Cooking From Memory ~ A Recipe Journal

Paul’s B’Earthday Cheesecake


This is an ancient recipe for a treasured dessert—a true family favorite that goes way, way back. And it’s arrived fresh each year on my birthday for as long as I can remember—right along with its backstory that begins with Joyce Gauche and her very first encounter with it.

Mrs. Harmon was a ‘Navy Wife’ in Port Lyautey (present day Kenitra), Morocco, in the late 1950’s. She and my mom, Joyce, were good friends while my dad, Gene, a navy pilot, was stationed at NAS Port Lyautey, Morocco, Africa.

As the family legend goes, this particular cheesecake showed up one afternoon at a gathering of these Navy wives, presumably along with finger sandwiches, tea and coffee. Can’t you just picture this? Well, apparently before the afternoon was complete, some of the women exchanged recipes and Joyce brought Mrs. Harmon’s Cheesecake recipe home to our family.

Blessed to be a blessing!

Not long after that, this cheesecake began showing up on my birthday—every April 22nd. The rest, as they say, is history. I’ve never had any other cake on my birthday; this was it, this IS it.

I can’t imagine celebrating without this cheesecake making its storied appearance with the ensuing ritual that goes along with it which goes something like this: the sweet treat is retrieved from the refrigerator where it has been “mellowing” overnight during “the critical aging process” and presented to the table of waiting revelers. The springform pan is loosened and disassembled, the cheesecake is adorned with festive candles and placed in the middle of the table. With eyes wide open, anticipations rising, and mouths watering, “The Birthday Song” is sung, the candles blown out, and the serving begins. At this point, and with expectation at nearly at a fevered pitch, the “Ooohhs” and “Ahhhhhs” flow freely. Quite possibly the most authentic version of this was simply, “I’m pretty sure your world is about to be rocked!”

Over the years a lot of people have sat around the birthday table as this ritual unfolded. Childhood playmates, junior and senior high school buddies, friends, and parents of friends, college roommates, teammates, girlfriends, coworkers, even doctors, lawyers, teachers and pastors has shared in this hoopla. And more than once I’ve been asked for the recipe. In fact, I’ve wished many times that I had a dollar for every person who has asked me for this cheesecake recipe. But my response was always practiced, well-rehearsed, measured, if not well-worn and disciplined. And my response was always the same.

“You’ll have to talk to Joyce about that.”

And they would. And Joyce’s reply was always the same:

“I can’t give it to you. The recipe is on a 3×5 card safely tucked—locked away in a safety deposit box at the bank. No one gets the recipe—not even Paul until Paul’s wedding day. And then, only his bride gets it.”

Well, alrighty then…

Joyce’s response was mostly followed by a momentary, if not rather awkward silence. They would just look at my mom who had moved on to something else. And then they would look at me, and I would sort of just shrug my shoulders in a kind of “I-told-you-so” kind of way. And then they would look back at Joyce—in disbelief.

Who locks a recipe away in a safety deposit box?’ They might have thought.

Joyce Gauche locks a recipe away in a safety deposit box.

And so it came to pass that on July 31, 1982, after a beautiful wedding in Williston, North Dakota, that my mom handed Nancy Lee an envelope with Nancy Lee’s name on it. Nancy Lee opened it up and pulled out a 3×5 card with the cheesecake recipe on it.

Consummation. Mission accomplished. Completion. Fulfillment.

Fast forward to this year’s celebration: I walk into our kitchen where there are hints of the festivities all over the place: mixing bowls, beaters, cream cheese wrapping, vanilla, a box of graham crackers, eggs, an empty can of crushed pineapple, and a springform pan embracing a freshly baked cheesecake; one more spectacular arrival! It is cooling. And before the night is over it will be covered and safely tucked into the refrigerator until just the right moment. To be sure, it will mellow and go through the critical aging process by the time it gets cut and served once again to a gathering of waiting and expectant revelers.

This brings me to a bit of a postscript: On the back of the original recipe card, Mrs. Harmon included a tiny detail that’s been the subject of many conversations on my birthday.

“Serves 24.”

We’ve done a lot of math through the years and even a bit of geometry as well. We’ve even considered grammar and the possibility that she missed a hyphen/ But for the life of me, I could never figure out how she was able to cut this thing into 24 pieces. When I gaze longingly at this baked treasure and see the crack that develops in the top during the cooling and naturally divides the whole cake in half (there is a way to prevent this, by the way, but that’s another post…), I usually think to myself: “Really? Twenty-four pieces? I don’t think so; serves 4 if you’re lucky.”

So here it is—out of the Safety Deposit Box and into the light of another new (birth) day for all to enjoy. Joyce would, I’m now sure of it, be okay with this.

By the way, two things I’ve learned through the years:

First, it’s important to let the pineapple drain really well. You don’t want a soggy cheesecake.

Secondly, you’ll want to let this “mellow” for at least 24 hours.

Joyce was right: there is a “critical aging process” to this; you’ve got to let the ingredients get married and get happy with each other before you consume it—or it consumes you. Maybe that’s why she waited until our wedding day to give us the recipe.

Consumed, content, and happy. Very happy.


[Update: December 2018… Epicurious calls this the best cheesecake recipe. Ever. Seriously! Check this out!

Ingredients for Graham Cracker Crust ~

  • 1 package graham crackers (9 cracker sheets), finely crushed
    • (Cook’s Note: 10 full graham cracker sheets equal 1 ½ cups of crumbs)
  • 2 Tablespoons sugar
  • 6 Tablespoons butter, melted

Method for Graham Cracker Crust ~

Mix well.  Pat into bottom of a spring form pan.  Bake at 350° for 10 minutes. Let the crust cool before adding the filling.

  Cheesecake Original Recipe Mom's Handwriting

Ingredients for the Cheesecake ~

  • 2 large cakes (16 ounces) plain cream cheese at room temperature
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 cups of pineapple, well drained

 Original Recipe Cheesecake Front

Method for the Cheesecake ~

Beat well with an electric mixer.  Pour over graham cracker crust. Bake at 375° for 25 minutes.  Cool.

Cheesecake Lemon Curd

Ingredients for the Topping ~

  • 1 pint sour cream
  • 3 Tablespoons sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla

Method for the Topping ~

Mix well. Cover entire top of cake.

Bake at 375° for 5 minutes.

Chill, baby… chill overnight. This is the “critical aging process” so let it mellow.

3 Responses to 'Paul’s B’Earthday Cheesecake'

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  1. Brother Bob said,

    What a great way to spend time on good Good Friday–sharing the story of a sweet slice of your life. Thanks for your b-day present to the rest of us!

    P.S. I think Mrs. Harmon missed a dash and meant “Serves 2-4,” depending, of course, on who’s around the table, the number of forks and a fair start.

  2. Wilma Lysen said,

    The topping…..2 tsp of vanilla or 2 Tablespoons of vanilla?

  3. kathy lynn and matt said,

    Happy B’earthday dear Friend. Loved the story of your cheesecake! Just returned home from a feast at Chris and Nan (spooner) Kennelly’s. Did a houseblessing for their new home in N. Fargo (Stunning) followed by an afternoon together with family/friends. The sunny resurrection day included planting a white crab tree/multi-branch bush to celebrate Lydia’ first Communion on Thursday. A gift from us. “What a cool idea! How did you think of this ?” “Jenny Lynn received a white crab tree on confirmation from her godpapa paul and godmama nancy!” that’s how. hugs, across the miles. Travel well. matt and kathy and matthias.

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