Friday, March 30, 2012

Baking Challenge Week 13 - Cheesecake - Madeira Cheesecake with Salted Caramel and Walnuts

I love cheesecake.  It has to be said.  If there is one class of desserts I favor above all others, it's cheesecake.  I like cookies and cakes just fine.  Pie is generally good, though keep that evil banana cream away from me.  I loathe bananas.  Some things I've never had, like souffle, but I'd be perfectly willing to try.

When in doubt, however, give me cheesecake.

This is also the shot at redemption for a cookbook slated for my Neglected Cookbook Project.  My mother-in-law, having seen my love affair with cheesecake firsthand, thoughtfully gave me The Ultimate Cheesecake Collection as a gift.  It's light on production value (no photos, poor printing quality) but heavy on recipes (over 400!)

It gave me the disastrous appetizer cheesecake for the savory-themed baking challenge two weeks ago.  It's pretty rare at this point that something comes out of my kitchen that's completely inedible, but this....this was beyond disgusting.

Still, it was a stretch to begin with.  Can the cookbook be saved?

Yes, yes, it can.  (To be fair, I didn't make the recipe exactly as written, but we'll get to that!)

This cheesecake is not the best cheesecake I've ever had.  That distinction belongs to the cheesecake with summer berry compote I had at Amore's a few years back, visiting my then-future husband while he was a grad student across the pond.

But this is the best cheesecake I've ever made, hands down.

I can't take credit for the salted caramel syrup, though--I saw it over at smitten kitchen and promptly made it for a dutch baby.  Instead of making the caramel topping detailed in this cheesecake recipe, I used what was left over from that batch.  Too good to go to waste!

Madeira Cheesecake with Salted Caramel and Walnuts
(heavily adapted from The Ultimate Cheesecake Collection's "Brandied Praline Cheesecake")

  • 1 1/4 cups graham cracker crumbs
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped walnuts
  • 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, melted and cooled
  •  2 8-oz. packages cream cheese, softened
  • 2 eggs
  • 3/4 cup light brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup Madeira
  • 1 tsp vanilla

Preheat the oven to 300 F.

In a small bowl, mix together the graham cracker crumbs, finely chopped walnuts, and melted butter.  Press the mixture evenly over the bottom and 1/2 inch up the sides of a 9-inch springform pan.

In a large bowl, beat the cream cheese until smooth.  Add the eggs and beat at low speed just until the eggs are fully incorporated.  Add the brown sugar, Madeira, and vanilla, and beat at low speed until thoroughly combined.  Pour the mixture into the prepared crust and smooth the top with a spatula.

Place the pan on a cookie sheet (in case of leaks!) and bake in the preheated oven for 1 hour.  Turn off the oven, open the door several inches, and allow the cheesecake to cool at least an hour before proceeding.

Meanwhile, make the caramel if you haven't already.  It needs to be warm enough to pour easily onto the cheesecake, but not hot.  Spread it evenly over the top of your cooled cheesecake, and garnish with the coarsely chopped walnuts, like so:

Refrigerate at least two hours before serving.  Slice with a long, sharp knife, wiping the knife clean in between cuts.  Eat!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Cooking Challenge Week 12 - Cheese - Cheese 'n' Onion Gnocchi

My husband and I both have some German heritage, but my family never had a strong ethnic tradition in our cooking.  His, on the other hand, most certainly did.  Christmas isn't turkey or even ham at his house; it's roast and spaetzle.  Not that I mind!

When some of his family went on vacation to Germany to see the distant cousins, they discovered cheese-and-onion spaetzle, which their Oma never made for them growing up, because she didn't like cheese!  So we revived it in our family circle.

But we didn't have time to make the spaetzle this time around, so I pulled some of my homemade gnocchi out of the freezer.

In essence, it's simple: smother the starch of your choice (gnocchi/spaetzle/pasta...I wouldn't use rice) with a bechamel sauce flavored with strong cheese (a few generous handfuls of shredded cheddar jack, in this instance, though we've used straight cheddar and a cheddar/parmesan mix before with great success), then smother that with tons of caramelized onion.

To be fair, I obviously made too much sauce (about two and a half cups) for two servings of gnocchi--you can barely see the gnocchi!  One giant Vidalia onion was just about right, though.  I do love me some caramelized onion....

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Baking Challenge Week 12 - Piping - Purple Buttercream of Doom!

I have mixed feelings about this cake.

On the one hand, the last time I made any kind of stab at cake decorating with piped frosting, I was probably eight or nine.  And you could tell, looking at my cake.

So I'm no professional.

But the fact that my cake still looks like an eight-year-old did it now....

My husband said first, "What's wrong with it?"  When I explained how amateurish I felt it looked, he said, "Well, you're allowed to be bad at things when you're learning."

So, in essence, I'm being too hard on myself.  I should be proud of what I learned, instead of disappointed that I didn't do better.

But I still think it's ugly.

It's spice cake from scratch (that turned out kind of dry, so I'm passing on sharing the recipe until I know if it's the recipe's fault, or mine) and plain buttercream, which is so common I can't be bothered to type it out.

