Caramel Cheesecake and Apple Rosettes
by Andrew Sedlack
(1) Preheat the oven to 350◦F. Open it. Let the warm air flush across your face like embarrassment. This is how good embarrassment is supposed to feel. Be embarrassed that you’re sticking your face in an oven. Be happy that no one can see your face while it’s in an oven. You know that there’s no one else in the flat. You’re embarrassed because you know you’re powerless to stop yourself from making this cake. You said you would turn the oven on and then turn it off but you’re going to make this cake and you’re going to call him and invite him over and he’s going to love it and he’s going to spend the night. And you only want to make this cake to impress him. Spray a 9” springform pan with nonstick baking spray. Cover the outside of the pan with heavy duty aluminum foil (or 2 layers of regular aluminum foil). Although foil is better known for hiding thoughts from the government, it also hides shame from yourself. Like the oven did. Admit that this is happening to yourself. Admit that you hate this. Admit that you hate that you love him.
(2) In a large bowl, whisk together the graham crackers and sugar. Don’t think about him wolfing it down as though it’s a protein shake. Don’t think about his abs. Pour over melted butter and combine until the mix is wet all the way through and clumps together to be easily packed. You’re a little messy with the butter. You imagine yourself slipping in a few minutes. You imagine the puddle of liquid that you had hoped would become a cake seeming to hover in the air a second before it splatters out across the floor. You imagine the pain of the hard composite countertop cracking into your skull. You cannot decide whether the countertop or your skull would break first.
Imagine the puddle of liquid leaving your skull carrying all your feelings out with it. Imagine this divine intervention all that you like. You will still bake this cake.
(3) Press the graham cracker mixture evenly into the bottom of the springform pan and up the sides about 1.5”. You start to wonder about getting a ruler to see if you’re close to 1.5”. You realize you’re clearly not there.
Wonder if it’s too early in the process to panic. Probably not. Better to be safe and call her anyway. Bake for about 12 minutes, or until the crust is golden-brown. Maybe 15 minutes. You think graham crackers are normally golden-brown, so when are they golden-brown enough for a cake? They are starting to seem less golden.
The first thing you hear is her shouting about something burning. Remember that she has a key. Pull the crust out of the oven. She asks what it is.
You know it’s better to let me have my way, she says. You know that you have never been an immovable object.
(4) Scatter the peeled and chopped apple on top of the graham cracker crust. At least, you would. She’s reminding you that you’re an idiot. You haven’t chopped it yet. You are now. You forgot to peel it, and she’s laughing again. You’re twice an idiot, a double-idiot. When you broke up, she called you an nth idiot. You assume that it’s okay for it not to be peeled, then, since she’s laughing.
You assumed wrong. You try chopping off tiny bits of peel from each of the little chunks you’ve created. chunks. You Once want you enough get it (relatively) to flavor the together, apples drizzle and seep ½ to into ¾ cup the salted crust, caramel sauce over but not so much as the apple will soak it or make it overly sticky.
Overly sticky, she says, reading over your shoulder. You share a knowing glance with the chopped and peeled apple, but then she takes it and starts drizzling. This stuff is weird, she says. Not like normal caramel. She tastes some on her finger. You added salt? It’s consistency is weird. Like…I don’t know. Cake batter that’s been mixed too far? I can’t think of anything like it.
Set aside, she says, Did you even read the instructions? At some point, the cake that you thought would kill you became your only ally in the room. It was when the rest of the room collapsed into her. This apartment was her choice. It has always seemed like it was more hers. And you’ve been aware of that only since you broke up. She treats you like you’re a grown-up kid overstaying his welcome at his parents’ home. But you pay the rent here. You’ve paid the rent for the last three months, at least. She doesn’t even live here, anymore. Most nights. Most nights you believe that space is what you need.
(5) In a large bowl, beat together the cream cheese, sugar, and flour until no clumps remain. You think powdered sugar should be fine. You let some of the caramel sauce smear across the printout so she can’t see that it was supposed to be granulated. Better to forget about that for now. In your opinion, texture is secondary to taste. She puts a hand on your side to push you out of the way and you remember one of the nights when you missed her hand.
