We are so excited to introduce you to our mom’s sister, Θεία Βούλα (Thea Voula). The second oldest in a family of four (our mom is the eldest), our Θεία Βούλα is currently the only one of our mother’s siblings living in Canada; luckily only about a ten minute drive from where we all live. Θεία Βούλα is a powerhouse who certainly knows how to command a room. Her laughter is infectious and is rooted deep in her belly. She wears her heart on her sleeve and her hugs are epic, enveloping you in an embrace which is at once fiercely tight and, at the same time, gently protective. Like our mom, and many other women of their generation, Θεία Βούλα epitomizes strength. Life was not always easy; she worked hard and long hours to make ends meet while raising her family, all while integrating into a new society and country. This is a brave, inspiring woman.
For many, many years, Θεία Βούλα and her husband, our Θείο Τρύφωνα (Theo Trifona), were our family’s Easter hosts. Cousins, aunts and uncles from all sides would gather at their house, where the lamb roasted on a spit in the driveway (yes, the driveway), and every inch of the kitchen table was covered with salads, pitas and other delicious dishes. These holiday celebrations varied somewhat from year to year (primarily with the introduction of spouses and then children), but what remained constant was the focus on family, good times and food (oh, and firecrackers…there were usually firecrackers).
The other thing that remained constant was cheesecake. A few hours after all the appetizers and the main meal were eaten, our over-stuffed selves would wonder about dessert. More specifically, we always wondered if Θεία Βούλα had made cheesecake; her cheesecake! It didn’t matter how many sweets were on the table, if her cheesecake wasn’t there, we mourned its absence; like literally, we would cry. There was no baklava in the world that could appease us. Luckily, it was rare that Θεία Βούλα would disappoint us kids.
However, knowing that Θεία Βούλα came through and that cheesecake was available, was not enough. Given that we were a lot of cousins (the kids always got first dibs on dessert), the concern was that you might not get to it quickly enough to secure a piece. Θεία Βούλα understood its popularity and as the years went on, she would make larger cheesecakes. This didn’t solve much; it just meant that the first ones at it took larger pieces than they otherwise would have. So, when the call for dessert came, the race was on.
In order to fully appreciate this original amazing race, allow us to give you a bit of context. Picture the basement living area of our Θεία Βούλα house, with its wood-panelled walls adorned with needlepoint, and oversized, cozy couches surrounding the television, which was covered by a crochet doily. Now picture anywhere between 10 – 15 hungry siblings and cousins, of varying ages and appetites, sprawled all over the furniture and on the floor; this is where we would end up after lunching for hours…we were exhausted! Our bellies full, we would typically put a movie into the VHS player and wait for Θεία Βούλα to announce that dessert was ready. And when that call came, like a pack of wild animals, we would jump up from where we lazed and run up the carpeted stairs towards the kitchen; we were fighting for position to ensure that we would get a piece of Θεία Βούλα’s cheesecake. This was survival of the fittest, every
man kid for himself, and it was serious business. One year, our youngest cousin, and Θεία Βούλα’s only daughter (she was probably 10 at the time) happened to be sitting near the staircase. When we were told it was time for dessert, her strategic position resulted in her being first up the stairs; first, that is, until someone (not us! we promise…not us!), grabbed her by the ankles and pulled her down the stairs to get by her. Cousin love usurped by cheesecake love.
Now, we know that cheesecake is not something you would expect to find in a traditional Greek cookbook, amongst the galaktoboureko and halva recipes. In fact, we don’t even think there is necessarily a word for “cheesecake” in Greek. A quick consultation of Google translate and our Aunt’s handwritten recipe gives us a phonetic spelling of cheesecake using the Greek alphabet. Adorable. In any case, we knew that when we decided to occasionally showcase recipes from kitchens other than our parents’, Θεία Βούλα’s cheesecake was high up on the list. This recipe is not only delicious, but it brings back such rich memories of fun times, joy, laughter, family gatherings and carpet burns; isn’t that what Greek food is all about?
