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Flour Girl: Making the smearcase

Smearcase is like cheesecake, only lighter and less sweet. Leaving off the traditional cinnamon sprinkling helps make room for other possible toppings. (James M. Thresher for The Washington Post)

Baltimore has a tradition of straightforward food, especially when it comes to satisfying, homey desserts (think Berger cookies). Give credit to the combination of an unpretentious, working-class sensibility and a history of Eastern European immigrants.

Take smearcase. I wasn't familiar with it until I read Rachel Rappaport's article in the spring 2008 issue of the late Edible Chesapeake magazine. Smearcase is a Pennsylvania Dutch term referring to cottage cheese, which was probably the original base for the cheesecake-like dessert that goes by the same name.

A fourth-generation Baltimorean, Rappaport remembers growing up eating smearcase, an occasional treat her grandfather would bring home from a commercial baker. Finding it on shelves or in bakery cases these days can be hit or miss. It had been about a decade since she'd had it, but with the taste from childhood firmly planted in her mind, she was able to re-create something for her blog, Coconut and Lime, that passed muster with the Old Guard. Her mother, grandfather, aunt and neighbors all gave it a ringing endorsement. It's the real deal as they remembered it.

Recipe Included

Despite moving onto a number of other projects, including her first cookbook due mid-April, "Everything Healthy Slow-Cooker Cookbook," she remembers the smearcase recipe well, given the strong response she got from readers when she first posted it.

Smearcase is lighter and less sweet than a traditional New York-style cheesecake. Rappaport had the great idea to use evaporated milk instead of fresh, which gives the filling a not-too-decadent creaminess. And the crust is more than simply a way to keep the filling from sticking to the pan: Its cakyness balances out the creamy filling. Smearcase is a perfect candidate for a potluck dessert; transport it in the pan, then cut it into squares before serving.

The original recipe calls for just a dusting of cinnamon before the cake goes in the oven. I omitted it to give me more options for flavor pairings once baked. Although Rappaport agreed it's blasphemy to tinker with tradition, the simplicity of the recipe makes me want to add interesting toppings to it, such as jam, drizzled chocolate or sliced fruit. Fresh fruit, she agreed, might work well without overwhelming the creamy base.

Because smearcase isn't too sweet, it would also be a natural for tea time or even breakfast or brunch. (Rappaport suggested the latter first, I swear. She's obviously a girl after my own heart.)

Make it by the book or customize it to suit your tastes. Either way, this almost-forgotten food from a neighboring town is worth revisiting.

-- Leigh Lambert

Makes 24 squares

Adapted from a recipe by Rachel Rappaport in the spring 2008 issue of Edible Chesapeake magazine.

For the crust
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 cup sugar
Pinch salt
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs, at room temperature

For the filling
1 pound (two 8-ounce packages) cream cheese, at room temperature (do not use low-fat or nonfat)
3/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon flour
12 ounces evaporated milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 large eggs, at room temperature
Sprinkling of ground cinnamon (optional)

For garnish
1 1/2 cups jam of choice (optional)

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Have a 9-by-13-inch ungreased pan at hand.

For the crust: Combine the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer or hand-held electric mixer. Add the oil and eggs; beat on low speed for a few minutes until a dough forms (not so much like a cake batter). Press into the pan, spreading it evenly the bottom and at least halfway up the sides.

For the filling: Combine the cream cheese and sugar in a separate (or cleaned) bowl of a stand mixer or hand-held electric mixer; beat on medium-low speed for 2 minutes. Reduce the speed to low, then add the flour, evaporated milk, vanilla extract and eggs. Mix until smooth; the batter will be quite thin.

Pour the filling over the crust in the pan and sprinkle with cinnamon, if desired. Bake for 60 to 70 minutes or until the fillilng is slightly puffed and set. The cake should not brown.
Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool completely. If using the jam as a topping, spread it over the cooled cake before cutting. Use a clean, dry and hot knife to cut the cake into 24 equal squares, cleaning the knife between cuts.

Per square: 231 calories, 5 g protein, 23 g carbohydrates, 13 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 69 mg cholesterol, 134 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 14 g sugar

By Leigh Lambert  |  February 18, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Flour Girl , Recipes  | Tags: Baltimore, Flour Girl, cheesecake, recipes, smearcase  
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