Is anybody as obsessed with PEN15 as I am? I swear to god that that show is required viewing for anybody who went to middle school in the early 2000s. PEN15 follows two actresses, Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, who play fictionalized versions of themselves in middle school. But there’s a twist—both Maya and Anna are actually in their early 30s, while the rest of the cast is played by real middle schoolers. It’s a hilarious sight gag, but the story is also actually really heartwarming and primarily centers on Maya and Anna’s tender friendship and undying loyalty for one another.
Watching the show took me back to my middle school (and high school) years, during which I was practically inseparable from my best friend, Katherine. We went through a lot together; most of it was the meaningless shenanigans and growing pains that come from being a middle/high schooler, sure, but there were significant milestones too. Our friendship was similar to the PEN15 girls in that we were completely, 100% devoted to each other in the way that only middle school best friends can be. Even in college, after we headed to schools on opposite coasts, our friendship seemed unbreakable. Every Sunday, we would call each other with updates from our lives, comparing our experiences and discussing the boys we liked and our new girlfriends. But even still, we remained utterly loyal. “She’s not like you,” our stories reassured each other. “She doesn’t get me like you do.”
One of my biggest regrets in life is how our friendship slowly, gradually eroded after college. I’d always assumed that we would find ourselves living in the same city upon graduating. Instead, life had other plans. I stayed mostly west, jumping from Portland to San Francisco to Denver and back to Portland and San Francisco again, all the while trying new careers in finance, tech, and blogging; she stayed out east, eventually ending up in a small town toiling away slowly but steadily on the long road of medical school. Our different schedules led us to speak to each other less and less; the weekly check-ins turned into monthly ones, then eventually, yearly ones. Phone calls became emails that became text messages that became brief birthday greetings. Somewhere along the way, we began leading such different lives that we stopped being recognizable to one another. At first, the cracks were unnoticeable, easy to skip over and ignore; then it was an uncrossable gulf all at once, with the two of us standing on opposite sides. A lesser friendship might have survived the chasm, but because Katherine and I had been so important in each other’s lives, the increasing gaps in our knowledge of one another were absolutely devastating. Because the truth is, even on a friendship that had been as solid and strong as ours, the effects of geography and time can be insurmountable.
Today the things I can tell you about Katherine fall in broad strokes, so general that they read like newsletter updates in a college alumni magazine: she is a doctor now, a surgeon of some kind. She lives in Texas, I think. I don’t know any of the personal things, like if she grew up to be a Republican or a Democrat, or if she’s dating anybody, or if she’s happy in her chosen career or to be back in the city where we grew up together. But when we were the best of friends, I knew details that could color pages and pages with minutia. Like how her pillow covers were the same cloud ones as Anna Konkle’s in PEN15, or how her dessert order at The Cheesecake Factory was always a slice of Snickers cheesecake.
Today is national cheesecake day; I’d initially set out to make a cheesecake from Maida Heatter’s latest cookbook, but PEN15 caused an avalanche of nostalgia to resurface and inspired me to make these bars instead. They are modeled after Katherine’s favorite dessert from many years ago, and a love letter to my lost childhood best friend. I don’t know if she would eat them today, but I’d like to think that their portable bar format makes them conducive for a quick snack break in between surgeries and saving lives. Enjoy!
Some baker’s notes:
- To make Oreo cookie crumbs, use a digital scale to weigh out as many crackers as needed to match the weight in the recipe. Use a food processor to pulse the cookies into fine crumbs. There is no need to scrape off the icing in between each cookie!
- It’s especially important that your cream cheese, eggs, and sour cream are warmed to room temperature—the filling will be lumpy if the ingredients are cold. To ensure that my cream cheese has softened to the perfect temperature, I chop it into blocks and pop it in the microwave for 15 to 20 seconds.
Get the Recipe: Snickers Cheesecake Bars
For the Oreo Crust
- 2 1/4 cups (7.85 ounces) Oreo cookie crumbs (see baker's notes)
- 4 tablespoons 2 ounces unsalted butter, melted
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
For the Cheesecake Filling
- 1 1/2 cups (12 ounces) cream cheese, at room temperature
- 1/2 cup (3.5 ounces) granulated sugar
- 2 large eggs, at room temperature
- 1/2 cup 4 ounces sour cream, at room temperature
- 1 cup around 18 pieces mini Snickers, halved and quartered
- First, make the crust: position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 (F). Line an 8-inch cake pan with a sheet of aluminum foil, leaving at least a 2-inch overhang on two opposite sides. Layer a second sheet of foil on top, perpendicular to the first, leaving a 2-inch overhang on the remaining sides.
- In a medium bowl, combine the cookie crumbs, melted butter, and salt and toss with your fingers until the mixture looks like wet sand. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and use a tart tamper or your hands to press it evenly over the bottom of the pan, all the way to the edges. (You can use the bottom of a coffee mug or heavy glass to pound the crumbs in place—you want to apply some pressure here so the crust holds its shape.)
- Bake for 12 minutes. The crust will look underbaked and feel soft to the touch when you remove it from the oven, but will firm up as it cools. Cool the crust on a wire rack while you make the filling.
- Next, make the filling: lower the oven temperature to 325 (F).
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese on medium-low until soft, about 1 minute. Add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy, about 1 minute, using a rubber spatula to scrape down the bottom and sides of the bowl as necessary. Reduce the mixer to low and add the eggs one at a time, adding the next egg only after the previous one is fully incorporated, scraping down the bottom and sides of the bowl after each addition. With the mixer on low, add the sour cream all at once and beat until combined, about 1 minute. Scrape down the bottom and sides of the bowl once more, and beat on medium-high for an additional 30 seconds.
- Pour the filling over the crust and use an offset spatula to smooth the top. Sprinkle the chopped Snickers bars evenly over the batter. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until the edges are set but the center still wobbles slightly. Cool the bars completely on a wire rack. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate until the filling is firm, at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.
- Run a butter knife or offset spatula along the edges of the pan and use the overhanging foil as handles to lift the bars out of the pan and onto a cutting board. Use a hot knife to slice into 2-inch squares and serve. The cheesecake bars can be stores in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.