Among Murderers, baking, prison, rehabilitation

The Institutional Junior: Cheesecake, Prison-style

As I dragged myself to the grocery store on this rainy Saturday morning I started thinking of Bruce’s cheesecake. Bruce is one of the protagonists in my book Among Murderers, and one of the first things I heard about him was that he had a way with cheesecake. Rumor had it that it was celebrated in all of the prisons in upstate New York. The cook at the halfway house in West Harlem, where I had started interviewing ex-prisoners a few months before Bruce’s release from prison, called Bruce “The Institutional Junior.” In prison, Bruce would bake cheesecakes most weekends, particularly during football season. He used a regular pan and the little stove in his cell. He put a lifter on the stove to keep the cheesecake from burning and let it sit there for about an hour and a half. Sometimes he added a can of mashed-up sweet potatoes “to turn the color.”

“I used to do it for therapy,” Bruce explained to me, when I inquired about the recipe.

Bruce’s therapy consisted of: 6 oz. cream cheese, 8 oz. sour cream, 1 tbsp. vanilla extract, 1 can condensed milk, and 2 cups sugar. For the crust Bruce crushed plenty of graham crackers and mixed them with butter. Bruce perfected his recipe through a “trial and error process.” After he moved from prison into the halfway house, he was nervous about the outcome of his cheesecakes. After all, he wasn’t accustomed to using a regular oven.

To make his first cheesecake in the free world, one August morning in 2007 Bruce got up at 5:00 a.m. and sneaked down into the deserted halfway house kitchen. He was relieved when the cheesecake turned out well and other residents asked for more. Once he saved me a piece. While I ate it he stared intensely at me, as if trying to determine what grade I would give his cheesecake by my facial expression. Without exaggeration, on a scale from 1 to 10, I would give it a 10.

So on this glum December morning I decided to brighten things up a bit by making Bruce’s cheesecake, prison-style.

The ingredients where easy to find—and possibly cheaper than in the prison commissary, which tends to be much more expensive than many stores on the outside.

I followed Bruce’s recipe. The batter tasted good but the crust came out a bit greasy. I’m not a seasoned baker and could have used Bruce’s advice here. And I have to admit that I cheated a bit by using parchment paper and a cake form.

This is how I propped up the cheesecake over the flame: some bricks with a cheese grader on one side to level out the different sizes of the bricks. Common sense told me to put some aluminum over the openings to distribute the heat more evenly. (I soon took it off because my husband said he smelled something burning. There was a black hole in the middle of the cheesecake with black smoke coming out of it!)

I was very nervous throughout the unfamiliar process but relieved when my friend Rachel ate a piece and said, “Hmmmm!” Of course, Bruce’s first cheesecake on the outside was better than mine—the bottom of my cake was slightly burnt—but it still turned out pretty damn good. Next time, though, I’ll skip the prison/stovetop method and make it in the oven.

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