There is a certain smell to summer that carries youthful nostalgia tied to adventure, good food, and friends. And when the wind is perfect, a jumble of happy and hilarious memories come back in an exhilarating rush, usually with a craving attached. Right up there with root beer popsicles and Snoopy snowcones, my childhood summertimes were made of canned cherries, graham crackers, and Dream Whip.
The cool and creamy cherry cheesecake my mother and grandmother made on special occasions was well worth volunteering for dish duty in hopes of earning a preliminary taste. Born into the 1980’s semi-homemade canon of recipes, the combination of graham cracker crust, whipped and fluffy cream cheese layer, and glossy covering of canned cherries in thick, sweet syrup kept myself and my fellow siblings at a near-constant hover begging for licks and spoonfuls, snatching whatever mouthfuls we could manage while the baker’s back was turned.
The year I turned 11 I was spending most of my free time in the kitchen. Having my when-I-grow-up sights set on becoming a chef since I was eight years old, I had a long list of skills to acquire and often roped my two best buddies—next-door neighbor, Christine, and younger sister, Melese—into the baking projects and mock cooking shows along with me. So when my mother, finding herself in need of outsourcing tasks for my cousin’s bridal shower, enlisted me to take charge of the cheesecake, it was with deep solemnity and honor that I accepted.
The morning of the party dawned sunny and found our trio with aprons cinched and hands busy crushing crackers into dust. Divvying up the tasks, we glanced briefly at the recipe card my mother had left in my grandmother’s loopy handwriting for us to follow, imagining how delicious our masterpiece would be. Besides being a truly excellent cook, my grandmother was also a dramatic woman inclined to exaggeration, cackles of glee, and whose convincing wicked witch voice had us wondering if Hansel & Gretel wasn’t a fairy tale but a family history after all. We both adored and were unnerved to our very cores by her.
We crushed and melted and stirred the crumb crust, carefully adding the quarter teaspoon of cinnamon, and hovered together over the nine-by-thirteen dish, breathing in its cozy aroma as six hands pressed it into place. We joked and teased each other, mashing cream cheese with blender beaters, sending bits skyward as we fell into fits of giggles, and let the mixer lift over the edge of its bowl. We fought over who got to spread and swoop the fluffy layer and who could lick the spatula once the last swoop had been shaped. We sneaked cherries when the others weren’t looking, and finally sat back on our bar stools to admire the finished product. As we sat there, eyes shiny as the ruby glaze in front of us, we moaned and whined over the hours to come before we would actually taste our magnum opus. How we wished we could dig into just one corner to make sure it was fit for the party! We sighed and popped the pan into the fridge and had started into cleanup when someone reread the recipe and gasped. An instant cloud of dread settled over the kitchen as our young minds realized we’d missed what was surely a vital step in the process: baking the graham cracker crust. In that moment there was no doubt we had rendered the cake inedible; our blunder would surely be discovered, and…we let our active imaginations run wild. Certain of our impending doom but realizing we had the makings of a duplicate dessert, we vowed to take this disaster to the grave and agreed the only remaining problem was that something had to be done with the evidence. It obviously wasn’t fit for the party guests, we told each other, inching toward the silverware and handing out spoons, and would have to be…eliminated.
Disposing of our mistake was a dream come true and we grinned widely, savoring spoonful after glorious spoonful heaped with our inedible flop. We paused briefly to start Cheesecake 2.0 and went back for more, filling up, licking our fingers, and eventually slowing down with half a pan left. We just need to digest a bit, we told each other as the phone started to ring, and set our spoons down to answer it. Our eyes widened as Grandma’s voice carried through the receiver; we had 15 minutes at most before her arrival and our subsequent discovery. “All hands on deck!” we shouted and, panic coursing through us, we scrambled to stuff ourselves to limits previously unknown to our tween bellies.
The dream that had filled us with so much joy turned quickly into nightmare. We ate manically, threatening each other with exposure if anyone took a half bite. Our taste buds dulled, and our stomachs threatened mutiny. Time flew, and as the minutes slipped away we couldn’t help but think of poor Hansel’s plight, sizing up our oven and hoping we wouldn’t fit. At last, the final bite consumed and the fresh crust baking, we waddled to the front door in time to greet Grandma and welcome her with the lightest of hugs. She walked to the oven, peered in, and said, ‘You know, you all are so great to follow directions. Half the time I forget to bake the crust and no one even knows the difference!’ I’m sure she expected laughter from her joke and must have been surprised to receive only dead stares and perhaps a small tear.
To this day my summers are still filled with cheesecake and chaos. But the fact that I continue to crave this recipe each year only confirms the power of nostalgia, good food with friends, and hilarious memories worth reliving and retelling. You can slice this one up to serve; however, I still prefer it straight out of the pan with a spoon.
Grandma Derr’s Cherry Cheesecake
2 packages graham crackers, crushed to crumbs
1 stick butter, melted
1 Tbsp. granulated sugar
¼ tsp. cinnamon
8 oz. cream cheese, warmed slightly
1 package Dream Whip, made according to directions
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cans sweetened cherry pie filling
Preheat the oven to 375°F.
In a medium bowl, toss together the cracker crumbs, melted butter, sugar, and cinnamon. Using fingers, press the crust into a 9″ x 13″ Pyrex pan and bake 10–12 minutes or until fragrant and edges are slightly browned. Remove the pan to a cooling rack and allow to cool completely, about 20 minutes. (Feel free to leave this step out, though, as apparently no one even notices.)
In a medium bowl, whip the cream cheese and vanilla with a hand mixer until smooth and no lumps remain. Slowly add the prepared Dream Whip, folding in a small bit at a time. Spread into the cooled, prepared crust.
Drop spoonfuls of cherry pie filling across the Dream Whip layer and gently spread to connect them evenly. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least one hour before serving.
Serves 6–8 (or three very panicked young girls).