Jessica Helfand | Essays

A Good Pan Is Hard To Find

I'm learning how to make cheesecake. WAIT — stop right there: what does this have to do with design?

Take ricotta cheese. Whole milk or lowfat? You have to drain it in cheesecloth. Cheesecloth? There are about a million kinds of cheesecloth to choose from — each with its own weave, it's own micro-degree of filtering heft — and while we're at it, is ricotta even cheese? It's more of a kind of fermented milk substance, like something on its way to becoming yogurt that somehow got derailed. Kind of like sour cream, another identity-challenged substance (not really sour, not really cream) that improves pretty much anything you put it on and, coincidentally, is found in most cheesecake recipes. And then there's cream cheese (not really cream, not really cheese) that's one cholesterol spasm away from cake frosting, except that you need to add sugar to it to achieve that effect. Ricotta, sour cream and cream cheese — there you have it: in some combinatory form, they are the epicenter, the core, the holy grail of cheesecake.

Then, well, there's the pan — the springform pan — that requires an interior shield of moisture, a bottom layer of parchment, a 2-inch external water bath, and an additional foil barrier to prevent any water from penetrating the fluffy white goo that will eventually transform, if you're lucky, into a seriously desireable confection. The whole endeavor is a mysterious feat of dairy aeronautics — a complex series of mechanical, scientific, interpretive, time-based and physical choices that either fizzle and implode or magically coalesce, soaring to great heights of culinary achievement. For NASA, this is defined as a successful space mission. For the goo, pending an hour and a half in a 325F oven and a carefully monitored cooling off period, we call it cheesecake.

One big balancing act of artistry and skill. It has everything to do with design.

Cooking is a humbling process, and real chefs tend to be rigorous and unforgiving perfectionists. (Sound like any designers you know?) There's no room for error and there's always a better flour, a purer olive oil, a sharper blade, — in short, a better way to do the same old, same old so that it becomes the new-and-better-than-ever. The language of menus — with its reductions, its purées and coulis — dwells in a world all its own, and cookbooks devotedly honor such specific, and occasionally rarified jargon. "Reserve for another use," is one of my favorite recipe directions: economical, pragmatic and in many cases, weird. True, it's more likely to reflect the expectation that twenty seven left-over eggwhites are just waiting for you (with your voluminous quanities of free time) to whip them into a formidable blizzard of meringue than it is, say, to suggest you hang onto that cornichon for tomorrow's breakfast, but it remains nevertheless a phrase that leaves a great deal to the imagination.

Food, of course, is life. Everyone eats, and therein lies the intrinsic appeal: whether you live on pizza in your feng-shui penthouse, or you produce chateaubriand on a battery-operated hotplate, chances are you have some relationship to food. (In Western civilization, the pervasiveness of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia and chronic or compulsive dieting, suggests that food remains a stunning psychological preoccupation even when it's not there.) The whole question of how one experiences food and eating doesn't even occur at a verbal level — which may explain why it is so compelling to try to do so.

Today, in the age of the celebrity chef, cooking is more about doing than talking: television has amplified the show-and-tell cooking demonstration, making household names of such food mavens as Wolfgang Puck and Anthony Bourdain. Still, Bourdain — a Vassar droupout who survived two years in the brutal boot camp otherwise known as The Culinary Institute of America — wrote a bestselling tell-all book about some of the more radical absurdities of restaurant life. Former New Yorker editor Bill Buford quit his desk job to apprentice in Mario Batali's kitchen (and wrote a bestselling book about his experiences in forced humility) and Julie Powell — a self proclaimed "government drone by day, renegade foodie by night ... too old for theatre, too young for children, and too bitter for anything else," — spent a year dutifully recreating every single recipe from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking from her miniscule kitchen in one of Manhattan's outer boroughs. (Powell worked from the First Edition, published in 1961: the Fortieth Edition was published by Knopf in 2001.) Yes, in case you're wondering — she, too, wrote a book. And a blog. (Well done, Julie: her story even got optioned. Nora Ephron's directing.)

Needless to add, I've read them all and I can't get enough of them — those writers who immerse themselves in culinary phenomena and share their mishaps as well as their discoveries, many of which have nothing, incidentally, to do with food. It's food as a metaphor, but more than this, its about a verbal description of something not even remotely verbal that creates something visceral and yes, visual. So if perfectionism is one behavior designers may well comprehend, the degree of expansive imagination and self-knowledge that comes from good food writing lends itself equally to thinking about visual culture in a new way.

There's an entire sub-genre of food writing, of a kind of culinary patois that involves chefs, critics, experienced kitchen people and even neophytes (like me) writing about all manner of things edible. There's Judith Moore writing about food as a substitute for love; there's the late, great Laurie Colwin, long before the days of the venti espresso, on scavenging for coffee grounds as the caffeine addict's badge of honor; there's Seattle's Nancy Leson and New York City's Ed Levine — even screenwriter Nora Ephron writing about cabbage as a madeleine for the urban neurotic. (As for Martha Stewart, she only deserves mention here because she's made it all look so good, and so easy: she's the know-it-all you love to hate — and you hate to love — because she's so prolific yet so, well, accessible. But let's be clear: Martha's no M.F.K. FIsher.)

