I have 15,678 memories about going to visit my grandparents in Sullivan County, NY as a kid. I think maybe 15 of them are about food.

Back then, restaurants were few and far between and North Branch (a tiny hamlet in Callicoon) was even more isolated than it is now. My grandparents and I would go up, stay on our property, eat pasta and sausages, and Entenmann’s coffee cake. The restaurants upstate were mostly German; potato pancakes and schnitzel—which were wildly exotic for me.

Heather-Carlucci-profile

Photo: Pernille Loof

While I was conjuring up these memories that tied my beloved upstate with food, a new thought came to mind…

Great chefs do not come out of great restaurants. They can build a great kitchen for what might become a great restaurant, but the creating of a great chef comes from moments that may never touch food. These are moments that inspire you to stick around the crappy life that is a chef’s life. Moments that tell you, you have a calling or a journey, or just f—ing ended up somewhere you’re supposed to be.

Moments like going to Vegas for a pastry chef conference and realizing that every pastry chef in New York City is on that flight. Moments like having to take your non-English speaking dishwasher to the hospital due to chest pains. Or perhaps, deciding to throw a pig roast in Narrowsburg and finding out that all your chef friends want in without pay. 

One of my biggest food moments brings me back to Liberty, NY when I was 8 years old. My grandparents took my cousin Bob and me to Sullivan’s, a big, old diner in Liberty. Well, it looked big back then, but to be honest, my memory is a bit blurred by seeing one of my first true loves that day—the cheese Danish.

I don’t know what chemical reaction that Danish had on my brain, but I do remember taking a bite of it and having my brain shoot fireworks in every direction. I remember vividly: the linoleum, the oval diner plates and that damn cheese filling. I also remember making a huge deal about it.  Bob thought I was nuts.  He was kind, and tried to play along, but he didn’t get it. He stuck to his pancakes.  

I don’t know what chemical reaction that Danish had on my brain, but I do remember taking a bite of it and having my brain shoot fireworks in every direction.

I’m not sure if I’ve ever had as good a cheese Danish ever since, but the idea of putting cheesecake as a filling for an enriched dough is obscene. I still get sweaty palms just thinking about it. 

Sullivan’s is gone. And after all these years in the food business, I’ve made my share of really good cheese Danish. It’s just that… you never forget your first.

And so, I leave you with this—my own cheese Danish recipe. It’s not for the novice baker but give it a whirl. The dough is far more forgiving than I am in the face of a lesser cheese Danish.

Click for the recipe here.

Heather Carlucci is a pastry chef and food consultant at Mother New York.  She has appeared on Good Morning America and Iron Chef.