Some years ago, we had a store. We called it a “General Store” because we made all sorts of different foods but also filled our shelves with anything special that we found and liked. We sold pasta and cheese, tea and jam, coffee in barrels, baked goods, and the best gourmet sandwiches. We had an espresso/cappuccino bar long before Starbucks became a household word. The store was a meeting place, too, where local artists could hang their work and musicians strummed their guitars. We even had a bocci court out back. We sold kites in spring and Flexible Flyer sleds in winter. We brought back pasta machines and Kay Bojesen’s spectacular wooden toys back from trips and sold them for the holidays. After working endlessly long hours seven days a week for months, we realized we needed an extra hand.
While working behind the counter one day, the shop bell rang out and there stood a woman with salt-and-pepper hair. “Do you need hep?” she asked. “I’m sorry?” I asked apologetically, not understanding.
Struggling to keep her composure, she asked again, “Do you need hep?”
It took me a second to understand her. She had an accent that I couldn’t readily place. I could see she was fighting back tears. She spoke quickly: She had just come from the city looking for a position as a nanny with no luck. She had recently lost her husband and had three daughters, Monique, Claudette and Janine. Her husband had been a sous chef who had taught her a lot about food. She was French Canadian from Quebec. She lived in the neighborhood not far from the store. She was reserved and nervous (“nervoose” as she would later say). It took a lot for her to walk in off the street that day.
“As a matter of fact, we were just thinking about hiring someone. Just give me a minute.” I walked to the back and told my business partner about Nellie. There was no way I was sending her off without a job. We needed help. And so did she. It was as simple as that.
The following Monday, Nellie showed up for work right on time.
We worked side by side and shared a lot during those years. I used to call Nellie my second mother. We laughed all the time. I teased her about her accent. She teased me about mine. When Lee was born, Nellie knitted her the most beautiful sweaters, one pink with pearl white buttons, one yellow with blue buttons, and a pink and white pullover.
Nellie was wonderful—kind, thoughtful, and incredibly generous with her knowledge of food and cooking. It was hard for both of us when Frank was offered a new job in another state. We talked about what she would to do next and then, thankfully, with a glowing reference for added support, she quickly found work as a nanny. The last day at the store was tough.
As years went by, we didn’t talk as much as we once had, but Nellie stories and recipes always filled our time in the kitchen. Whenever the two of us did have the chance talk, we’d pick up right where we left off.
In the Summer of 2009, Lee called me at my office. “You have a letter from Nellie’s daughter.” My heart sank: “Open it.”
Janine wrote, “…suffering was brief . . . she always kept her wonderful, selfless spirit…” In a phone call that night, Janine said: “She didn’t want you to know she was sick, but she made me promise to tell you after. It all happened very fast…”
I can still hear Nellie’s voice and see her, hands on hips, laughing away. After trying a new recipe, I can see her pressing her thumb and first two fingers to her lips and kissing them. Her face would brighten with a proud smile and with a twinkle in her eye, she’d say: “It’s…it’s good.”
Yes…yes, Nellie, it absolutely was!
* * * *
Notes: Since this month is Nellie’s birthday, we’d like to share one of her favorite recipes…the perfect cheesecake. This one is truly unbelievable. If you like cheesecake, this. is it. The cake does need to be refrigerated overnight before serving. However, it’s so simple to make that you really could get up early to bake it instead and refrigerate it all day to serve that evening.
Feel free to use any cookie you’d like for the crumb crust. (We are VERY partial to chocolate wafers.) For the cream cheese, you can to choose reduced fat (or Neufchâtel) or regular. It’s up to you. Lee always pushes for the full monty and Lou always sneaks in a mix of reduced fat and regular. If you choose to use all Neufchâtel or another low fat cream cheese, add a couple of tablespoons of cornstarch to give it a little more body. The full fat choice really is the tastiest option but using a combination is a pretty close second.
Also, a big plus: This cake freezes beautifully. Cut any leftovers into slices and wrap individually. That way when you’re in the mood for a treat, you can just open your freezer, pull out a slice, and defrost it in the fridge or at room temperature. Add an espresso and it might as well be a holiday. (Speaking of which, you’re going to want to bookmark this for the holidays. It’s a crowd-pleaser and it’s not even difficult to make. Magic.)
-A 9 1/2 inch spring form pan
-A food processor
Preheat oven to 375°F.
-1 box of chocolate wafer cookies (or another wafer/graham cracker-like cookie you’d prefer to use)
-1 cup walnuts, chopped (careful of shell fragments!)
-3 tbs granulated sugar
-6 tbs softened, unsalted butter—plus a bit more for buttering the pan
*Butter the spring form pan well.
*Break the wafer cookies into pieces, and with the metal blade already in place, add them to the bowl of your food processor. Add the sugar and grind into crumbs. Add the walnuts and process until nuts are ground finely. Add the butter and pulse until everything is well mixed.
*Press the chocolate crumb mixture evenly into the buttered springform pan to coat the bottom and sides. Set aside.
-1 1/2 lbs cream cheese, softened (The softened part is key, otherwise you’ll wind up with chunks.)
-1 cup granulated sugar
-4 large eggs
-3 tbs of cream or milk
-1 tsp vanilla extract
*Clean the bowl of the processor and add cream cheese and sugar. Process just until creamy.
*Add the eggs one at a time, processing after each egg to mix.
*Add the cream or milk and vanilla. Mix until blended.
*Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake on the middle rack for 40-45 minutes.
*While the cake is baking, make the topping.
*The cake is done when the top just barely starts to show color and the edges are set and maybe show some tiny cracks. Leaving the oven on, remove the cake and let it stand a few minutes before adding the topping…
-2 cups sour cream, room temperature
-1 tbs granulated sugar
-1 tsp vanilla extract
*Mix the sour cream, sugar, and vanilla in a small bowl. After the cake has rested, spread the topping over the cheesecake, being careful not to dig in. Return the cake to the over for 5 minutes and remove to a rack.
*Cool cheesecake completely at room temperature and refrigerate overnight. Yes, sorry but you have to wait.
*Remove sides of the springform pan and serve.
HOW GOOD IS IT? UNBELIEVABLY, RIDICULOUSLY GOOD.