Cheesecake

How to make a very good cheesecake:

 

(Never mind how it looks. Aesthetics isn't my strong suit when it comes to baking. This is about taste. Yours will probably be prettier.)

 

For the batter:

4 bricks of cream cheese, room temperature

4 eggs, also room temperature

From here, all measurements are approximate and to taste~

1 1/4 cups sugar

1/2 cup whole plain Greek yogurt

2 tsp lemon (or lime) juice

2 tsp ginger juice (not crucial, but makes a good secret ingredient)

1 Tbsp vanilla extract 

 

For the crust:

1 sleeve of cinnamon graham crackers

Approximately the same amount of vanilla wafers

(crumbs can be substituted with pretty much any kind of dry cookie, per taste)

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp vanilla extract

2/3 stick of butter (possibly the whole stick, as needed)

 

- You need a springform pan, as well as a cake pan big enough for it to fit inside with some water. I also recommend parchment paper. Cut a square of it big enough to cover the bottom of the springform pan, then open it up and pinch it in there so that the paper is taut along the bottom of the pan and the corners stick out from the sides. Don't trim them off, as you will need those later for grabbing purposes. I also take cold butter and run it around the inside of the pan, then cut strips of parchment paper to fit. The butter helps hold it in place. I then spray the parchment paper lightly with cooking spray, although this may or may not be necessary. I think it mostly just adds to the color, but it might also help with the crust...   


- Prepare the crust: grind up a sleeve of cinnamon graham crackers plus roughly the same volume of vanilla wafers, then add about a teaspoon of ground cinnamon. Mix the dry ingredients in a metal or glass bowl. Melt 2/3 stick (give or take) of butter in the microwave. Cover with a coffee filter in case of explosions. Add a teaspoon or so of vanilla extract to the melted butter. I like the Mexican stuff for things like this. It's got a buttery flavor of its own. Combine the dry ingredients with the wet ingredients. Mix with a fork until it is all the same color, darkened by the liquid. If you didn't start with the whole stick of melted butter at the beginning, this might be where you add the rest. It should form clumps, absent of loose crumbs...

- Empty the contents of the bowl into the springform pan. Use a silicone spatula to scrape the bowl and press down on the crust until it is solid. Wrap the outside bottom of the pan in aluminum foil, then put in the fridge until everything else is ready...


- Add about an inch of water to the rectangular cake pan. Put it in the oven. Preheat it to 450 degrees Fahrenheit...  


- Batter up. In a stand mixer (or similar means - a big enough food processor also works), whip the bricks of cream cheese until it is no longer chunky, then gradually add the sugar. Once the sugar is incorporated, add the yogurt. Then add the vanilla extract, followed by the lemon/lime juice and the ginger juice. Blend until fluffy. Stop the mixer. Taste test. Does it need more of any of those things? Now is the time to figure that out, before you add the eggs...

 


 

- The eggs should be beaten in a metal or glass bowl until uniform in color and slightly increased in volume. Taste the batter one more time before you add the eggs, as that is officially the point of no return (unless you want to risk salmonella). Take the bowl out of the stand mixer, then gradually fold in the eggs with the spatula. The key is to not lose any of the air that is trapped in the batter. Keep doing this until you no longer see yellow (otherwise it might taste like scrambled eggs). Be sure to scrape the bowl as you slowly stir it in. Once it is all even and smooth, take the crust out of the fridge and pour the batter on top of it. Scrape the last of the batter out of the bowl and then use the spatula to even out the top of the cheesecake, if necessary...

 

- Inside the oven, the water in the pan should be boiling. As such, when you are ready to open the oven door, watch out for the steam. It could burn you if you are not careful. In my experience, it is also a little tricky to pull out the oven rack without making the water splash everywhere. Meanwhile, you don't want to lose a lot of heat by having the oven door open. On the bright side, this is probably the only dangerous step in making cheesecake. Once the springform pan is gently placed in the water bath, close the oven and set a timer for 12 minutes...

- At 12 minutes, do not open the oven. Turn it down to 350 and set another timer for 45 minutes. Walk away. Do something that you enjoy, but don't forget about the timer...

-  At 45 minutes, the top should be starting to get some color. If so, then you can finally open the oven. As delicately as possible, take the cheesecake out of the water bath and unwrap the foil. Remove the water bath from the oven as well, then put the cheesecake back into the oven without the foil for another ten minutes or so. If you think the top is starting to get too dark, you can always turn it down to 325 or so for this last bit...


