When I was a little girl, we spent summers with my father's family in Watertown, Massachusetts - which was brutally jerked into the national news this week.
I didn't often get freedom at home...but on vacation with my cousins and grandparents in sleepy New England, things were different. I was allowed outside on my own, and could explore the neighborhood a bit. I'd make "haystacks" with the fragrant pine needles that were ankle-deep under the trees in the front yard. I'd eat Concord grapes off the grapevine and marvel at the giant leaves on the rhubarb, the perennial legacy of a long-gone victory garden. On hot summer days, I would hide in the shady driveway beside my grandmother's brown-cedar-shingled duplex and play with the next-door neighbor's dog. His owners, pitying both sweaty girl and panting pet, would find icy drinks and homemade Armenian Baklava for me and biscuits for the pup: sunshine, pastry and walnuts melting and crackling in my mouth as the dog wagged after the crumbs.
At my grandmother's house there were at least as many candy jars as there were braided rag rugs on the wood floors. Ribbon candy, cut rock candy, candy canes, and my favorite, hard pillow-shaped candies that had melty chocolate centers: my grandmother and I secretly shared candy and watched Lawrence Welk on her tiny television. Her enormous old-fashioned kitchen had two pantries big enough to climb in - and believe me, I got myself in trouble climbing in them. The food pantry was filled floor to ceiling with baking supplies - my grandmother's chocolate cake was legendary - and the butler's pantry contained an enormous collection of novelty salt-and-pepper shakers in every imaginable shape: dogs, cats, kitchen appliances, celestial objects, radios...
My grandfather, who chose to live in Watertown as a proud graduate of nearby Perkins Institution for the Blind, used to take me on walks to the corner store, up Dexter Avenue past Laurel and around to Cypress and back. I used to hold his arm in case there were puddles, and I felt very grown-up helping him to steer - he never let on that he got around fine on his own. At the store, he would lay in a stock of "Hoodsies" ice creams and "Za-Rex" grape drink concentrate and always, always, always he would buy me my own pack of cinnamon Dentyne gum, which would tickle my nose and throat as I thoughtfully chewed all the way home. We'd take the long way back to enjoy the sunny side of the street, around the curve of Cypress. When we got home, we'd sit together on the screen porch with the sun slanting in around the edges of the blinds, and listen to the Red Sox game on his tinny portable radio. I'd say "Tell me about the dogs, Grampy," and he'd patiently relate, with me prodding, everything he ever knew about every single dog he'd ever owned or encountered, and the afternoon would dustily, lazily topple into evening as fireflies glinted under the pine trees.
Sometimes my cousins would liberate me even farther to their house in Bedford. We'd go to the shore and shiver in the icy New England water; I'd cut my feet walking on beach mussels and wonder if they were as good to eat as clams. I once made a sand-cake that looked so good I tasted it...with horrifying and immediate regret. We'd play pirates or knights and my youngest cousin and I were stuck as victims, impatiently waiting to be "rescued" while the boys engineered homemade costumes and swords to whack each other with. Back at their house, blueberries and toads grew wild in the scrub by the side of the road, and we'd scrounge for them on our hands and knees - flipping up the bottoms of our t-shirts into a makeshift pocket to free one hand and carry our booty, either squirmy or juicy-sweet-tart.
Sometimes, on toadless days, we pooled our efforts and our shirt-pouches and filled a large empty coffee-can with blueberries. We'd head back to Watertown and the girls (sometimes with my oldest cousin's girlfriend) would get a box of cheesecake mix from my grandmother's pantry. We'd kick the boys out of the kitchen and those of us who weren't mixing filling got to work on homemade blueberry topping for the no-bake cheesecake. "Don't tell anyone how easy it is," my cousin would say "I want them to think we worked hard." When we unveiled it after dinner ("supper," as my grandmother called it,) we'd all groan and wipe our brows with mock effort, grinning secretly at each other and fighting the boys for the last creamy bits.
I am blessed to live where I do now - but, sadly, like many people in urban neighborhoods, I am no stranger to either violence or gunfire. Seeing the safe, sleepy neighborhood overrun with black armored vehicles and SWAT teams made me feel as though a time traveler had ravaged the past. I cried when I heard a woman from Dexter Avenue say that she'd never heard gunfire before this week.
My heart breaks to see this jagged dark stain on the very street where my flip-flops were run thin as paper and my knees were always dusty, where the crosswalks buzz like bees and the air smells of honeysuckle...and where I used to guide my grandfather around the puddles.
To honor Watertown the way I remember it, Sparky and I made you this no-bake blueberry cheesecake. Don't tell anyone how easy it is.
Rare (no-bake) Blueberry Cheesecake
For the crust:
30 graham cracker squares (or 15 rectangles)
2 tbsp vanilla sugar
1 stick of butter, melted
1 tsp cinnamon
For the cheesecake
1 packet plain gelatin
1/4 cup vanilla sugar
1/2 cup boiling water
zest of one lemon (divided in half, remainder reserved for topping)
8 oz neufchatel cheese (lowfat cream cheese)
4 oz sour cream
1 tsp vanilla extract
For the topping
1 1/2 cups blueberries, fresh or frozen
1/3 cup vanilla sugar
1 tbsp cornstarch
The remaining half of the lemon zest
1 tbsp butter
juice of one lemon
First, the crust (which, admittedly does take baking. You can also buy a pre-made 6oz graham cracker crust.) Sparky crumbled the graham crackers, sugar and cinnamon in a food chopper until well blended. We drizzled in the butter into the chopper in three additions, mixing well between each addition until the crumbs held together when pinched between finger and thumb.
We lined a 6" springform cake pan with aluminum foil and Sparky carefully pressed the graham cracker crumbs into the bottom and all the way up the sides, tamping with a plastic container to make sure it was carefully packed and nicely flat.
The crust went into a 350 degree oven for 10 minutes, or until sizzling and fragrant, and then set it aside to cool while you make the filling. Once it is cool enough to touch, stick it in the fridge or freezer so it is cold when you add the filling.
The gelatin and sugar were mixed in a heatproof bowl, and Sparky whisked carefully while I poured the boiling water over it. The cream cheese and sour cream were whipped in the mixer with the first half of the lemon zest and the vanilla. As it whipped, we carefully drizzled in the hot gelatin syrup and kept mixing until everything was thoroughly blended.
We poured the filling into our chilled crust, making sure to leave room for the topping, and put the whole thing in the refrigerator for no less than an hour (if you are in a big hurry, you can use the freezer but I don't know how much time that will buy you.) While we waited, we made the topping.
Put all the remaining ingredients (you may want to save a bit of lemon zest for garnish) into a saucepan and whisk well. Put the saucepan over medium heat and stir, allowing the blueberries to release their juice and come to a full boil. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool.
Once your cheesecake is set all the way through (it may jiggle slightly but should be fairly firm except in the very center) carefully remove it from the pan and peel away the aluminum foil. Set it on a serving dish and top it with your blueberries and remaining lemon zest. Serve and enjoy!
Addendum: As of this writing, Tsarnaev is in custody and Watertown is safe once again. While Americans are legitimately scared, saddened and angered by this ordeal, I'd like to remind everyone that we are supposed to be champions of freedom. Please remember that this country was born out of a sense of justice and fair play, and the quest for a government to safely provide them for all - a legacy that started in the great city of Boston.