Doesn't help that I'm a little mad at the cake for being what it is.  But we'll eat it anyway.  It's still cake!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Cooking Challenge Week 11 - Breakfast - Bacon and Bell Pepper Strata

Yes, I realize that this also qualifies for the week 11 savory baking challenge.  I consider the two challenges to be related but separate, so I don't double up.  Even though this succeeded where the cheesecake so seriously failed.

No recipe here because I didn't measure anything!  I've made so many bread puddings, and so many quiches, that when I discovered their bastard love-child strata, I dove right in without a recipe.

The breakdown?  It's a 13x9 dish.  I sauteed half a pound of chopped bacon, took it out to drain, then cooked two chopped bell peppers (one red and one green) and half an onion in the bacon fat.  Cube a mini-loaf of stale french bread, layer that with the bacon, veggies, and a few handfuls of shredded cheddar cheese.  Whisk together 4 eggs and 3 cups of milk, season with salt and pepper, pour over.  Bake at 350 F, covered in foil, for half an hour, then take off the foil and bake another 20 minutes.  Let it cheese down (that's cool off, to people who aren't me and my husband) for ten minutes before serving, or risk that impatient I-burned-the-roof-of-my-mouth feeling. 

Baking Challenge Week 11 - Savory - 'Appetizer' Cheesecake EPIC FAIL!

Seriously, it was disgusting.  We each took a single bite, then I took a picture for posterity, then I threw the entire thing away.  I hate to waste food, but there was absolutely no saving this.

I won't share the recipe--why perpetuate awfulness?--but it was an unsweetened cheesecake flavored with curry powder and shredded cheddar cheese and condensed cream of chicken soup.  Strange, but I thought it at least had potential.

And I was wrong!  The texture was bad, the flavor was off-putting, the smell was....indescribable.  In a bad way.

As a bonus, it was supposed to be the second installment of the Neglected Cookbook Project, as it was from a cheesecake cookbook that I've only used once before.  But I love cheesecake, and won't hold the cookbook responsible, because I'm sure the hundreds of other, non-savory, cheesecakes are fine.  I'll make one of them soon to erase this wretched failure from my brain and taste buds.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Cooking Challenge Week 10 - Literature/Media - Congee

From the movie Blood Brothers.  We rented it a few years ago, and one of the only things I remember about it was that whenever the gang is sitting down to eat, Daniel Wu's character wants/asks for congee, and the others make fun of him for not being more sophisticated.

I was going to get all fancy and do multiple garnishes, but then (as Jon Stewart would say) I got the bubons.  Three days of fever, chills, deep hacking cough, sinus headache, the works.  Fortunately for me, congee is basically the Chinese version of chicken noodle soup--comfort food and medicine all at once.  I'm still pretty wretched today, but I at least have the energy to type this up before I go back to sleep.


  • 1 cup rice
  • 8 cups chicken stock (or water, or a combination)
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce (more to taste if desired)
Potential garnishes
  • green onion
  • chopped preserved turnip
  • thousand-year-old eggs
  • cilantro leaves
  • fried dough sticks
  • toasted sesame oil
  • sesame seeds
  • chopped roasted peanuts
 Combine the rice and chicken stock in a saucepan and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat and simmer very gently for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until the rice is breaking down and the mixture is very thick.  Add the soy sauce and serve with your choice of garnishes.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Baking Challenge Week 10 - Literature/Media Inspired - Apple Custard Fancies

I love England, I love British desserts (sticky toffee pudding!), and I love Downton Abbey.

For the movie/TV/book challenge, it didn't take me long at all to figure out that I wanted to make a dainty tea-time treat that would fit right in at Downton.  What took me much longer to decide was exactly which one.  I have several cookbooks from British publishers, two of which are devoted just to baking, and I had dozens of recipes to choose from. 

I even did some historical research, trying to find out if any of the ones that I most wanted to try were period-accurate.  (One definitely was, the classic Bakewell tart.  And I mean to try that sometime, but I already had some apples....)

So while this particular recipe was never mentioned on the show, I feel like it's at least something they might have eaten, and would definitely enjoy if they had!

Apple Custard Fancies
(adapted from Baking: A Commonsense Guide)

  • 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 1/3 cup unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 2 tbsp water
Apple filling
  •  3 green apples, peeled, cored, and diced (I used Golden Delicious)
  • 1 1/2 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  •  2 tbsp water
Custard filling
  • 2 eggs
  • 3/4 cup heavy cream
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla
Streusel topping
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 tbsp brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter, diced
  • 1/3 cup chopped walnuts
Line a 7x11" baking dish with foil, leaving some extra at both ends to fold over for handles, and grease the foil.

Preheat the oven to 375 F.  In a small bowl, mix the flour and sugar.  Add the egg yolk, melted butter, and water, and mix to form a soft dough.  Press the dough evenly into the prepared pan.  Refrigerate 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, combine the chopped apples, butter, sugar, and water.  Cover and cook over low heat for 15 minutes.  Uncover, lightly mash the apples, and cook five minutes more.  Set aside to cool.

