Jan’s Cheesecakes

“No running! No running in the kitchen!” my mom yelled and pleaded as my brother and I thundered past the oven.

Typically very soft-spoken and mild-mannered, nothing would spark this raising of her voice like little kids’ feet darting across the kitchen.

In the oven was a chocolate chip cheesecake with a chocolate crust. The edges were browning in their round nine-inch pan encasing a sea of chocolate chips, cream cheese, eggs, sugar and butter. (And other things that I cannot tell you for penalty of eternal mom guilt).

With a wrong step, shake of the floor and thus the oven, the cheesecake could become cracked on the top, which could extend like a fault line from one side to the other.

For years, my mom ran Jan’s Cheesecakes, a small business from our home, where she made and sold the best cheesecakes in the world. At times, our freezer, as well as supportive neighbors’ and friends’ freezers were filled with cheesecakes, and friends helped to deliver during peak holiday times. She often went weeks with a constant rotation of cheesecake batter swirling in the mixer, baking in the oven, cooling on racks and being packed up to go out the door. Her work was so high in demand she often went without sleep or being able to do things she needed and wanted to do.

She ran this business in the 1980s until Illinois changed their health code laws, disbarring my mom from her home-grown business because we did not have a commercial kitchen. She did have the option to make changes to our house (including getting rid of our cats — not an option), or open a bakery or brick and mortar storefront. But she made a choice to live a somewhat less hectic life by paring down her cheesecake business. She told me it was because she wanted to be there more for my brother and I, and she was. She was our classroom mom, my girl scout troop leader and many other things great and small for my brother and I.

From time to time she showed up with me at school with a cheesecake in a pristine white box for teachers. Friends and people in the neighborhood often requested those for parties. Everyone knew that if you’ve ever had Jan’s cheesecake, there’s really no turning back. You’ll most likely never have another as good as hers.

My mom’s other work is in travel, and instead of opening a bakery, a travel agency seemed more viable and in line with her experience with the airlines since the 1970s. She also loved to travel. And so she did. For 16 years she ran her own business. I enjoyed the benefits of flying hither and thither often on a whim and for as little as $6 for a first class plane ticket. We dressed up and waited to fly standby, and she took us to many great places– New York, London, Paris, horseback riding in Arizona, kayaking in a Caribbean lagoon… We didn’t have a lot of money, but we sure did have enriching experiences, thanks to her work.

Her business persevered through the hardest times in the industry—recessions, 9/11, plummeting commissions and benefits from the airlines. She kept on and she kept on baking. It was her way of relaxing and sharing her talents with others. The kitchen often looked like a tornado tore through it, and I worked as a dishwasher through many baking extravaganzas and holidays.

Bubbling tops of apple cheesecakes with spiraling apple slices dusted with autumnal spices emerged from our oven. Ceremonially, my mom cooled those on the kitchen counter before bringing those before widening eyes surrounding our dining room table at Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. Surrounded by dozens of family and friends, her desserts were highly anticipated and quickly devoured.

Standing back and watching people enjoy her work puts a smile of pride, delight and warmth across my mom’s face every time.

Over the years, she has dabbled with the idea of opening a bakery. Instead, she keeps very busy with her travel work and assists friends in their food-related businesses for fun. She lives a little bit of her dream at every holiday, each time she stands next to her friend, dolling out Sandrine’s French pastries, and adhering to special requests for birthdays and special events.  

And this week, she warmed up her oven and broke out her secret recipes for a cause.

My mom made a rustic cabin cake for the Galena ARC’s 2021 Take the Cake Auction, which prevailed with much praise and amazement. The windows are made with sugar and the cake is lit with real lights.

The Galena ARC held its annual Take the Cake Auction. She’s eagerly awaited this opportunity through the Pandemic to bake a cake for this event. She spent last weekend plotting and mentally designing her cake, something I imagine to be like Julia Child’s Nutcracker with images of dancing butter and sacks of sugar dancing about.

After a few days of designing, baking and decorating, last night she and I with baited breath carried her rustic cabin cake in the rain from her door, to the car, and to the DeSoto House Hotel just under the wire of the 5 p.m. deadline.

We sat near the cake, where I nervously watched as people walked past it, took pictures and read its description. My mom said she wasn’t nervous — when she is done with a cake she is ready to let it go.

And then my heart grew as we watched the bidding swiftly bounce back and forth across the hall.

The auctioneer earnestly called it “Ah-mazing,” and said it looked unreal, as if it is made of porcelein.

My fingers were on my bidding number, but the demand swiftly skyrocketed past my budget.

Her cake prevailed, garnering a hefty donation to the ARC, an organization run by a small staff, volunteers and supported by donors. Together, they bring art, sports, and fitness (including Tai Chi classes that I teach) and early education to our community.

My mom, tired from her work, said very little, but she smiled behind her mask as people applauded and thanked her over and over for her cake.

We went home with a lovely tres leches cake, which weighs near seven pounds. It was made by people at the new bakery in town, La Michacoana Irmanaju, a surprise donation to the ARC from its owners.

We split the bid with our neighbor and friend, Jeff Bishop, and look forward to sharing it between setting up for Luminaria, an event where Galena glows with candle-lit bags from one end to the other, up and down stairways and across Living Windows, where Main Street shop owners create holiday scenes in their storefronts.

It is a magical time for us.

And I know another family will enjoy one of the best desserts they’ll ever have, sharing in the joy of Jan’s dream.

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