In the midst of quiet lives of prayer, a handful of nuns have sliced out a niche as bakers of high-end cheesecakes, so rich and creamy in flavors of chocolate, amaretto and key lime that they seem downright sinful.
But there are no transgressions here. In fact, money from the sales help the sisters of New Skete sustain their small monastery in upstate New York.
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"Everything in moderation is one of the Christian concepts, I think," said Sister Cecelia. "So who's to say we shouldn't appreciate food? God made us to love food."
Even the sisters' humility comes in moderation: They freely advertise their cheesecakes as "heavenly."
Though the sisters' mastery of cheese fillings and cookie-crumb crusts is novel, the idea of nuns and monks selling their handiwork — the sisters' larger cheesecakes can sell for more than $40 — is not.
Contemporary monasteries could easily stock a first-rate boutique with the likes of lip balm, chocolate bourbon fudge, greeting cards, herbal liqueur, gouda cheese and scented candles. The nearby monks of New Skete train dogs and breed German shepherds.
On a recent baking day, the nuns tied kerchiefs on their heads to cut into pillow-sized hunks of cream cheese, melt chocolate chips on a stove top, mix the thick batter and pour it into circular forms.
Sister Patricia, 82, loaded the unbaked cakes into the wide mouth of an oven fitted with five shelves that rotate like a Ferris wheel. Each of the roughly 220 cheesecakes came out of the oven that day only after she eyed each one carefully.
"You make 220 decisions on whether the cakes are baked," said Sister Patricia. "You get used to it, but you do need to know the look of each flavor, they look different. And if you leave them too long, they crack."
The five nuns of New Skete (two more are in a nearby nursing home) live communally in a monastery near the Vermont state line under the aegis of the Orthodox Church in America. The youngest is 64 and some of them, like Sisters Cecelia and Patricia, have spent their adult lives as nuns.
The roots of the cheesecake business here go back to 1969, when five Roman Catholic nuns from Indiana searched for a less cloistered life in a new monastery. They ended up in Cambridge near like-minded monks and began looking for ways to earn money.
They cleaned houses, worked at the local hospital and did upholstery work. One of the nuns, Sister Magdalene, had a talent for baking and in the mid '70s and tried selling cheesecakes to local restaurants.
The cheesecakes were such a hit they added a bakery in 1983. Baking of the four-pound cakes is now done one or two days a week, depending on the season. The nuns sell their cheesecakes online, at the monastery and deliver to some stores in the region like Delmar Marketplace near Albany, where co-owner Christine McCarroll said sales pick up during holidays.
"When extended family gets together, we usually have one," said customer Sandy Onderdonk, who especially likes the amaretto variety. "It doesn't seem expensive because you don't need a big piece."
New Skete Monastery online store: http://www.newskete.com/