This week, the internet has been embroiled in debate about “literary elitism,” but that same highbrow disdain for lowbrow tastes isn’t just confined to the world of words. Whether it’s a bodice-ripping romance or a doughnut dripping with sugary glaze, certain books and dishes are repeatedly (and unfairly) condemned to a lower status on our shared cultural hierarchy. It’s time to redeem the “guilty pleasure.”
For many readers, Stephen King (subject of yet another internet debate) is one of those authors we regard with divided hearts: someone we love to read, but only when no one else is watching. We don’t discuss The Shining in book club or self-consciously read our first edition of It on the subway, hoping someone will notice. It seems natural that King himself would dismiss the entire idea of “high” versus “low.” But, as it turns out, even he buys into the guilty pleasure principle—at least where food is concerned.
After his wife, Tabitha, lost her senses of taste and smell, King became the de facto cook of the house, learning to bake his own bread and devising his own signature dish (baked salmon with brown sugar glaze). But despite his kitchen credentials, King is still sheepish about some of his go-to meals. “My eating habits are horrible,” he wrote on Twitter, as if to anticipate his culinary critics. “Favorite restaurant is Waffle House. How sad is that.”
The same bashfulness appears in King’s quick defense of the microwave: “If you’re sneering, it’s because you think the only things you can do with the microwave are make popcorn and nuke the living shit out of Stouffer’s frozen dinners.” King’s alternative, coating a trout fillet with lemon, olive oil and basil before zapping it for a few minutes, is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s microwaved, yes, but much more virtuous than the helmet-size bowl of cheesy pasta I make on lazy nights, telling myself I am, technically, “cooking.”
King’s favorite food, about which he clearly feels no embarrassment, has the reputation for being the ultimate indulgence: a “monster slice of cheesecake.” Although two slices is his preferred dessert (according to a menu of his ideal meal), King’s taste for cheesecake isn’t limited to post-dinner; he also will have a piece before sitting down to write. “Cheesecake is brain food,” he says, a joking justification for a dessert that doesn’t need any excuse.
Making a cheesecake for Stephen King is something of a paradox: A dessert that takes several hours to prepare, bake and set doesn’t seem to jibe with his self-proclaimed cooking philosophy: “Keep it simple, stupid.” “I don’t do recipes,” he wrote in Man with a Pan, eschewing measurements and detailed instructions for a loose listing of ingredients and ideas.
This result is a happy compromise. It’s full of those pesky “instructions,” but it also satisfies King’s primary cheesecake criterion: “It’s got to have a creamy texture to it,” he says. Baking the cake in a water bath (as well as having all ingredients at room temperature) helps to ensure your cheesecake is King-approved. It’s a natural Valentine’s Day dessert, but it also plays the perfect horror movie marathon snack. A little leftover cranberry sauce, a few knives and some moderate acting skills will set you up for a scene worthy of King’s next book.
(Adapted from Bon Appétit)
2 3/4 cups finely ground Biscoff cookies (or gingersnaps)
1/4 cup butter (1/2 stick), melted, plus extra for greasing the pan
1 1/2 cups fresh cranberries
2/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
3 packages cream cheese (8 ounces each), room temperature
1 cup sugar
4 large eggs
1 cup full-fat Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons grated orange zest
1. Preheat oven to 375°F. Butter a 10-inch-diameter springform pan and wrap the outside with 2 layers of heavy-duty foil. In a food processor, add butter and cookie crumbs and pulse until moist clumps form. Press crumb mixture onto bottom and up inside of pan. Bake 5 minutes. Set aside to cool. Turn oven down to 325°F.
2. While the crust is baking, combine cranberries, sugar, orange juice and cinnamon in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium heat until mixture thickens, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Cool slightly. Transfer to food processor and pulse until smooth. Strain into medium bowl, cover with plastic and refrigerate while working on the filling.
3. Using an electric mixer, beat cream cheese in a large bowl until fluffy. Beat in sugar, then eggs 1 at a time. Stir in yogurt and orange zest.
4. Transfer a third of the filling to the prepared crust. Add a third of the cranberry purée. Repeat layering of filling and purée twice more, then swirl puree through filling with a knife. Place springform pan in large roasting pan. Pour enough boiling water into roasting pan to come halfway up outside of springform pan. Bake until cheesecake puffs around edges, about 1 hour.
5. Turn off oven and open the door. Let cake stand in the open oven 1 hour, then transfer cake to rack. Run knife around pan to loosen cake. Cool completely. Remove foil from pan. Cover cake and chill overnight. (Can be made 2 days ahead. Keep refrigerated.)
(Photo courtesy of Pinguino/flickr)