Lemon Cheesecake Braid
I’m in NoDa, and it makes me want to write poetry and take pictures. But mostly, write pictures. Mostly about babies on hips and tall-tree streets where I am completely lost. I mean, no one can find me here. I could live my whole life here lost.
It’s funny, the district in the city trying to be the most avant-garde makes me feel like the most traditional mommy.
Elias’s eyes are the most beautiful hazel. In the dark they look a wide, deep brown with the longest lashes. In the light the blues show through. Blue-grays, really. He’s walking now. I told Mike, it’s funny… you don’t see this little boy for two weeks and he’s completely different. I saw him take some of his first little steps with those chubby feet, and now he can take at least ten before he falls on his little bottom. It’s a risky venture.
That excerpt is from one of my journal entries dated October 30, 2004. That was the year I drove down to NoDa, the arts district of Charlotte, weekend after weekend to babysit for 7-year-old Elise and her baby brother, Elias. I hated babysitting in general, but this job was different because it didn’t really feel like a job. I spent entire 13-hour days with these kids making them lunches and dinners, policing nap time, and most precious of all, managing bedtime. It wasn’t like babysitting at all. It was like mothering. As close as I’ve ever been, anyway. Maybe as close as I’ll ever be, who knows.
Elise was a firecracker and so much fun. Smart, hilarious, and furiously independent. We fought over who got to make the grilled cheeses for lunch because she wanted to do it herself and I wanted to feel domestic. What a pair. She loved to run at me full force and leap into my arms like a monkey, with nary a thought as to whether I was strong enough to spin her around or not.
I had the most fun with her, but I was the most intrigued by Elias, this pudgy little creature on the verge of everything. He had the goggle glasses that babies sometimes wear and therefore had the widest of wide-eyed stares. He was, as the excerpt above suggests, just taking his first steps. The world seemed like a mine field: loose blocks that could trip him, coffee table corners that could bump his head, hardwood floors that made for a rough landing. But he was innocent and brave in the way that all babies are, determined to try out his little legs over and over again. I knew one day he’d run around without a second thought. It was just the order of things. But what a turbulent path lay ahead of him in the meantime.
It’s been 10 years since these thoughts first crossed my mind. Elise is now 17 and a passionate musician on her church’s worship team. Elias is a handsome little 11-year-old. And on New Year’s Day, after months spent battling cancer, their father passed away. I’ve been disconnected from them for a decade now besides a Facebook message here and there, but it still threw me for a loop. Elias is going to have to take those first steps all over again, and Elise along with him: the first steps into a world that is missing someone who should be there, who wanted to be there. The first steps into honoring him by moving forward. And how many coffee table edges, how many hardwood floors surround them? These first steps, the first steps after losing a parent, are ones I’ve never taken. It’s a risky venture. But these kids? They are some of the bravest I know.
If you pray, will you send up some prayers for this wonderful family? I’ve been thinking a ton about them in recent days for obvious reasons, and will share a few more sweet stories over the next couple of posts.
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I know I’m supposed to be posting healthy recipes and I really tried, but my low-carb angel food cake fell apart and is now languishing at the bottom of my trash can. So I threw all resolutions to the wind and made you something uplifting and wonderful and bright. This is a tough winter. It’s time to fight back with lemon.
If you loved the Lemon Cheesecake Morning Buns, this Lemon Cheesecake Braid is your new best friend. The pastry gets crisp and and the filling is absolutely sublime. Whip it up and enjoy with coffee, laughing in the face of even the grayest winter day. Love to you all, friends.
One year ago: The Ultimate Gooey Caramel Brownie Mug Cake Sundae
Two years ago: Boozy Icebox Cake
Three years ago: Healthy Roasted Tomato and Onion Bread Soup
Four years ago: Lemon Berry Crumble Breakup Bars
Five years ago: Pumpkin Cheesecake Bread Pudding
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons powdered sugar
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter
- 3 ounces cream cheese
- 1/2 cup milk
- 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
- 1 egg whisked with 1 teaspoon water for egg wash
- 1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened
- zest of 1 lemon (reserve some for topping)
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 egg, room temperature
- 1/2 cups powdered sugar
- 1/8 teaspoon lemon extract
- 1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 tablespoon milk
- Make the filling: Cream the softened cream cheese in a medium bowl until fluffy before adding lemon zest, sugar, lemon juice, and the egg. Mix together until well combined. Set aside on the counter while you prepare the rest of the braid.
- Make the pastry braid: Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. In the bowl of a food processor, mix the flour, powdered sugar, baking powder, and salt. Add the cream cheese and butter into the flour mixture and pulse to cut the fat into the flour (about 6 pulses). Add the milk and almond extract and blend until it’s just starting to come together into a loose dough.
- Turn the dough out onto a big sheet of lightly-floured parchment paper and knead each very lightly for just 4-5 strokes (be careful not to overwork the dough or it’ll be tough! Don’t worry about getting it smooth — just knead for these few strokes and let it stay a little rough.)
- Very lightly flour the top of the dough and place another sheet of parchment paper on top. Between two sheets of parchment paper, roll the dough to an 10- by 12-inch rectangle (I lift the paper off every now and then and flip the dough and repeat on the other side, to ensure the dough isn’t sticking). Remove the top sheet of parchment and discard. Measure and mark the dough lengthwise into thirds. Pour the melted butter onto the middle third, spreading it around with the back of a spoon. Dollop the cream cheese mixture on top of the butter and spread it out (I use the back of two spoons to spread it around). Things will get oozy and you will worry that you're messing the braid up. Take a deep breath and soldier through, because it's gonna come out amazing!
- Continue assembling the braid: (Remember, there are photos below to help visualize this step!) Make diagonal cuts at 1-inch intervals on each the long sides. Do not cut into the center filling area. Fold strips, first one from one side and then one from the other side in an alternating fashion, over the filling. It will now resemble a braid. Use the sheet of parchment to carefully transfer your braid to a baking sheet. At this point you can cover and refrigerate the braid overnight, or you can continue to the next step.
- Bake and glaze the braid: Brush the pastry braid with the egg wash mixture. Bake in the 425 degree oven for 20-22 minutes, until the dough is really golden on top and the filling is set. After allowing the braid to cool for around 30 minutes, whisk together the powdered sugar, lemon and vanilla extracts, and milk in a small measuring cup with a pour spout. Drizzle over the top of the braid. Top with lemon zest and serve!
Example of how to cut and assemble braid.