She beats in the eggs and vanilla extract, and tells you as she does it that it’s important to be careful not to overmix. Overmixing, she says, is the bane of proper texture—the most important part of a cheesecake. It’s little clumps like that, over sugar still in the granules, that melt into the rest of it and— you did put in the sugar, right? You didn’t think that would turn into a question.
You mumble something about cupboards and make a show of looking through them. You know there isn’t any granulated sugar. Your throat seizes around a lump. I used powdered, instead, you say. I’ve started seeing a guy. The cake is for him. Her face shows you actually said that last bit.
(6) Pour the cheesecake filling into the springform pan, on top of the apples. Keep your eyes on the cake so they can’t meet hers. You wonder if it’s supposed to be so gloppy. Or is this how you messed up the texture? Or is that gonna show up at the end, all of the sudden bad when you take the first bite? None of this was supposed to be. Smooth out the surface with a rubber spatula, and find that there are clumps which did survive, anyway. She leans over the now almost-smooth top of the cake, her face uncomfortably close to yours. She has always been a close talker.
I wonder how the sugar will turn out, she says. Maybe it will be okay. It shouldn’t be that bad. To be honest, she pauses, it might turn out better. I’ve never really thought about it.
You’re not sure when your eyes left the cake but now they’re looking into hers. Pour about an inch of hot water into a large pan, she reads from the recipe. I’m glad, she says. Did you preheat the oven? Is it ready to go? she asks, looking at the recipe. Is he nice to you when you’re not having sex? she asks, looking at you.
You nod. So put the cheesecake on the middle rack and the hot water underneath it. The steam helps to keep it from cracking. I’ve been thinking we need to stop fucking, too. For a while actually.
She pauses so that you can spare her feelings. I don’t think I’m good for you, she continues. Your finger brushes the oven rack as you set down the cake. Look at the angry red line it leaves. Close the oven.
Put that under cold water, she says, turning on the tap. She goes on: I worry, sometimes, that you would starve if I didn’t keep showing up. So I’m glad. That there’s someone else. I think. If it helps, I will miss you. If you need anything to help your feelings, anyway.
You wish she would tell you what you are supposed to feel right now.
(7) Bake for 15 minutes, and then reduce heat to 325◦F. It’s important not to leave the cake in very intense conditions for too long; it’s easy to ruin a cake at this point. You do not say a word for 15 minutes. She is uncomfortable enough to get a glass of water and you wince. She finishes the water and changes the oven’s setpoint. You do not ask if she got that off the recipe. Continue to bake for 5 minutes, until you open your mouth because you want to ask her why she is infantilizing you and she sees and she winces and you close your mouth. Continue to bake for 5 minutes, until you turn away to pick your nose. She smiles but is not smiling when you turn back around. Continue to bake for 5 minutes of silence. Continue to bake for 5 minutes; she stands up and goes to the bathroom. Continue to bake for 5 minutes; she walks back in. Continue to bake until her phone alarm goes off and you jump. Stand up, open the oven—
Wait! You freeze. Do not remove the cheesecake from the oven, she reads. Just crack the door. Put a . . . wood spoon, maybe? something in the door to keep it cracked.
Do as she says. Realize that you’re just taking orders from her at this point.
She reads: Instead, turn off the heat and crack the door of the oven to let the cheesecake cool slowly. We don’t want it to crack, right? We have to give it an hour like this before we can take it out.
She pulls out her phone. The silence is cutting into you. She’s never silent; she hates pauses and gaps. You want her to act normal. The next thing is to run a sharp knife around the edge of the pan to separate the cheesecake from the pan. You get out the knife and look at it lying on the counter.
You going all axe-murderer now or something? she asks. It’s a knife, not an axe, is the joke you complete in your head and consciously cancel before it leaves your mouth. What are you thinking about? you ask.
Just how long it will take it to cool. Oh. I just think this time is important. That I need to get used to not talking to you when you’re right here. Because I don’t have the self-control to keep away if we leave here normally. But if the silence starts now…I can stretch it out. This is my practice lap. If I can make it through this I’ll be able to do what’s best for you. For us. Her voice is clipped, like each sentence is being cleared for public release before she said it.