 

- When that last ten minutes is up, shut off the oven. Open the oven door a crack, but leave the cheesecake there for now. In five minutes, you might want to open the door a little wider, then take it out in another five. The idea is for it to cool off gradually. It is going to deflate somewhat, but if it does so slowly, then it is less likely to crack. Once it is out of the oven, put it on a cooling rack. Do not open the springform pan. This is very important. Leave it on the cooling rack until the pan is room temperature. At that point, again, without opening the pan, move it to a cake holder that will fit in the refrigerator. Basically, it needs to be left in the pan until it has completely cooled and set. I recommend putting it in the refrigerator (always covered, unless you want it to absorb other random flavors from the depths of your fridge) for between 12-24 hours before taking the next step...

- Good news: you finally get to open the springform pan and see if the dessert maintains its shape. If you were patient enough and followed directions, it should be good. Otherwise I blame witchcraft. Slowly and carefully remove the expanded outside ring of the pan. Take off the parchment paper on the sides as well... 

- This next step requires some rudimentary ninja skills. At the very least, you should have cold, dry hands and be able to do it relatively quickly. This is where you take the cheesecake out of the bottom of the pan and remove the parchment paper. First, you grab it by opposite corners and lift it out of the pan and into the cake holder. Then you roll the parchment paper from under it until you can quickly but delicately lift the cheesecake with your (cold, dry) hand to remove the rest...

- Then put it back in the fridge until you are ready to eat it or add a topping. Go back to that activity that you enjoy for a little while. The thing about cheesecake is that it actually tastes better on day three or four then it would have on those first couple of days, as the flavors continue to meld. So if you've got time, then you might as well wait. Baking cheesecake can be an exercise in patience... 

- If you are making a fruit topping, here is a bonus recipe: take some fresh or frozen berries (if fresh, you may want to set some aside to be added later), cook them over low to medium heat in a saucepan with about 1/4 cup of water. Once they start to soften, mash it with a fork. Stir. Add some white sugar, between 1/3-1/2 cup. Add about 2 tsp of lime juice and 2 tsp of vanilla. Ginger juice can be a good secret ingredient here, too. A little bit of honey and cinnamon can also add a nice touch. In a small bowl, take about 2 tsp of corn starch and mix it with about 1/4 cup of of cold water to make a slurry. Mix with a fork until the consistency is uniform, then dump it into the berry mixture. Stir constantly as it thickens. You may also want to add a few drops of food coloring, but this is entirely optional. Remove from heat. You may need to stir occasionally as it continues to cool and thicken. After a few minutes, transfer to a container that seals. If using sliced/fresh berries, you probably want to add them to the topping now, unless you want them on top of the glaze. Store topping in refrigerator until it has cooled completely, at which point it might be added to the cheesecake... 

   

- You may also want to add whipped cream, which is just heavy cream, powdered sugar and vanilla extract...

 


Enjoy and share. 

 


Another Script Registered with the WGA

I finished writing another feature-length screenplay this week. I think this is my fifteenth to date, although only about ten of them are any good. At least five in there are what I like to think of as practice scripts. Genres that I have written include: broad comedy, historical comedy, historical biopic, animated/family, sci-fi/action, crime drama, psychological thriller, and romantic comedy. This latest screenplay marks my first foray into comedy-horror. It was fun to write.

When I first outlined this project, I had imagined it to be more of a horror-comedy, but then I kept adding more jokes while toning down the horror elements. In the past, I've spent anywhere from three weeks to a year and a half on a screenplay. This one took just under three weeks, including revisions. I think that's a new record.

This latest screenplay is called Dummy, and it's about an evil ventriloquist dummy who seeks to take over the world. I've even got a title for the sequel if it ever makes it that far. It shall be called Dummy 2: Even Dummer. Taking this premise one movie further, Dummy 3 could be called Dummstruck. Then Dummy 4: Dumm Most Harderest. The fifth installment could be the gritty reboot where they actually take the material seriously and treat it as a straight-up horror flick. 

