Monday, April 27, 2009

My First Daring Baker's Challenge

The April 2009 challenge is hosted by Jenny from Jenny Bakes. She has chosen Abbey's Infamous Cheesecake as the challenge.

I was very excited that my first Daring Baker's Challenge was something I've never made before - cheesecake! This was a great first challenge for me, somewhat simple and endless possibilities. I went back and forth a little bit on what flavor to choose - whether to keep it simple and just stick with a plain cheesecake, or to step it up and go all out. I think what I finally decided on falls somewhere in the middle of the two.

I chose to make a Vanilla Bean Irish Cream cheesecake with a homemade graham cracker crust. I've been wanting to make graham crackers and saw this as a perfect opportunity to bake two things for one project. I also decided early on that I wanted to involve macarons in the decoration for my cheesecake. (I will find pretty much any reason to make macarons!)

I took things slow and made the graham crackers in advance. They turned out great and the first thing a taste tester of mine said after trying one was, "This would be great as a pie crust." Win!

I ended up baking my cheesecake just this past weekend - it's been a busy month! I had wanted to make it a few weekends ago after I got my wisdom teeth out, but I was much more lazy than I had expected to be that weekend (and heavily drugged, I might add lol). So I had a very busy weekend of baking.

The cheesecake itself was very simple and easy to make. Everything came together quickly and after having done my research on cheesecake making, I decided I would add one tablespoon of cornstarch to the batter to prevent any cracking. While a crack isn't going to make it taste any different (and is easily covered up) I'm very picky about that sort of thing, so I decided to take that added insurance.

creaming the batter; the graham cracker crust; vanilla bean seeds

The only hang up I had was using a spring form pan. While the idea of the pan leaking while in the water bath worried me, I was apprehensive at the thought of flipping a cheesecake out of a pan without removable sides. I decided to go with the spring form and hope for the best. I carefully wrapped that sucker three times with foil, but alas, the water still found it's way in! I found just a little bit of water in each layer of foil, but couldn't tell if it actually seeped through the pan itself. Only the first slice would tell, but I had to let it cool first.

As the cheesecake was cooling, I made the the macarons - I chose chocolate, which are my favorite. I use this recipe from Canelle et Vanille which has never failed for me...until this weekend. I haven't made macarons in a few weeks, so I felt a little rusty. Always attempting to avoid a macaron disaster, I ended up being too careful in mixing the batter and I think I under-mixed it. They looked so pretty as they were drying, but once they were half way through the baking time, they had already begun to crack. Unfortunately two trays of failures! I was quite discouraged, as this has been my go to recipe, never a failure, always a beautiful result. I took a break and decided to resume the next day with another batch of macarons.

the failed batch of macarons, pre-bake. they looked so promising

The next batch I decided to make some mini macarons along with the regular sized ones (regular size being about and inch a half in diameter). The batter looked much better this time, so I was optimistic. I sprinkled the regular sized macarons with one of the three: raw cacao nibs, fleur de sel or cocoa powder, and left the mini ones plain. This time, almost all the regular sized macarons cracked - I got maybe half a dozen that didn't - and all the mini ones came out perfectly! Confuzzled, I didn't have much time to ponder what went wrong and carried on. I had enough of the mini macarons to use as decoration and filled them with an Irish cream white chocolate ganache. Yummy!

For the final assembly, I made some whipped cream and sweetened it with vanilla sugar. I piped some rosettes on the cheesecake and topped those with the macarons. Challenge complete!

So how did it taste? It turned out incredibly declicous! The crust showed no evidence of sogginess and went perfectly with the creamy texture of the cake. You can really taste the Irish cream and the tiny flecks of vanilla bean add even more the the visual appeal. I am very pleased with my first cheesecake and can defnitely see myself making this again. I would love to try out more flavor combinations and even making mini cheesecakes too. Thanks Jenny for the great recipe!


