Family traditions are a fine thing, except when they're inconvenient, outdated, unappreciated, annoying or molded in gelatin. Which is to say one or two family traditions are a fine thing, particularly the edible ones. I'm at that weird point in my mid-30s where, fully launched into the uncharted waters of adulthood, I pilot a strange craft, an identity constructed of several decades of friends and hobbies, a new relationship and old vices. Deciding which family traditions to take with me is the last thing that keeps me in harbor. I've staged a slow coup of hosting Thanksgiving but I'm trying to offload planning the family reunion. In this metaphor, my mother is only too ready to see me off. She has fortified me with a few dozen hand-written recipe cards. The pickles and jams may have to wait until I run aground somewhere that has 20 extra hours in the week (seriously, how did her generation do it?) but cream cheese pie? That I can do.
I was tasked with making this pie, a family recipe from my late grandmother, for the Ferndale Museum's annual Sweet Memories Dessert Auction, which is being held this Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Ferndale City Hall. Served at every holiday, this dessert reminds me of my grandmother. It's sweet and tart and pretty without being fussy. Being asked to make it was a real honor, especially when you consider that my mother's cousins will also be reuniting this weekend — Mother's Day weekend — for the first time since our Aunt Ticki's funeral. They'll each bring desserts that represent the six Robinson sisters, girls who grew up in Ferndale during the Great Depression. They, too, had to leave familiar shores to establish their own families and lives, and struggle with the challenges of a much different, more difficult era in American life, when you sewed your own clothes, canned your own food and almost nothing — save tradition — was guaranteed. The cousins' family recipes, along with those of other Ferndale families, will be compiled in a cookbook for sale that day, with all proceeds from its sale and the dessert auction going to benefit the Ferndale Museum. It's rare that we all get together for events besides funerals. This is a tradition I'd like to take with me — reuniting for something sweet.
Cream Cheese Pie
Recipe courtesy of the heirs to the recipe box of Colleen Perrone.
For the crust:
¼ cup butter, melted
1 package graham crackers, crushed
¼ cup sugar
For the filling:
8-ounce package cream cheese, room temperature
½ cup sour cream
2 teaspoons vanilla
2/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 teaspoons cornstarch
½ teaspoon grated lemon zest
For the topping:
1 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
¼ cup sugar
Heat the oven to 350 F.
First, make the crust. In a large bowl, mix the crushed graham crackers with ¼ cup sugar. Stir in melted butter and combine well. (My mom's less-mess tip: crush the crackers with a rolling pin in a large re-sealable plastic bag, then add the sugar, then the butter. Shake vigorously.) Press the mixture evenly into the bottom and along the sides of a standard 9-inch pie tin.
Next, make the filling. In a large mixing bowl, beat the cream cheese and ½ cup sour cream until smooth. Add eggs, sugar, vanilla, lemon juice, cornstarch and lemon zest and blend thoroughly. Pour the mixture into crust. Bake until the center is puffed, dry and lightly browned, about 30 minutes for a conventional oven (50 minutes for a woodstove in the original recipe). Let the pie cool until the surface flattens, about 10 minutes. Keep the oven on.
In a medium bowl, use a spatula to blend the topping ingredients. Spread the mixture evenly over the pie and bake an additional 5 minutes. Remove the pie and let it cool completely. Refrigerate it overnight or for at least 5 hours before serving. Top with fruit or lemon curd if you like, but in our family, we think plain pie tastes fine!