You walk out of the room and find a pillow and scream into it. You know the right volume so that she won’t hear; and you know the right volume so that she will, just barely. You use the latter. When the cheesecake is cooled all the way to room temperature, cover it and refrigerate overnight, or for at least 3 hours.
She has pulled a book out of her bag.
(8) When 3 hours have passed and the cheesecake is ready, she folds the book back up and into her bag.
Now, start making the apple roses. You bring out the mandoline and she says, So what is he like?
In a medium saucepan, dissolve yet another bag of powdered sugar into the apple cider. Stir and stir and wonder if you should skim off all the little clumps that refuse to integrate into the rest of it. You don’t say anything, but she answers: So you just need to heat it. The powdered sugar is right. Not sure why it dissolves so much better. It just does.
As the pot heats up, the clumps all start to vanish. Perfect, she says. She covers her mouth.
(9) Take your 5 apples and thinly slice them using the mandoline.
Be mindful of your fingers, she says. Do you mind that I didn’t tell you this was for him until you started helping with it? you say. And then cut the apples in half, lengthwise, so you have long half-moon shapes.
She cocks her head for a moment before she speaks. Think it was pretty par for the course. Wouldn’t have expected anything less of you, right?
You frown, and ask, Is that an insult? It can be. Up to you. Here. She holds out the pot, too near to your body for comfort. You’re caught between the pot and counter and can’t really move away. You drop in the apple slices handful by handful. With the last one, a few drops of boiling sugared cider smart against your skin. Worse than the rack. She doesn’t notice, and you don’t do anything.
Lower it to a simmer, she says, setting the pot back on the stove. Give them a nudge now and then, but, otherwise, just let them simmer for a bit. Until they’re soft but not falling apart.
You go to the bathroom. When you come back, she’s taking a call on your phone. You regret leaving it out the way you always regret letting her do things that you know she’s going to do. With her luck, he called and she picked it up in the only thirty seconds when you weren’t in the room.
Yeah, you should come over ASAP! she says. You reach for the phone and she twists away with a smile, shaking her head. You glare at her. She glares you. Neither of you makes eye contact.
I can’t believe he’s never mentioned me, she says into the phone. We were together for the last few years. Yeah. The last few months have been just a lot of hanging and, uh, making amends. Here and there. A lot is probably an exaggeration. Moving out made things very final and very, uh, clean. You know? You should really roll through, though. We would love to have you. Pamper you or something. Oh, come on, you can’t be that much younger. Yeah, I’m looking at him right now, he’s nodding. Oh, yeah, cool, I’ll pass off the phone? Looking forward to meeting you soon. Here. She hands you the phone. As you wait for his greeting, she wraps herself back up into her coat, grabs her bag, and waves from the door. She shuts it quietly. You keep talking.
(10) Tell him that you have to hang up because of something urgent in the kitchen. Wait another 5 minutes in still silence till the apples are ready. You wonder how gay you are as you strain out the apples with a slotted spoon. Experimenting is safe, easy. But you don’t think that you think you’re gay, yet. Set them on a few layers paper towels to soak out the excess cider. You’re not sure that the sex and your enjoyment of it is justification enough. And when the first of the slices cools down enough to not burn you, you decide that it’s not. You probably need to fall in love with him to definitely be into men. Or with some other guy. Pour the salted caramel sauce over the cake’s surface. It’s viscous but it slowly fills in all the cracks your precautions failed to prevent. Let the caramel sauce cool and set slightly. The next part will be impressive. You think. If it goes well. If he sees you do it. You don’t still love her.
(11) Once the two of you leave the bedroom, take a small slice of apple and roll it tightly into a cylinder. You smile at him. You shrug and look uncertain. You try to make it seem like you didn’t already practice making a rosette. Regret the bedroom. Your focus is only on the absence of his voice as you take another slice and roll it tightly around the first one. They twist and slip out of your hands and you mumble a swear.
How does that work, he says. He picks up a few slices and tries to get the same result. He shrugs, walks away. Eats them. You frown as he walks away and you find yourself watching his ass. If it’s just the attraction part, you’re sold on being gay.