Prep notes: While the actual making of this cheesecake is a minimal time commitment, it does need to bake for almost an hour, cool in the oven for an hour, and chill overnight before it is served. Please plan accordingly!

2 cups / 180 g graham cracker crumbs
1 stick / 4 oz butter, melted (I only used half a stick and that was plenty!)
2 tbsp. / 24 g sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract

3 sticks of cream cheese, 8 oz each (total of 24 oz) room temperature
1 cup / 210 g sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch (my addition)
3 large eggs
1 cup / 8 oz heavy cream (I used 2/3 cup cream, 1/3 cup Bailey's Irish cream)
1 tbsp. lemon juice (I subbed Irish cream for this)
1 tbsp. vanilla extract or the innards of a vanilla bean (I used vanilla bean)
1 tbsp liqueur, optional, but choose what will work well with your cheesecake (I used Irish cream here)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (Gas Mark 4 = 180C = Moderate heat). Begin to boil a large pot of water for the water bath.

2. Mix together the crust ingredients and press into your preferred pan. You can press the crust just into the bottom, or up the sides of the pan too - baker's choice. Set crust aside.

3. Combine cream cheese and sugar and cornstarch in the bowl of a stand-mixer (or in a large bowl if using a hand-mixer) and cream together until smooth. Add eggs, one at a time, fully incorporating each before adding the next. Make sure to scrape down the bowl in between each egg. Add heavy cream, vanilla, lemon juice, and alcohol and blend until smooth and creamy.

4. Pour batter into prepared crust and tap the pan on the counter a few times to bring all air bubbles to the surface. Place pan into a larger pan and pour boiling water into the larger pan until halfway up the side of the cheesecake pan. If cheesecake pan is not airtight, cover bottom securely with foil before adding water.

5. Bake 45 to 55 minutes, until it is almost done - this can be hard to judge, but you're looking for the cake to hold together, but still have a lot of jiggle to it in the center. You don't want it to be completely firm at this stage. Close the oven door, turn the heat off, and let rest in the cooling oven for one hour. This lets the cake finish cooking and cool down gently enough so that it won't crack on the top. After one hour, remove cheesecake from oven and lift carefully out of water bath. Let it finish cooling on the counter, and then cover and put in the fridge to chill. Once fully chilled, it is ready to serve.

Pan note: The creator of this recipe used to use a springform pan, but no matter how well she wrapped the thing in tin foil, water would always seep in and make the crust soggy. Now she uses one of those 1-use foil "casserole" shaped pans from the grocery store. They're 8 or 9 inches wide and really deep, and best of all, water-tight. When it comes time to serve, just cut the foil away.

click for printable recipe

**For more recipe variations, please visit this month's host Jenny Bakes :)

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Martha's Graham Crackers

Yes, that Martha. You know you love her. Or hate her. I don't think there's really any in between when it comes to Martha. I'm definitely a Martha lover. I remember coming across her tv show when I was very young, maybe around 10 years old or so. I was so intrigued; she was like the mother or distant aunt I always wished I had. I was in awe as I saw her baking and crafting, making it all look so easy and effortless. Everything turned out beautiful and I was so inspired. Of course, being ten years old and having parents whose answer to everything was always a predictable "No." I didn't get a chance to do anything I ever saw on her programs, but I loved to watch.

It wasn't until recently that I bought my first Martha Stewart cookbook. Her Baking Handbook caught my eye during a trip to the craft store. After browsing through it, I decided to snatch it up with one of those 50% off coupons (gotta love Michaels, eh?). There are a lot of recipes I'd like to try, but the first thing I made out of the book was a batch of graham crackers. To be honest, I actually didn't want to use that particular recipe, but I needed graham crackers, and I had all the ingredients for Martha's recipe, so that's the one I went with.

