My parents used to host an annual holiday party. About fifteen minutes before showtime, a gang of flickering votives would appear in the downstairs windows. My siblings and I would be summoned for shoe patrol, which was met with groans, and meant our shoe piles in the laundry room were rounded up and tossed somewhere out of sight.
My mother would then take the miniature crustless cheesecakes she baked in holly leaf paper wrappers and arrange them on a silver tray. Each one was jeweled with a single red canned cherry. They were meant to last for only one bite and I could easily have consumed them all by myself, bite by bite, had it not have been for the other guests.
The dessert only made an appearance around Christmastime. Its presence indicated that everything was going to be okay, except maybe for the Keds cast into internment.
When I think about those cherry-topped cheesecakes I feel a little heartsick. They remind me of a time when my family unit was intact, before my parents divorced and went on to become people whose pairing, in retrospect, did not make sense.
They remind me that my childhood home was sold, painted forest green, and now hosts a blowup Santa on the roof well into Valentine’s Day. (I am sure my mother would have something to say about that state of the laundry room these days, as well.)
They remind me I can never return to that place.
A teeny dessert with a cherry on top will never taste like it did at eight years old. Its existence indicated there were grownups that also valued tiny little cheesecakes, and these adults would be the kind to protect you, and nothing would ever change.
I suppose I could make them for myself these days, but doubt they would feel the same.
I was recently testing a recipe for a friend and it reminded me of those little cakes from childhood, adult-sized. You would never know it was gluten-free, and probably would not care after tasting it either, regardless of your stance on wheat.
The gluten-free cakes are slightly savory, but because of this they are easily eaten for breakfast with coffee, as is said to happen in El Salvador where the recipe originates. You can leave off the lemon zest in a pinch, though its presence melds the sweet and salty aspects together seamlessly. You cannot leave off the pecorino cheese, however odd its presence seems. It adds addictive umami. Cheesy pound cake is a pretty apt description.
They will not replace the departure of those cherry-topped cheesecakes, but that is not their role. They stand in their own right as a present-day source of comfort and of remembrance. There is an article in The New Yorker from February 13th called “Losing Streak” that sums up this evolution perfectly.
“Disappearance reminds us to notice, transience to cherish, fragility to defend. Loss is a kind of external conscience, urging us to make better use of our finite days.”
These cakes represent this, in food form. It was never really about the cheesecakes, after all.
Gluten Free Salvadorian Cheese Pound Cakes
Adapted from Food52
- 1 cup rice flour (see notes)
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 pinch salt
- 1 cup butter, softened
- ⅔ cup sugar
- 3 large eggs
- 1 cup whole milk Greek yogurt
- ½ cup pecorino cheese
- zest of one lemon
- sesame seeds, to top
Set the oven to 350 degrees. Grease two 6-cup muffin tins with butter.
In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter and sugar on medium high until fluffy and white (about two minutes). Scrape down the sides and then add the eggs in one at a time, with the mixer running on low.
Turn up the speed slightly and beat in the yogurt and cheese. Take care, the mixture may splatter a bit. At this point the batter will look slightly separated.
Remove the bowl from the stand and fold in the flour mixture and the lemon zest with a spatula, until just combined.
Fill the muffin tins mostly full, the batter will puff up slightly but will not significantly expand. Sprinkle each with a pinch of sesame seeds.
Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the edges are browned and the middles spring slightly back when touched.
Place the tins on a wire baking rack. When the cakes are cool enough to touch, run a knife around the edges of the cups to loosen them.
Makes 12 individual cakes
- I like them cooled to room temperature, but enjoy them even more after being chilled overnight in the fridge. They take on the properties of cheesecake better in this form. They can be frozen, as well.
- The recipe makes no distinction between brown or white rice flour. I used brown and will again (there was no notable density from the extra fiber).
- Hard cheeses like cojita or parmesan can also be used, but pecorino is what I keep around.