I was on the hunt for strawberries for all kinds of reasons. Number one: the presence of strawberries at the farmer’s market Up North would mean that the soil, the air, the sun and sky were, at long long last, generous enough to give us a taste of summer.
Secondly, last Friday was the first farm market day of the summer over in Petoskey, and for some unknown reason (delusional fantasies) I thought the market would be brimming over with the riches of early summer. In my head there would be peas, asparagus, morels. And strawberries.
Another reason for my strawberry high-hopes was that I would be at the market with a filmmaker who would be filming the whole scene. This real, live filmmaker is Bob Albers, a professor at Michigan State who is making a documentary film called In the Moment. Here’s how he describes it:
When in the moment, an individual’s performance is at its most focused, effortless, effective, and beautiful, whether it is in art or music or sports, combat, or even everyday tasks like cooking or cleaning. Everyone has these experiences, but, for most of us, being in the moment is a rare and fleeting experience. In this documentary, we open the door to these precious and private experiences and provide the viewer with a deeper appreciation for what it means and what it takes to live in the moment.
Last year, Bob heard an interview I did on Current State, a program WKAR Public Radio. What he heard, what he looks for, is people who live their lives in a full-tilt dedication to the experiences of being “in the moment,” and the remarkable outcomes from that in their lives and careers.
My first reaction was, Wow! You want me to be in this?! Then: Oh Lord, I hope I don’t slouch, as I tend to do, or have a bad hair day, or go blank in my mind about any deep and penetrating question he might ask. And, more importantly, what will I cook for him?
Back in November Bob and his crew jumped into one of the big family baking days we like to have, to get a feel for the Lebanese kitchen at its best. He clipped a microphone to my lapel and I surprised myself by forgetting the thing was there, and just, well, got into the moment of baking with my cousins.
Then last week he and his student-filmmaker Izak, who happens to have been born and raised in Harbor Springs, headed north to visit with me in another element, my quiet element where solitude reigns most of the year and the writing life, the photography, the stories and memories and recipes, take hold. We would go to the first farmer’s market of the year where I would find glorious strawberries and then take them home and show off my ever-so-cool idea for a strawberry cheesecake made with my trademark ingredient, rose water, and made that much more delicious with some labneh in the mix.
However. Northern Michigan is not wont to acquiesce to the needs of a food blogger sourcing her ingredients before it’s time. When it is in fact time, she will give and give and give. But not before.
We found no strawberry at the market, and we lasted just a few short minutes in the wind chill and rain (I saw a woman in a down coat and was green with envy). But we did run into some of my favorite growers from Pond Hill Farm and Farmer White’s, so nice to see them again. I bought some fresh, homemade pasta and a jar of Pond Hill marinara, and we stopped in at Symon’s where I bought a hunk of good Parmesan. It made for a great lunch, a few solid chopping moves to get on camera, and assuaged my boo-hoo over the berries. I must have talked about that a little too much (the microphone is ON, Maureen) because at one point Bob asked, in his genuine and cool way, why the misery over the lack of strawberries?
He and Izak also asked a whole slew of other interesting questions, which were probing and intriguing and got me thinking about what I do when I’m “in the moment”, how I do it, and why. Izak even introduced me to one of the artesian wells in Harbor Springs that I couldn’t believe I’d never seen before. It was so interesting and exciting that I got over the fact that I couldn’t make a strawberry-rose cheesecake for them. And that worked out fine because now the berries are making their beautiful, fragrant, summery debut—a moment that, however late, I am delighted to be in.
For all of its luscious richness, this cake is delightfully light, refreshing, and beautiful. It doesn’t hurt anything for our summer days that it’s not baked, but chilled for a good long time, so you can make it up to a few days in advance. Top the cheesecake with strawberries and blueberries for a 4th of July beauty. Makes 8 to 10 servings.
1 envelope plain powdered gelatin (such as Knox brand)
1/2 cup pomegranate juice
1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs
4 ounces salted butter (1 stick), melted
1 pound cream cheese (2 8 oz. boxes)
1 cup labneh or plain Greek yogurt
2/3 cup plus 1 teaspoon granulated sugar, divided
1/2 teaspoon rose water
1 pound strawberries, hulled and coarsely chopped, reserving a few for garnish
1/3 cup sour cream
In a small saucepan, slowly sprinkle the gelatin over the pomegranate juice, letting the powder saturate in the juice as you go. Warm the mixture over medium low heat until the gelatin is dissolved, taking care not to bring to a boil. Pour the mixture into a small bowl to cool completely.
Heat the oven to 360°F. In a medium bowl, combine the graham cracker crumbs with the melted butter. Press the damp crumbs evenly into the bottom of a 9-inch spring form pan. The crumbs can be pressed up the sides of the pan partially, or kept along the bottom only. Bake the crust for about 20 minutes, or until it is fragrant and firm. Cool completely.
In the bowl of a food processor, or in a mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, pulse or whisk the cream cheese and labneh with 2/3 cup of the sugar and rose water until they are completely smooth and no lumps remain.
Add the strawberries and pulse or whisk until the berries are fully incorporated into the cheese mixture. Pour in the cooled pomegranate juice mixture and mix just to combine (over-stirring the gelatin can render it less effective). Taste and add more rose water if needed.
Pour the strawberry-cheese mixture into the prepared and cooled graham cracker crust. Chill for at least 8 hours and up to 3 days. To remove the cake from the spring form pan, wrap the pan with a kitchen towel that has been rinsed in very warm water and wrung out. Run a sharp knife around the edge of the cake, then open the spring form ring, run a large metal spatula under the crust, and transfer the cake to a serving platter.
Combine the sour cream with a teaspoon of sugar and spread it over the top of the cheesecake. Arrange the reserved whole berries in the center of the cake, and serve cold.