I was a little turned off by the amount of butter called for in the recipe (2 sticks!) and worried they might turn out too greasy. Luckily, that was not the case with the final product. They turned out great, perfectly crunchy and sweet, but not overly so. They also have a slight hint of caramel, which comes from the brown sugar. The recipe calls for light brown, but I used dark and I'm very happy with the result. While great for snacking, I actually made these to use as a pie crust. More on that to come!

adapted from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 cups graham flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons honey

Whisk together both flours, baking soda, cinnamon and salt; set aside.
Using an electric mixer, beat butter, brown sugar and honey on medium speed until light and fluffy.
Turn the mixer down to low and slowly add the flour mixture to the butter/sugar mixture. Mix just until combined.
Turn dough out onto a floured surface and cut into 4 equal pieces. Roll each piece between parchment into a rectangle about 9 x 6 inches and 1/8 inch thick.
Trim edges to make them even (if you care about that sort of thing) and cut into smaller rectangles (6 x 3 inches if you're going for the same shape/size of the boxed kind) and score each in half lenghtwise and crosswise (you'll then have four 3 x 1/2 inch crackers).
Stack the parchment covered dough on top of each other and freeze until firm, about 20 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Remove two sheets of dough from the freezer and using a fork, score each cracker a few times.
Bake until crackers are golden brown, rotating pans halfway through, about 15-18 minutes.

click for printable recipe

Monday, April 20, 2009

cinnamon chocolate gelato

I've had this recipe saved for at least a year. I remember coming across it and thinking how easily I could make it. I'm not sure why I never did, but I always forget to freeze the ice cream maker base, which is a lame excuse, but true nonetheless.

After recently having made chocolate sorbet, I'd kept the ice cream maker base in the freezer so I could make the gelato. I just got my last two wisdom teeth taken out, and I knew I'd want something cold and tasty, so I decided to make this. The original recipe calls for toffee bits to be added but left those out this time for obvious reasons :)

This is my 1 quart Donvier ice cream maker that I bought at a thrift store years ago. I remember I had recently saw an episode of Martha Stewart (way back before she was a felon - I preferred her show format back then, it was so much better, don't you think?!) where she made ice cream and she mentioned Donvier specifically, so I snatched it up for a great price. You do have to churn it manually every couple of minutes, but it only takes about 20 minutes total to make a quart. This was probably one of my best thrift store finds ever - it was in the original box and even still had the instruction manual! I'm so glad I've kept it all these years, even though I've only used it a handful of times. I'm always so glad I have an ice cream maker when I come across a really yummy sounding recipe.

chocolate cinnamon gelato with toffee bits
adapted from Dorie Greenspan featured in Bon Appetit June 2006
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 1/4 teaspoons cinnamon
pinch salt
2 cups whole milk, divided into 1/4 and 1 3/4 cups
5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1/2 cup heavy cream (I used whole milk)
1/3 cup coarsely chopped toffee bits/candy bar pieces (I left these out)

Whisk sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon, and salt in heavy medium saucepan until blended. Gradually add 1/4 cup milk, whisking until cornstarch is dissolved. Whisk in remaining 1 3/4 cups milk. Whisk over medium-high heat until mixture thickens and comes to boil, about 6 minutes. Reduce heat to medium and cook 1 minute longer, whisking occasionally. Remove from heat; add chocolate. Let stand 1 minute, then whisk until melted and smooth.

Transfer gelato base to medium bowl. Mix in cream. Place bowl over large bowl filled with ice and water and cool, stirring often, about 30 minutes.
Process gelato base in ice cream maker according to manufacturer's instructions, adding toffee during last minute of churning. Transfer to container; cover. Freeze at least 3 hours and up to 2 days.

click for printable recipe

This gelato turned out just as good as I was expecting it to! I absolutely love cinnamon and chocolate together, so I knew it had to be good. I used Callebut bittersweet chocolate and next time would love to try half bitter or semi sweet and half milk chocolate. I'd also like to add I used all whole milk, including in replacement of the whipping cream in this recipe. I think it still turned out great, but can see how the cream would make it even better and richer. This recipe is definitely worth a go if you're in possession of an ice cream maker.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Chocolate Sorbet

I've never had chocolate sorbet. Ever. Sure, I've enjoyed a few fruit sorbet flavors - mostly raspberry. Knowing the texture of fruit based sorbets, I figured chocolate sorbet could never be as good as chocolate ice cream, so why bother? There's no cream in there, how could it be good?

