There's no sibling rivalry when Maria Whelan heads into the kitchen.
One of the Somers Point woman's signature dishes is a pineapple cheesecake handed down from her aunt and tweaked by her sister AnnaMae Barcia, of Langhorne, Pa.
"I've been making this recipe for about 40 years," said Whelan, 68. "My sister is a better cook than I am. She gets lots of good recipes."
Family and friends might agree on the last point, but those who have tasted Whelan's cheesecake might find it hard to believe anyone could do a better job with the recipe.
Whelan shared the dish with co-workers when she worked as an administrative assistant at the Lockheed Martin office in Egg Harbor Township and has brought it to events at St. Joseph's Church in Somers Point.
"We had a couple of get-togethers not too long ago at the church and I made the cheesecake. It went like hotcakes," she said. "Even Father Bob Gregorio said 'You made a hit with this.'"
Whelan and her sister have been close throughout their lives.
The girls were born in south Philadelphia, but their father abandoned the family when Whelan was 3 and her sister was 6 months old. Their mother was sick, so the young girls went to live with their maternal grandparents.
"It was hard on them, after they raised 11 children, to have to turn around and raise two grandchildren too," Whelan said. Back in those days Whelan was a bit of a tomboy, while AnnaMae was the more timid and quiet one. Still, one of Whelan's childhood memories is of the two girls bouncing so hard on a bed that the box spring broke. Whelan also remembers the two of them getting up early to lick the cream from the top of the milk bottles delivered by the milkman.
Their grandmother was "so mad because we'd made low-fat milk. We'd have to do chores to get back into her good graces," Whelan recalled with a laugh. Still, it must have been overwhelming for the older couple.
Whelan's grandmother once went to discuss the situation with a parish priest.
"The priest recommended they put us in a home," Whelan said. "That just made my grandmother more distraught."
One place the grandmother could find sanctuary was in her kitchen, where - Whelan remembers - she prepared delicious Eastern European dishes such as potato pancakes, potato soup and pierogies.
"And these weren't Mrs. Paul's pierogies," Whelan said. "She would start in the morning making the dough. We would have them with sauerkraut in them, or mashed potatoes, or sometimes potatoes and cheese."
The grandmother was also famous for her homemade doughnuts - whenever she made them it was an excuse for a family gathering - and her holiday meals.
"Easter time used to be something really special," Whelan said. "She would make ham or pork. She would bake all her own cakes, filled with honey and walnuts. She'd make poppy-seed cake and cheesecake. They used to do intricate egg dying and painting."
With all this cooking going on, it was inevitable the two girls would grow up to be cooks.
Whelan and her sister weren't supposed to be in the kitchen, but "being curious and being girls - we were in there," she said. "That's how we learned how to cook."
The two sisters lived with their grandparents until their grandmother died when Whelan was 14. Then the sisters went to live with their Aunt Anna Goane and her husband, Dave. The couple had three children of their own, but welcomed the newest additions to the family.
"We lived in South Philadelphia. There were five kids in a two-bedroom house. We had some good times there, I'll tell you that," Whelan said.
While Anna Goane was a good cook, she also worked, so some easier meals crept into the family's menu.
The Goanes raised the children with love, but there were house rules that had to be followed.
"Uncle Dave made us go to Mass every week," Whelan said. "He didn't care how late your date was Saturday night, you were getting up for Mass on Sunday morning."
The two girls lived with the Goanes until the same Uncle Dave proudly walked each of them down the aisle on their wedding days.
Whelan and her husband, Robert, moved to Somers Point and raised their son. She worked, first as a secretary in a law firm, then in her post at Lockheed Martin. Now retired, she's active at St. Joseph's, where she's volunteered as a lector for nearly two decades.
Through it all, Whelan has still enjoyed cooking. She routinely brought her cheesecake to office functions. At one point, she even sold cakes for people to give as gifts.
Recently, she shared the recipe in a cookbook published by her parish.
Her son, Rob Jr., is such a fan of her cooking, he's even pushing her to publish a cookbook - something Whelan has resisted doing.
She's also turned down requests that she consider baking her cheesecake commercially. While she's happy people like her old family recipe, Whelan has no interest in making it a business venture.
"I said 'Thanks, but no thanks.' When you do it for loved ones and friends, it's fun. When you start doing it for money, it becomes a chore," she said.
Contact Steven V. Cronin:
•6 8-ounce packages cream cheese (softened)
•2 cups sugar
•10 large eggs (room temperature)
•1 tablespoon vanilla
•1 20-ounce can crushed pineapple
•2 to 3 tablespoons cinnamon for topping
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease 13- by 9- by 2-inch pan. Put the cream cheese in a large microwaveable bowl, Microwave for 90 seconds to soften cream cheese, add sugar and mix at low speed until blended well.
Add eggs, one at a time, mixing at low speed until blended. Then add vanilla and crushed pineapple, just until blended. Pour mixture into greased pan. Sprinkle cinnamon on top of mixture. Bake 50 minutes or until toothpick in center of cake comes out clean. (not more than 55 minutes). Remove from oven and cool on cake rack for about two hours. Cover with foil, refrigerate. Can be frozen.