I wrote this screenplay with the idea that it could be done on a minimal budget and that I could potentially direct it myself. Almost the entire story takes place inside one house. I think there are only about ten short scenes that do not occur either inside or outside of this location. It also involves a creepy ventriloquist dummy that gets destroyed over and over, and if audiences are anything like me, I think that they'll take a certain degree of satisfaction in witnessing this.  

Another idea that I'm presently outlining follows a similar design, but right now, I'm imagining it as somewhat of a spy drama. We'll see if I can exercise enough willpower to not turn it into a comedy. This, too, is intended to be done on a minimal budget and is something that I could potentially direct. It also takes place almost entirely inside one house. In my "idea garden," this is one of many works-in-progress.

Over the past several months, I've also gone back over a lot of my older work. Since writing tends to be one of those things that you get better at the more you do it, by that rationale, I become an incrementally better writer with each subsequent work. Therefore when I revisit my old work with an updated skillset, I think that I've been able to polish up these things considerably. 

The thing is, that's true with music, too. I could almost certainly re-record all of my albums now and they would sound better just because of what I learned in the process of recording them. I can also play and sing them all better now than I could when they were fresh, which is more or less when all of my songs have been recorded. The only remedy to this is to keep writing music, and keep making the existing songs sound better when I play them live--not that I have performed since the pandemic began, unless you count sitting outside with an acoustic. 

I have been recording a ton of guitar and piano riffs lately. I think I'm up to eighty-some recordings on my phone. This is usually the first step in the coalescence of an album. If so, I'll be sure to post regular updates on my music page. I have so many articles on there that I just ended up reposting a lot of them. It's been a while since I've written much of anything publicly, as I've been deeply engaged in other matters. 


Blind Viewing

Usually when I watch a film, I try to know as little as possible going into it. With that in mind, here are some movies I watched for the first time recently that you might want to check out, presented here with minimal spoilers of any kind (updated as I see more films that I think are worth watching):

1. They Came Together (2014) - by the same people who made Wet Hot American Summer (2001), except whereas that is an absurd parody of 80s teen movies, this pretty much does the same with cheesy romantic comedies. 

2. The Lobster (2015) - a dry comedy that focuses on societal norms about loneliness and coupling, taken to extremes. This one's not for everyone, but I really enjoyed it. 

3. Greed (2010) - a satire about wealth inequality and the fashion industry, featuring many of the regulars from Channel 4 (UK) comedy shows. 

4. The Climb (2020) - a low-budget, character-driven story about male friendship, shot with lots of long takes.

5. I Used To Go Here (2020) - about getting older and learning to reconcile the person you used to be with the person you are now. 

6. An American Pickle (2020) - a fish-out-of-water story about how much American society has changed over the past hundred years, for better or worse. 

7. Vacation Friends (2020) - a broad comedy with some clever strokes. Had I known anything about this one, I might not have watched it, but by the time it was over, I was glad that I did. 

8. A Ghost Story (2017) - a moving film about grief and acceptance, the first non-comedy on this list. This movie features a dialogue-free scene with a woman eating pie that is a beautiful showpiece of incredible acting and directing. Seriously.   

9. The Worst Person in the World (2021) - a Norwegian film about a woman figuring out who she is as she navigates a particularly messy phase of her life. I highly recommend it.  

10. Extra Ordinary (2019) - a witty, fast-paced Irish comedy about a driving instructor with supernatural abilities. A former SNL cast member plays a satan-worshipping soft-rock musician. Hijinks ensue. 

11. Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022) - a lot more intergenerational kung-fu than I expected. I stopped writing a particular TV pilot because I thought the premise was too similar to this movie, but it turns out that my project is not like this at all, so I'll probably pick it back up. Overall, this film is worth checking out, but for some reason, I thought it would be better.  

12. Inside You (2017) - a Freaky Friday-esque scenario where a couple swaps bodies. Funnier and more adult than most other films of this subgenre, I thought it was a good low-budget movie. 

13. Long Shot (2019) - two old friends whose lives have taken very different paths reconnect as an unexpected romance between them takes shape.  

14. Windfall (2022) - a desperate man takes a rich couple hostage in their own home, highlighting the stark disparities in their respective lives. 

...........................

As someone who has seen a tremendous amount of movies in my life, I find that this really is the best way to watch them, as our preconceived expectations may color our interpretations of the film itself. The less known beforehand, the better. 