This was my thought on chocolate sorbet, until I read Joy the Baker's description of a batch that she had made on her blog. That was enough to convince me that I needed to try this recipe out! I can't say I had quite the same experience, but it was much better than I was expecting and I really liked it.

There is a definite in-your-face chocolatey flavor to this, no doubt about it, so use the best chocolate you can. I resisted the urge to add anything and followed the recipe as given, however, next time I would love to add some coffee to it, or even cinnamon.

You can find the recipe here.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

dangerously good banana bread

I spent the weekend savoring A Homemade Life and made my first recipe from it on Sunday. Molly's Banana Bread with Chocolate and Crystalized Ginger was calling to me. It was knockin' on my door and I had to answer. I even invited it in for some coffee and a chat. We spent a lot of time together, me and that banana bread. Hoo boy. (I'd like to leave out the part where I ate almost half a loaf of this bread in less than 24 hours, but the 'dangerously good' title should probably be addressed. Baker beware!)

I've made banana bread many times in my life. It was one of the first 'from scratch' things I made as a teenager. It's easy and fairly straightforward. The thought never crossed my mind to to add chocolate chips to banana bread until one day, my babysitter sent my then 3 year old daughter home with a loaf of chocolate chip banana bread that the daycare children had helped make. The addition of chocolate to banana bread pretty much blew my mind. How could I have never thought to do that?! It was the best banana bread I'd ever had! I'm sure it wasn't so much the specific recipe, but banana and chocolate are a match made in heaven and I had been totally deprived of this wondrous combo for twenty some odd years! I took note, and from then on, if I made banana bread, it most certainly had chocolate in it.

When I saw this recipe for banana bread with chocolate AND crystallized ginger, I knew I had to make it, like, immediately. I love ginger, but I didn't know it until not even a year ago. It wasn't until I started eating sushi that I found my love of ginger. (The fact that I didn't try sushi until I was 27 years old pretty much blows my mind as well, considering how obsessed I became with it almost immediately - an obsession that hasn't waned a bit from that first taste.) I'll admit, it took some getting used to, I wasn't in love right away. But I found myself eating more and more of it each time I had sushi, until I was eating the entire mound they give you, whether or not I had any sushi left to go along with it.

Because of this, one random shopping day I picked up a package of crystallized ginger from Trader Joe's. Ohhhh yum. All those big sugar crystals covering the spicy, chewy, dried ginger had me right away. I'd tried some dried ginger before - it was the kind that's dyed red and nothing like this crystallized ginger I found at TJ's. The red stuff was not for me, but the crystallized kind, oh yeah. I usually have to hide the bag so I don't eat it all in one sitting, going for just one more piece, no matter how much my mouth still burns just a little from that last bite.

I realize that not everyone is into ginger, crystallized or otherwise. I get that. It's spicy and different. If you don't like it, you probably wouldn't like it in your banana bread. If you do like it, please, make this bread as soon as you can cultivate yourself a nice brown banana! Actually, make that 3 brown bananas, since that's about how many you'll need ;)

from A Homemade Life, by Molly Wizenberg

6 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups unbleached, all purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1/3 cup finely chopped cystalized ginger
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups mashed banana (about 3 large bananas)
1/4 cup plain whole milk yogurt (well stirred)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9 x 5" loaf pan.
In a small bowl, melt the butter (or alternately, place in a heatproof bowl and let melt in the oven while it's preheating). Set aside and let cool slightly.
In a large bowl, whist together the flour, sugar, baking soda and salt. Add the chocolate chips and crystallized ginger and whisk to combine. Set aside.
In a medium bowl, beat the eggs with a fork; add the banana, yogurt, melted butter and vanilla and stir to mix well. Add this mixture to the dry ingredients and stir just to combine - do not over mix. Pour into prepared pan and smooth the top.
Bake until the top is a nice golden brown and a toothpick (or wooden skewer) inserted into the center comes out clean, about 50 minutes to 1 hour. Let cool before slicing (if you can wait that long!)

