Lately I have started to suspect an ugly truth about myself. No matter how much I like to think the opposite, it is possible that my heart is not into being a Daring Baker. (Note the very important capital letters. I will forever be a daring baker--many burned pans and discarded desserts will attest to that--but I have my doubts about my membership in this baking group.) I just haven't been excited about the monthly challenges lately. I skipped last month, and I was strongly tempted to skip this month as well. Which, if you are familiar with the stringent DB rules, is kind of a big no-no, without a doctor's note or a phone call from Mom. So, out of a sense of guilt and obligation, I decided to participate in this month's challenge: Abbey's Infamous Cheesecake.
I would describe my general attitude towards cheesecake as profound apathy. If cheesecake was a pupil of mine, I would give it a solid C, maybe a C+ if it put in some extra credit at the end of the semester. If cheesecake was a contestant on American Idol and I was Randy Jackson, I would say it was "aiiiiight, dawg." If cheesecake and I were stranded on a desert island, I would first eat all the tropical fruit I could shake down from the surrounding trees, then eat the cheesecake, then begin eyeing any fellow unfortunate castaways. You get the idea. Add to this the fact that my usually hungry hungry hubby hates cheesecake, and it just never makes an appearance in my kitchen.
However, for this challenge we were given a lot of creative freedom and told to go crazy with our cheesecake flavors, so I sat down and did a little cheesecake math.
And you know, I actually think the end product was fairly tasty! High praise, I know. But keep in mind this is a major upgrade from cheesecake's usually "moderately passable" status.
My first change was to cut the recipe by 1/3. I hate, hate, hate really tall cheesecakes. It's so overwhelming to be served this massive slab of rock-hard cheesecake as big as my head. Maybe it's the baker in me, but I end up looking at these wedges of mile-high cheesecake and calculating how many ounces of cream cheese must be in there...and how many calories that adds up to...and pretty soon I'm carrying ones and moving decimal places and ending up with really, really big numbers that put me off dessert for the night. So! A slim, trim cheesecake it is.
Next order of business is to give it some flavor. I know there are purists who love the unadulterated taste of cream cheese, maybe with just a little lemon juice or vanilla, but unless that stuff is slathered on a hot toasted bagel, I need me some flavorings. I decided to do a twist on a turtle cheesecake. I added chopped Mexican chocolate to the crust, and I swirled melted bittersweet chocolate, cinnamon, and cayenne into half of the cheesecake batter. I topped the whole thing with a creamy caramel sauce and sweet and spicy candied pecans.
The end result was really, really nice. I liked that only half of the batter had the flavoring, so that it wasn't overwhelmingly chocolatey or spicy. But there was enough chocolate and spice to add depth and just a little bit of a kick. The caramel added a dark sweetness, and the pecans brought a much-needed crunch to the silky cheesecake. (A note about the texture--this is a really beautiful, smooth cheesecake. I used a food processor to make it, which I think helps eliminate any lumpiness, but I think the water bath and the cream also contribute. It's a really solid recipe.)
And also, I know this is superficial, but it photographed beautifully. The swirls turned out nice (although not as nice as I imagined them in my head, sigh), the caramel sauce was workin' its way down the sides like a champ, and the pecans were, as my friend Tyra Banks would say, fierce. And let's face it, these challenges always have an element of the beauty pagent to them anyway, so why not embrace it?
So, I guess I'm Daring for at least another month. Thanks to Jenny from Jenny Bakes for choosing this recipe and allowing me to reconsider my cheesecake apathy. I would give this here cheesecake at least a B+ on its final exam. If this cheesecake was on American Idol and I was Paula Abdul, I would say, "You can't put a porcupine in a barn, light it on fire, and expect to make licorice." (Well, it's not my fault Paula never makes sense.) I might even eat it before the tropical fruit on the desert island.
Boilerplate: The April 2009 challenge is hosted by Jenny from Jenny Bakes. She has chosen Abbey's Infamous Cheesecake as the challenge. Keep reading to get all the recipes...
Sweet & Spicy Candied Pecans
2 cups raw pecan halves or pieces
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
3 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1. Spread the nuts on a baking sheet and roast in a 350 degree oven for 12 minutes, stirring once for even toasting.
2. In a medium bowl, mix together the melted butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, cayenne, and maple syrup. Add the warm nutsand salt, and stir until the nuts are completely coated.
3. Spread the mixture back on the baking sheet and return to the oven for 10 minutes, stirring twice during cooking. Remove from oven and cool completely, separating the nuts as they cool.
Creamy Caramel Sauce
Adapted from Sherry Yard's The Secrets of Baking
1/4 cup water
1 cup sugar
2 T light corn syrup
1/2 cup heavy cream, heated to 100 degrees
1/4 cup full fat sour cream
1 T sugar
1/2 tsp fresh lemon juice
Pinch of salt
1. Wash and dry your hands. Combine the water, 1 cup sugar, and corn syrup in a large saucepan. Stir them together with your fingers, making sure no lumps of dry sugar remain. Brush down the inside of the pan with a little water.
2. Cover the saucepan and place over medium heat for 4 minutes. Then, remove the lid, increase heat to high, and bring to a boil. Do not stir. The mixture should be very bubbly. When sugar crystals appear on the side of the pan, brush them down with a clean, wet pastry brush.
3. The bubbles should get larger as the sugar cooks. When the temperature reaches 300 degrees on an instant read thermometer, reduce heat to medium to slow the cooking process. Continue cooking until the caramel reaches 350 degrees, and then remove from the heat and let sit 1 minute, or until the bubbles have subsided.
4. Add the cream very carefully as it will bubble vigorously. Whisk to combine. Vigorously whisk in the sour cream, sugar, lemon juice, and salt. The sauce can be served warm or cool.
Abbey's Infamous Cheesecake
My changes are in bold, and I used 2/3 of the recipe to get a smaller cheesecake, but I've included the full recipe here.
2 cups / 180 g graham cracker crumbs
1 stick / 4 oz butter, melted
2 tbsp. / 24 g sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 ounces finely chopped Mexican chocolate (I used Ibarra brand)
3 sticks of cream cheese, 8 oz each (total of 24 oz) room temperature
1 cup / 210 g sugar
3 large eggs
1 cup / 8 oz heavy cream
1 tbsp. vanilla extract (or the innards of a vanilla bean)
3 ounces melted bittersweet chocolate
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 in the bowl of a stand-mixer (or in a large bowl if using a hand-mixer) and cream together until smooth. [I used a food processor]. 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 and vanilla and blend until smooth and creamy. Separate the batter in half and mix half with the melted chocolate, cinnamon, and cayenne to taste.
4. Pour batter into prepared crust in batches and swirl together with a knife. 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.
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!