And that’s all it should be. You know that. But you know you don’t want it to be supposed to be a little, simple thing. You want it to be big and grand. And if it isn’t, and if it doesn’t last, if he and he alone turns out to be a mistake, you want to be able to erase the whole thing as a silly little mistake.
Take another slice and begin rolling it about halfway over the last apple petal. Continue wrapping the apple petals concentrically until you have a nice-looking rose-ish shape.
Did you kick her out? he says. What? From the apartment? No, just now. Before I got here. What? Oh. No. She said she would be here. Yeah. Sorry. I don’t know why— she just walked out. While I was on the phone with you. Something weird. I don’t know.
Sure. Really. He smirks. You sure you didn’t just want to be able to drag me straight into there? Drag? He smirks. No, really. I don’t know what was up with her. I mean. I’m happy she was gone. Glad we had time. But sad that you didn’t get to meet her.
- Or…not really. Not psyched about her meeting you. Or vice-versa. It feels like a weird thing to have happened. But she really did just walk out. On her own. I didn’t say anything. Indicate anything. Imply anything. There’s a long moment. Being careful to hold the bottom, he reads from the printout. Try to judge your first rosette carefully. Make sure that there is enough for each of the others. Wonder if you should add another slice to this one. He sidles up behind you, breathing past your ear. You can’t decide if this is a sixth of the slices or too few.
Beautiful, he says. You smile. You let the rose fall apart on the counter as you kiss. You let him drag you back out of the kitchen again.
(12) Rebuild the first flower from the pile of crumpled and soggy apple slices you left behind. You find making the rosette comfortably simple, now. Tricky, especially with how slippery they are. You drop a few slices. He watches you. And it feels fine. And you make sure the bottom of this one is tight, slide your fingers up it about halfway, and set it into the quarter-inch deep caramel sauce. The way that he looks at you makes you want him. You know he does it intentionally. Obviously. Everyone knows. He turns it off around other people. Sometimes.
Set some of the half pecans around the rosette to hold it in place. Wish that he would turn it off around you, sometimes. You don’t want to wish that, though. Stumble a few more times in rolling up the second rosette, and then realize (too late) that the recipe has eight of them in the picture but you’ve used too much and won’t be able to make 8 more. They will be a bit more spaced out, and won’t line up with the pieces of cake. Start the third rosette.
He starts kissing you. Pull back away, and he pulls you forward and his breath is getting you high and that’s not how secondhand smoke works but secondhand smoke doesn’t explain why you’re lightheaded and then you’re working on the third rosette again.
Regret the 20 minute break you just took from the cake. He calls the cake beautiful again. He calls you beautiful again. Frown. Realize you’re frowning. You smile, you say, You too. The caramel is thick and viscous but it’s not really set like the recipe described. Like overmixed cake batter, is how she described it. Wonder if you managed to overmix caramel. She wasn’t here to make it. But she did say it was good. At least, she didn’t complain. She was probably lying. She lied so, so much. That was the nicest thing about her. For added security, place a few of the chopped pecans around each other apple rosette. If you’d done it immediately, like you did with the first one, they wouldn’t be awkwardly half-unfolded.
Feel like something in your chest is unravelling, winding its way out. Feel like a climber falling without a rope. Feel like a constrictor uncoiling from its dead prey. Sprinkle the remaining chopped pecans on top of the cake, especially the empty middle. Drizzle over more salted caramel sauce, if desired. Serve immediately.
He holds out a bite for you on his fork from his piece. You take it. You hold out a bite for him on your fork, and he takes it, exaggerates licking his lips.
Talk about banal things. Feel ill. Feel like you need to vomit. Feel like he is filling up the room, choking you. Tell him you need to finish something for work. He knows you don’t need to finish anything for work. Brush off his questions, whisk him out the door. You thank him. You kiss him in the doorway. Close the door. Lock the door. You text him goodbye. Run to the bathroom. Vomit. Wonder where all of this stuff inside you came from. Block him on your phone. Dry heaves, now. Try not to think about him. Try not to think about her instead of him. Try to think about her in a bittersweet way not a good way. Retch. Go to the site where you found the recipe. Review it. Boyfriend loved it. Make sure to use normal sugar. Retch. Five stars.