Just watch it. Skip the trailer, don't read any reviews, and let the appearances of any familiar faces come as a surprise. Immerse yourself in the medium, just like the filmmakers intended. Everything you need to understand and appreciate it will be provided in due course. All you need to do is give it your undivided attention. 

Besides, if the movie ends up being terrible, you'll probably know within ten minutes, and there's nothing to stop you from watching something else instead or finding some other way to entertain yourself.   

 

Sleight of Hand

About twelve years ago, I lived in the Republic of Moldova as part of an international exchange program. I had initially applied to go to Romania, but when they announced that they were not sending any Fulbright Scholars to Romania that year, I was asked if I might want to go to Moldova instead. While I knew very little about the country at the time, I learned quite a bit during the ten months that I lived there. 



I was ostensibily there to make a documentary video project, but since the proposal that I had written was specific to Romania, I had to find an entirely different story to tell once I got to Moldova. In support of this, I shot a lot of footage, but the more I learned, the clearer it became that the stories that most intrigued me were precisely those that might work against the whole reason that I was there in the first place. After all, the central mission of the Fulbright program is to promote cross-cultural understanding between nations, and I worried that much of what I learned in my time living abroad might not paint my host country in a favorable light. 




Don't get me wrong. I genuinely loved my time in Moldova and found it to be a very warm and welcoming culture. However, I was not there to make a tourism video. As a writer, filmmaker and person with a keen interest in foreign policy, the stories that most fascinated me included things like their "mail-order bride" industry, as well as the cultural divide between Russian speakers and Romanian speakers. Most of all, though, I was interested in learning more about the breakaway republic of Transnistria, where I was advised not to travel out of fear of getting my passport and video camera confiscated by the local authorities. 




I never did go to Transnistria, but the recent developments in Ukraine have brought this region back to the forefront of my mind. If you look at a map of NATO countries, you may notice that they only extend as far east as Romania. Many of the reasons that Moldova is not a member have a lot to do with Russia. You see, ever since 1991, Russia has maintained a standing army of about 2,000 troops in the Transnistrian region, and they are the only country to officially recognize it as an independent state. Even thought the Moldovan government claims it as their own, the largely Russian-speaking citizens of this easternmost part of the country have their own government, complete with its own flag, capital and currency. This intranational dissonance, along with rampant systemic corruption, much of which is also tied to Russia, is at the heart of why Moldova lacks any clear path to NATO membership.




I mention all of this because there are obvious parallels here to what is happening right now in the Donbas region of Ukraine. If Putin's ultimate aim is to prevent Ukraine from ever joining NATO, then it makes sense that he is following essentially the same playbook as Russia has been using in Moldova for the past thirty years. In supporting these breakaway, Russian-aligned states, this effectively prevents them from being able to join NATO, thus preserving Putin's geographic buffer between Russia and the West. By moving these vast numbers of troops and performing military exercises just across the border, it allows Russia to flex its muscles on the world stage. At the same time, by occupying instead of attacking, it achieves the same policy objective--assuming that it is in fact to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO, as opposed to a full-scale military invasion and annexation. If, however, Putin does try to take over Ukraine, it's not entirely clear what he could hope to achieve, as he would no doubt face extreme resistance on all fronts. After all, even if Russia manages to occupy all of Ukraine, the fight will almost certainly continue for as long as they are there. This is what happens when one occupies by force (see Afghanistan for details).




On the other hand, now that Putin has the world's attention, perhaps he seeks to get certain sanctions eased by backing down instead of launching an all-out attack, like some kind of mass hostage situation. By then leaving large numbers of troops behind in the Donbas region as a "peacekeeping" force, Putin essentially achieves what he set out to do. If most of the Russian forces eventually withdraw, then it is seen by the West as a win, but all it takes is a small fraction of the estimated 190,000 soldiers to stay in these regions to lead to long-term instability for Ukraine. One need not look any further than Moldova for proof of this assertion. 


UPDATE: All bets are now off, and personally, I think that Putin may have overplayed his hand. My heart goes out to the brave people of Ukraine. May you find the strength and international support to repel this unwarranted Russian aggression. 


Shameless Self-Promotion

I just noticed that the hardcover edition of my book happens to be on sale right now. If you ever thought about checking it out, this is the cheapest I've ever seen it go for. 

Please note that I have absolutely no control over any of that stuff, nor do I earn much from the sale. I just want people to read my work.