(This piece was originally published in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner)
According to a Hollywood legend, Marlon Brando intentionally flubbed his lines repeatedly while filming a restaurant scene for “Guys and Dolls,” forcing Frank Sinatra to eat bite after bite of cheesecake, a dessert Sinatra apparently hated. Sinatra stormed out in a huff, saying he’d come back to work when “Mumbles” was done rehearsing. The two never worked together again.
I find Sinatra’s hatred for cheesecake odd; his idea of a cruel joke is my idea of a good time. Put me and a cheesecake in the same room for a night and one of us is going to wake up with regrets in the morning.
Cheesecake is the Methuselah of the desert world: one of the earliest known recipes goes back more than 2,000 years to Cato the Elder, who explained how to make a placenta, meaning “flat cake” in Latin. (I guess the name suffered its culinary death after some Roman midwife decided the remnants of childbirth resembled cheesecake.)
Cato’s recipe called for a pastry-like base and a thicker layer made of soft cheese and honey. By the medieval era, a cookbook like Robert May’s “The Accomplisht Cook” would contain 11 cheesecake recipes. Now, nearly all cultures have some version of the cheesecake, and a billion-dollar industry has sprung up around this rather basic dish.
Modern cheesecakes usually involve a soft cheese, a pastry component, a binder like eggs or gelatin, and some kind of sugar, fruit or syrup. Savory cheesecakes, ones that forgo the sugar in favor of vegetables, herbs or meats, are less common but equally delicious.
About 10 years ago, someone shared a salmon cheesecake recipe with me, and it was outrageously good. You’re skeptical? Before you go Sinatra on me, think about cheesecake as a cousin of quiche, and consider the dip so many Alaskans make with smoked salmon and cream cheese. If you grew up anywhere on the East Coast, you probably know lox and cream cheese on bagels.
I like to think of the following recipe as a very contemporary Alaska recipe: influenced by many cultures, uniquely combining old traditions in new ways, and the kind of thing that freezes well.
1/2 cup bread crumbs
1/2 cup parmesan cheese
4 tablespoons butter (softened)
3 packages cream cheese
1/3 cup heavy cream
1 cup shredded semi-soft, mild cheese like Havarti or Fontina
1 cup smoked or kippered salmon
1 medium shallot
Lightly dust a greased, 9 inch springform pan with some of the breadcrumbs. Combine remaining breadcrumbs, parmesan and butter. Press mixture into bottom of pan. Finely dice and lightly sauté the shallots.
In a large mixing bowl, combine well the softened cream cheese, shredded cheese and cream. Add beaten eggs and mix well. Break up the salmon and fold the salmon and shallots to the mix. Spoon mixture into pan and bake for 40-50 minutes in a 350 F oven.
Serve warm, or refrigerate overnight and serve chilled.