Line the refrigerated crust with more foil and fill with baking weights (dry beans, barley, or rice works well).  Bake 15 minutes; remove the foil and weights and bake uncovered 5 minutes more to brown slightly.  Set aside to cool.  Lower the heat to 350 F.

When both the crust and the apple filling are cooled, spread the filling over the crust.  In another bowl, whisk together the eggs, cream, sugar, and vanilla, and pour over the apple layer.  Bake 20 minutes, or until the custard is partially set.

Meanwhile, make the streusel.  Mix together the flour and brown sugar.  Cut in the butter with a pastry blender (or rub in with your fingertips) until the mixture resemble coarse crumbs.  Stir in the walnuts.  Sprinkle evenly over the partially-set custard and bake 15 minutes more.  Cool completely before lifting out of the pan with the foil handles, cutting into squares (I went with 4x6 for 24) and serving.

(The recipe doesn't specify, but I'm guessing these should probably be stored in the fridge.  Don't you think?)

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Cooking Challenge Week 9 - Coffee - Spent-Grain Russian Black Bread

I don't like coffee.  I don't like a lot of bitter things in general--I'm only recently learning to like beer!--but even in its sweeter forms, coffee's flavor just doesn't appeal to me.

Fortunately, there's plenty you can do with coffee besides drink it.

There are also a few things you can do with the grain leftover from the beer-brewing process.  One of the most popular, apparently, is dog treats; but we have no canine companions.  Next on the list is spent-grain bread.  Our most recent batch of beer, a lovely milk stout, gave me enough spent grain for two batches of this wonderful bread.  It's moist, pleasantly chewy, incredibly flavorful...and the recipe calls for coffee.

I can't take credit for this recipe in the slightest--I found it over at r/Homebrewing.  I did, however, clean it up a little, and included my coffee-to-water proportions, the original isn't as easy to follow...

Spent-Grain Russian Black Bread
(makes about 4 lbs bread in total, loaves will vary with shaping)
  • 1 1/2 tbsp active dry yeast
  • 1 cup warm water
  • 3 to 4 cups bread flour (will depend on the wetness of your grains)
  • 2 cups spent grain
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • 1 tbsp cocoa powder
  • dash onion powder
  • 1 1/2 cups brewed coffee
  • 1/2 cup dark molasses
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 3 cups rye flour
  • more bread flour, as needed, for kneading and shaping
Proof the yeast in the warm water for 5-10 minutes, until foamy.  In the largest bowl you have, combine the bread flour, spent grain, sugar, salt, cocoa powder, and onion powder.  Add the proofed yeast and mix well.

In a small saucepan, combine the coffee, molasses, and olive oil.  Cook over low heat, stirring, just until the molasses is fully incorporated.  Stir into the flour mixture.

Add the rye flour, one cup at a time, stirring to form a dough.  (If your grains were rather wet, you might need to add more bread flour now to get a workable dough; if they were fairly dry, you might not need all the rye flour, in which case, use the rest of it for kneading and shaping.)

Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead for five minutes.  Let the dough rise until doubled (about one hour), then punch down and shape into desired loaves.  (I tried two braids to be fancy, but really, this is a wet dough and too soft to hold a well-defined freeform shape.  Stick to something simple.)  Let rise again 45 minutes to an hour.

Bake at 375 F for 40-45 minutes, until the bread sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Baking Challenge Week 9 - Cookies - Lady Grey Shortbread Thins

The cookies challenge was another one that I felt I needed to stretch myself on--the first thing I ever helped my parents make was a batch of sugar cookies at Christmas when I was four or so.  I've made more cookies in my life than cakes or pies or, well, anything.

I've done rolled cookies, piped cookies, pressed cookies.  Hand-formed.  Drop cookies, certainly.  Surprisingly enough, though, I've never had much luck at refrigerator cookies, probably because growing up, the sharpest knife in the house was dull, at best.  My parents didn't take their cooking tools as seriously as I do now!

I also wanted to try tea cookies--I've seen so many versions of Earl Grey cookies over the past few years, and they get rave reviews everywhere.   But I like Lady Grey tea better, and so...

Lady Grey Shortbread Thins
(makes about three dozen)
  • 2 bags Twinings Lady Grey tea
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
  • 1/3 cup powdered sugar
Open the tea bags and grind the leaves finely, either in a spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle.  Whisk the ground tea and salt into the flour.

In another bowl, cream together the butter and powdered sugar.  Gradually add the flour mixture and blend until the dough forms a ball.

Turn the dough out onto a sheet of waxed paper and, using the paper as a guide, form the dough into an even log about  1 1/2" in diameter.  Flatten the log alternately on two sides to form a square shape.   Wrap tightly, chill for at least one hour, or freeze.

When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 F.  Slice the dough 1/4" thick and place the slices on a lightly greased baking sheet, 1" apart (or baking parchment, or silicone baking mats.)  Bake 8-10 minutes, until set and just golden.  Cool on wire racks.