Today, my little sister Ellen turns 27.
I was a few months shy of turning 4 when she was born, and I took my responsibilities as a big sister very seriously. Once, when baby Ellen started to cry, I reached her before Mom did and sang lullabies to soothe her. As we grew up, Ellen was "the quiet one" among the Sweet siblings, and nowadays, she's the one I call if I need a shopping buddy or someone to go to a girly movie with.
I don't know anyone who enjoys her birthday as much as Ellen does. Some people with December birthdays may find that their special day gets lost in the holiday shuffle, but not Ellen. She starts counting down to her birthday in October. The Advent calendar, with only four weeks counting down till Christmas, has got nothing on my sister.
Tribune Chronicle / Mary Beth Wyko
Plain cheesecake with cherry pie filling and whipped cream is a perfect dessert to celebrate a birthday.
In my family, we celebrate birthdays with dinner at the restaurant of the celebrant's choice followed by dessert and presents at Mom's. Though we used to celebrate with the traditional cake and ice cream, I realized that our habits have changed since my diagnosis of celiac disease four years ago. This year, for example, I chose pecan pie for my birthday; my brother Dan picked a chocolate eclair dessert; and my youngest sister Chrissy chose a Dairy Queen ice cream cake. For Mom's birthday, we went back to tradition, and I baked gluten-free cupcakes.
As for Ellen, without fail she chooses the Olive Garden for her birthday dinner, but for dessert this year, she requested cheesecake. Her big sister had a Tribune Cooks story due and a favorite cheesecake recipe, so I volunteered to make Ellen's birthday cake.
My cheesecake recipe started life as a Key Lime cheesecake recipe I found on the Internet several years ago. After making the original version, I realized that with a few tweaks, I could transform it from Key Lime cheesecake to plain cheesecake to chocolate chip cheesecake. I have ideas for turning this recipe into Nutella cheesecake and possibly pecan pie cheesecake, but those are experiments I haven't tried yet.
Basic cheesecake recipe
1 1/2 cup graham cracker crumbs or crushed gluten-free cookies
6 tablespoons butter, melted
24 oz. cream cheese, softened
1 cup white sugar
1 tablespoon corn starch
1 tablespoon vanilla
1/3 cup lemon juice
1/3 cup sour cream
Combine cookie or graham cracker crumbs with butter. Press into bottom and partially up sides of a 9-inch springform pan. Refrigerate.
In a large bowl, beat with an electric mixer the cream cheese, sugar, vanilla and corn starch until smooth and fluffy. Beat in eggs one at a time, blending just until smooth. Add lemon juice and sour cream with mixer on low. Finish mixing by hand. Do not overbeat, or cake will crack during baking.
Pour batter into prepared crust. Bake at 300 degrees for 55 to 65 minutes, or until set. To minimize cracking, place a shallow pan half full of hot water on lower rack during baking. Turn oven off and let cheesecake stand in oven 30 minutes with the door open at least four inches.
Remove from oven. Refrigerate cake overnight and up to three days. If desired, top with fruit or canned pie filling.
Yield: 12 servings
I tweaked the recipe even further this time - the sour cream is a new addition - and the result was a rich and creamy plain cheesecake that I don't think I would improve on. I also added a sprinkle of brown sugar to the cookie crumb crust - a hint I picked up from the pumpkin cheesecake recipe I made for Thanksgiving.
With cherries and whipped cream optional, Ellen and the rest of my family enjoyed the birthday cheesecake at Ellen's party on Sunday. There was only a little bit left when I went home - enough for Ellen to have another piece today, her actual birthday.
The year following my 27th birthday was one of my best, and I wish the same for my little sister. Happy birthday, Ellen!