The most helpful hint we can give you about this cheesecake recipe is that you need to relax, and forget most things you may know about making a proper cheesecake. Some of the ingredients and techniques used by Θεία Βούλα are unconventional, but they work, so who are we (and you) to argue. Also, there is no bain-marie used, and so your baked cheesecake
may will most definitely have a nice, big, crack across the surface. Don’t get all fancy and worry about it. The entire cheesecake will be covered by fruit and pie filling; no one will be able to tell a thing!
In the ingredient list you will see that you need “5 tablespoons of melted vegetable shortening”. That means that you will take vegetable shortening, melt it, and then measure out 5 tablespoons. It DOES NOT mean that you will take 5 tablespoons of vegetable shortening that you will THEN melt. This is an important distinction; read recipes carefully.
You will notice that both the cream cheese and sour cream in the recipe are full-fat. Will the recipe work with low fat ingredients? Maybe, but Θεία Βούλα uses full fat stuff and so, we think you should too. Besides, who are you trying to kid? This is cheesecake.
Our Θεία Βούλα makes the cheesecake crust by taking tea biscuits and crushing them finely using a mortar and pestle. She typically uses a Greek brand of tea biscuits called Papadopoulo. You may be able to find these in your local Greek market, or you can purchase them online. Of course, you don’t have to use this brand; other tea biscuits can be used. Simply keep in mind that this particular brand has a slight vanilla flavour, and this influences the flavour of the crust.
Mia Kouppa: Θεία Βούλα's Cheesecake
- 1/2 cup (125 ml) crushed tea biscuits
- 5 tablespoons (75 ml) of melted vegetable shortening
- 1 cup + 1 tablespoon (265 ml) granulated white sugar
- 5 large eggs, separated
- 500 grams of full fat cream cheese
- 2 cups (500 ml) full fat sour cream
- 1/2 teaspoon (2 ml) vanilla powder
- 5 tablespoons (75 ml) all-purpose flour
- Cooking spray
- 2 cups (500 ml) hulled, whole strawberries
- 1 can (540 ml) cherry pie filling
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Prepare the crust for the cheesecake. In a medium sized bowl combine the crushed tea biscuits with the melted vegetable shortening and mix well.
- Spray the bottom of a 9 inch springform pan with cooking spray and press the biscuit mixture evenly over the bottom of the pan. It does not have to come up the sides of the pan but if some of it does, that is fine. Make sure that the crush is spread around evenly and that there are no holes in the bottom crust layer (you should not be able to see the bottom of the pan).
- Begin to prepare the cheesecake filling. Place the egg whites in the mixing bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Transfer the egg whites to another bowl.
- In the mixing bowl of the stand mixer now add the egg yolks and granulated sugar. Whisk together for approximately 3 – 4 minutes at medium speed. Add the cream cheese, a bit at a time, making sure that it is well combined with the eggs and sugar before adding more cream cheese. Continue until all the cream cheese is combined. Add the sour cream and vanilla powder to the cream cheese mixture. Mix well with the whisk attachment until combined. Next, add the egg whites. Whisk together until just combined. Add the flour and mix well for a few minutes until all of the ingredients are well combined.
- Pour the cheesecake filling into the prepared springform pan.
- Bake in the bottom rack of the oven for 60 minutes. Turn off the oven, and then leave the cheesecake in the oven (which has been turned off) for another hour.
- Remove cheesecake from the oven and prepare the topping.
- Decorate the top of your cheesecake with the strawberries. If you don’t have enough strawberries to cover the entire cheesecake, that is fine. Start in the centre and work your way out. Pour the cherry pie filling over the strawberries, and over the rest of the top of the cheesecake. Spread it carefully using a rubber spatula so that the entire top of the cheesecake is covered.
- Release your cheesecake from the springform pan when it is ready to be served. Any extra cheesecake should be stored in the refrigerator. Enjoy.