click for printable recipe

Saturday, April 4, 2009

I met Orangette

I had the privilege of making it to Molly Wizenberg's book reading yesterday evening. I was so impressed with her and how down to earth she is. She seems like such a sweet person, and I'm sure I wasn't the only one who walked away wishing she were my BFF, who I could share recipes with and bake with on lazy Saturdays.

I must confess, at the time of the event, I hadn't yet read my copy of the book (ok, so I just bought it right before the reading!) but I am totally in love with her writing style on her blog, so I am sure I will feel the same about her book. The only thing is...the book has no pictures! Normally, I would never, ever buy a cookbook that contained no pictures. I need them. I crave them. I want them. Badly. I don't even like it when cook books only have a small little section somewhere in the middle of about eight pages of random recipe pictures. It's not enough. I need more. However, being that Molly's book is more of a memoir with recipes in between, I think I can get past the no pictures thing. Plus, there's always her blog, and she has some really great photography there to satisfy my needs. But still, it is disappointing, especially if you've ever seen the photos on her blog. They go so well with her writing, it's a shame they weren't able to work it in on this book.

I am happy to report I got my book signed and was able to get my picture taken with Molly only...well, you can see what happened there.

if you squint, you can see Molly on the left

It amazes me that people can still manage to mess up taking a picture when all they have to do is point and shoot. Ok so I do have a DSLR, which is probably intimidating to someone who's never used one, but still, it has basic point and shoot functions. I asked the person in line behind me to snap our picture and the first time Molly blinked, so we took another. It was blurry. So I kindly asked the lady to take just one more, whereupon she muttered something about not being a "professional paparazzi" and I could sense her annoyance. Because of this, I didn't ask her to take a fourth picture when the next one came out blurry, yet again. I didn't want to be rude and hold up the line any more, so I just let it be. I was happy enough to meet Molly and take part in the event.

I have since blazed through the first 70 pages or so and probably would've continued if I hadn't fallen asleep while reading. My head was literally bobbing and drooping as my eyes got heavier with each blink and I had to shake my head to wake myself back up. I didn't want to stop reading, but next thing I knew I was out. I absolutely adore books that you don't want to put down, and hers definitely fits into this category. I want to savor each page because I know I'll be sad once I reach the end. Yet I am giddy at the same time to try out many of the recipes I've read through so far. I've already got my eye on her Banana Bread with Chocolate and Crystalized Ginger. Excuse me, I just drooled a little. I might need to make that a weekend project.

If you don't have this book, or plan to have it at some point, I highly encourage you to run out to your nearest book store and buy it this weekend. You will not be disappointed.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Hello and Welcome

I really wanted to start my blog off with a beautiful photo. I am currently in love with this picture. Mostly because a. I took it and b. I also made those gorgeous, yummy macarons in said photo. I'm quite proud of myself, especially for the latter.

The recipe I used can be found here on Cannelle et Vanille. Aran needs no introduction, as I'm sure if you've found your way here, you've certainly passed through her amazing, drool worthy blog.

This particular recipe for chocolate macarons has worked every single time for me that I've tried it. I filled them with a simple bittersweet chocolate ganache flavored with a hint of frangelico liqueur. I used equal parts (by weight) chocolate and whipping cream, replacing one tablespoon of the whipping cream with the frangelico.

More macaron musings to come, in the meantime, feel free to drool over the photo.