It's a misnomer to think that food writing, or preparation, or any of it is gender based: many of the world's best chefs are men — though none, I should add, are in my family, where it seems that holders of the XY gene can not dependably find the kitchen without the assistance of a roadmap. In many cases, such negotiations have been known to involve bribery and pleading. This is especially true when it comes to finding the sink. And the dishwasher. (And, while we're at it, the garbage.) On the question of cheesecake consumption, however, I optimistically predict a better outcome and indeed, more participation from all members of my family.

But all of this depends, naturally, on how my cake turns out.

And here, beyond determination, and inspiration, and perspiration, beyond artistry and beyond skill, I would be remiss if I didn't add one more element — because where baking cheesecake is concerned, it appears to be particularly advantageous to have a bit of luck. As for what that has to do with design, well — I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions.

This essay was originally published in July, 2006. 

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Media

Comments [17]

"luck is the residue of design." - Hall of Fame baseball executive Branch Rickey

A buddy of mine, originally from Brooklyn, was mailed a cheesecake by a fellow New Yorker for his birthday one year. It was a Junior's cheesecake.

Freaking awesome!
Joe Moran

I haven't decided if this post is funny or sarcastic or both; however, I suddenly find myself calling the local co-op to have a cheesecake made. I'd make the cheesecake myself, but my last attempts at trying to find the kitchen left me stranded, 200 miles east of hear on hwy 6.

p.s. i really think some sort of idicator would really fix the design, not design, should i read problem, or writers could always put cheesecake in the title, and i'll read it.


i rejected cheesecake until college; i had this image of my arteries becoming ever more narrow from years of being a finicky eater who ate little more than cream cheese on white toast. when i finally tried cheese cake, it was a delicious revelation.

nextbook recently had a podcast about cheese cake and it wasn't what the cheese cake maker said that gave me a hankering for a slice, but the sound of a mouth biting into that moist whiteness that was about as pavlovian as it gets.

I love food. I love design. I love this article as a reminder of how the two relate. Thanks.
Jason A. Tselentis

Good design is "Light and Sweet" like your writing.
2 things I love from the Bronx are S&S Cheesecake and the public garden at Wavehill.

Which Pentagram designer created the Wavehill mark?
Carl W. Smith

Reading Jessica's meditation on cheese cake (and all that dairy) though delightful, is a bit of a slog here in Los Angeles where it has been about 100 degrees for four weeks now. The thought of lighting the stove or of eating any dairy product that does not include the words "frozen" or "iced" is not so easy. But one has to eat: so it's off to air conditioned restaurants, and all those checks have made me think about another very interesting food writer, who for years concentrated on reviewing (in New York magazine) places that served good and cheap food, and whose name must be mentioned here: Milton Glaser. Back when i took his class at SVA 100 years ago, he said that more people knew him at that time as a restaurant reviewer than as a designer. And that was after Push Pin Studios had already had their show at the Louvre.
lorraine wild

Jessica, you probably know of him already, but if not, allow me to introduce you Nigel Slater. Appetite is superb.
Jeff Gill

Jeff Gill

Thanks to Jeff, I realized the link in my first post was broken. I goofed, apologies. indicator

I had caramel peacan cheesecake at a brunch today.

As a visitor of the US I had ho idea who Wolfgang Puck was. Following my visit to his "cafe" at the Walt Disney World Resort I concluded that he was revered for his reheated soup and microwaved pizzas... and was probably related to Ronald McDonald, if not through birth then through a shared genetic modification vat somehwhere in the Nevada desert.

Am I close?

Both, food and design always have been very dear to me. What a nice surprise to stumble upon this post by incident ;)

Mmmmmm, cheesecake! I've always liked it. Everything in moderation, I say.

Now that grad school no longer consumes my life, I want to start cooking more. One thing I've been doing to further this goal is to build my inventory of good cooking tools. Good industrial design evident in a cooking tool makes a huge difference in the culinary experience.

Speaking of which, I can't wait to use my mini torch tomorrow when I make lavendar-infused crème brulée for my friend's birthday.

Bon appetit.

Excellent post.

But don't forget food historians, like LA Times' Charles Perry and John McPhee or food scientists like Harold McGee and LA Times' Russ Parsons.

If you think designing a cheesecake is tough, try designing and growing a garden. You have to just forget about control and learn to love failure.

Cheesecake designers should also consider accessibility and interaction issues in their work.

Jakob Nielsen's Cheesecake

Fascinating. But who is Fitt and why does he have a law named after him?
Jessica Helfand

Thank you for this humorous post.

Once, in an attempt to make goat-cheesecake without "Philly's" I was fortuitous enough to speak with my local Dairy Scientist about Cream Cheese. When I asked this kind gentleman, "What is cream cheese exactly?" he began speaking in numbers. Literally.

The short answer is that cream cheese is barely dairy. It's glue.

Natural cream cheese is another post altogether.

I wanted to be a typographer. I still miss the old days before computers hit the design scene.
shuna fish lydon

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