck to her lip, sticky with liquor.
In these moments of calm, Martha had the strange feeling of watching herself. Like she was sitting from the velvet boxes of an opera house, observing life from high up instead of down low. She was not thinking of her cake and how it would be received by the guests tonight. Instead, she was thinking of whether it was okay — and to whom — that she had not awakened earlier to write before baking. Mary Oliver, during some interview, had said it was crucial to give your best to words as early as possible. “And then you’ll be okay, because you’ll already have had your say.” When she found the parchment paper embedded into the chocolate dough, like fallen tents into the dirt, she thought of this and wondered not if it would turn out alright, but rather, ‘why do I like baking so much?’ No one liked or disliked anything for a simple reason. This Martha had learned.
The timer went off, and Martha searched for a matching oven mitt before sliding her left hand into one designed for the right. It confounded her: How the things that mattered to her most, hardly mattered at all. This was not an opinion. In the most literal sense, some things did not matter. They do not weigh anything in ounces. Their readiness cannot be tested with a toothpick.
Her passions were silent, insubstantial. Only she could tell how much drunkenness was in a poem, or whether a story’s ending was savory or sweet.
When the cake had cooled, Martha took a butter knife to its burnt orange surface. Her mother watched. It was cracked like the grand canyon, or a desert-state from a plane window. She spread the cream across the fissures.
Her mother had suggested a heart-shaped pan. She had agreed. But the mascarpone flesh had exhaled a hot breath and now the cheesecake slightly relaxed into an oval face.
Her mother had suggested a heart-shaped pan. She had agreed. But the mascarpone flesh now exhaled a hot breath and the cheesecake slightly relaxed into an oval face.
Martha accentuated the curves of the heart’s shoulders with an extra layer of cream. And as she did, she felt was smoothing out a miscommunication (or preventing one), as one emboldens the right angle of an “L” on a birthday card so it is not mistaken for an “I” by the recipient — I Love you.
How just one curve, could change the meaning of something entirely. The thought occurred to Martha, casually. And yet, how profound: the difference between love and not-love was infinite.
At that, Martha turned to her mother, who was still in her pajamas; her mother, who had risen early to taste the amount of Kahlua in her cream; who, of all things she had passed on to her daughter had, above all, given her love.
“Does this look like a heart?”
Susan, who had been organizing the mugs in the pantry — the one in her hand now reading “Do More of What You Love” in rainbow font — abandoned her morning tasks and floated over to the counter. Her face lit up with a smile of approval, even before she could see the cake. She was looking at her daughter.She repeated the question in her head.
More and more now multi-tasking was becoming impossible. Sentences were like kettles that, without warning, emptied their meaning onto the counter before a cup had been aligned to receive them. She was the cup. Her daughter’s question, the kettle. Or was Martha the water, whining to be poured into some shape that could be held, received? The metaphor slowly disintegrated.
But even before her mother answered, Martha knew her answer. She was now sprinkling the dark-chocolate shavings above the cream, which arranged themselves partly at random, and partly because of the muscles in Martha’s careful hand: now clenching, now releasing; now holding on, now letting go.
‘Does it look like a heart?’ This, too, had been both a question and a statement. Both a risk and a promise.
“Yes, it does.”
Her mother’s affirmation settled onto the answer inside her, until one absorbed the other.
Hours later, when her guests cut the cake to pieces and analyzed its distinct layers — the dark nutty crust underlining the thick white of cheese, cushioned by cream — these levels remained invisibly fused. She had had her say. Love, from truth, could not be removed.
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup butter unsalted & softened
1.5 cup almond flour
1/3 cup cocoa powder, unsweetened
3–4 tablespoons espresso (or strong coffee)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3-4 tablespoons Kahlua (or rum)
8 oz mascarpone cheese
16 oz cream cheese
1/2 cup white sugar
1/3 cup espresso
1/4 cup Kahlua (or more to taste)
1/4 cup white flour (I add this because like my cheesecakes on the thicker side. If you’re trying to make this cake gluten free, I’m sure another flour or cutting the flour altogether would be fine).
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1-2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder, depending on how chocolatey you want your top layer.
3–4 tbsp Kahlua (adjust to your taste; I like mine on the boozier side)
1/8 cup sugar
2 tbsp espresso/ coffee
1 tbsp hazelnut flavored agave or Nutella (optional)
Pre-heat the oven to 350F degrees.
Beat the eggs and sugar in a bowl for about 2 minutes, until well blended and airy.
Add the butter and mix until blended
Add the remaining crust ingredients and whisk until the mixture is smooth. It should be dark and chocolatey-colored.
Place the mixture into a greased, parchment line spring form cake tin (8 inch size) you can try to line the sides of the tin with the batter but, as my story revealed, these edges collapsed in the oven for me. I suggest leaving the sides of the tin bare, and using all of the batter to create a thick brownie-esque bottom crust. My guests loved this.
Bake for 15 minutes, just to set.
Remove and set aside to cool.
In a bowl, beat the cream cheese and mascarpone together until the mixture is smooth.
Add the sugar, espresso and Kahlua and incorporate until smooth
Spoon on top of the brownie-crust cake base and place in oven
Bake for 30 minutes at the same temperature, or until the top turns golden-burnt-orange, and you see a few cracks.
After 30 minutes, turn off the oven but KEEP THE CHEESECAKE INSIDE for another 15 minutes! The insides will keep cooking, without burning the top.
Remove and let cool on the stove-top.
Whip the heavy cream until peaks form.
Add the Kahlua, cocoa, espresso, sugar, and hazelnut agave (if you are using) and whip these additional ingredients in for another ten seconds, until incorporated.
Spoon the whipped cream on top of the cheesecake. Make a THICK layer (2 inches) and spread evenly with a butter knife.
Cut dark chocolate into thin shavings. I used bittersweet Scharffenberger. Scatter a thick layer of the shavings on top of the cream. (I feel mine could have used more — see picture above.) If you don’t have a dark chocolate bar, you can use cocoa powder.
This cake only survived our sweet tooth for 3 days but it was just as delicious on the third as it was on the first! Keep in fridge for up to a week!