I have very few memories of my wife cooking or baking. However, there is one memory that will stay in our minds forever. Shortly after we met 10 years ago, Anne baked a cake that I loved and that I had not tasted again until this week. This was our first Valentine’s Day together.
We decided to cook an Eastern European meal to honor Anne’s ashkenazi heritage. On the menu: a vegetable aspic, a coulibiac and a sernik.
It was the first time I heard about this Polish cheesecake . At the time, Anne had used store-bought cheese. When Véra and I decided to embark on this special sweet week for Valentine’s Day, I immediately thought of the sernik. Ten years and three children later, I was finally going to taste this divine cheesecake again.
So I decided to go to Trader Joe’s, a supermarket chain known for its fresh and healthy products to buy the ingredients including farmer’s cheese. There, I am told they do not carry farmer’s cheese. I played it “who wants to be a millionaire” and immediately contacted my friend Vera to get her take on it. She bluntly tells me “why wouldn’t you make the cheese yourself?” My lovely devilish friend obviously knows that this is not the kind of challenge that will scare me! In the space of a few weeks since the beginning of the 196 flavors adventure, I had the opportunity to smoke my own chicken and make my own gingerbread… so homemade cheese ain’t gonna scare me! Like for the smoked chicken and the gingerbread, this was a first for me. I had bought cheesecloth a few months ago with the intent to make my own cheese but I never took the time to do so. This sernik was the perfect opportunity!
Sernik is one of the countless variations of cheesecakes. It is traditionally prepared for Easter. Strangely, although sernik is typically Polish, it is called “Viennese cheesecake” across Poland.
Where does cheesecake come from anyway? You won’t believe it but the first cheesecakes were created by the Greeks around 2000 BC. The Romans added the eggs and introduced it to England and Eastern Europe. This is where each country and region created their own version with local ingredients (feta in Greece, mascarpone in Italy or twarog in Poland). It is only in the 19th century when the United States, helped by the wave of European immigration, created the cream cheese based version that we all know today.
- 1½ lb twarog (Polish farmer's cheese, recipe below), or farmer's cheese or ricotta cheese
- 5 eggs
- 4 tablespoons flour
- 1 cup sugar
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- ½ cup raisins
- ½ cup slivered almonds
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- Zest of ½ orange
- Juice of a lemon
- 1½ gallon whole milk
- Juice of 8 lemons
- 4 teaspoons salt
- In a large bowl, mix the cheese with the sugar and eggs.
- Soak the raisins in warm water for 10 minutes. Drain and coat the raisins with flour. Add the raisins, flour, almonds, orange zest, lemon juice and vanilla to the mixture. Add the melted butter. Whisk well.
- Spread the mixture evenly into a greased springform pan.
Bake the sernik in an oven preheated at 300 F for one hour (depending on the oven, add 10 to 15 minutes of baking if sernik is not fully cooked).
- Wait 10 minutes before unmolding. Enjoy the sernik at room temperature or after chilling in the refrigerator for an hour so it is a little firmer and easier to cut.
- Pour the milk into a large pot. Add salt and simmer over medium heat. Once the milk starts to simmer and small bubbles appear on the sides, turn off the heat.
- Add the lemon juice. Stir slightly. Cover the pot and wait thirty minutes for the milk to curdle.
- Strain the milk through a clean white cloth or cheesecloth.
- The solids remaining in the cloth is the cheese. Press the cloth firmly to obtain a dense cheese. The liquid is called whey and can also be saved and used as a drink.
- The cheese used for the sernik needs not be flavored. However, if the cheese is used for other purposes, feel free to add herbs, spices, oil or nuts.