Thursday, December 23, 2010

Don't Fear the Springform

Another holiday, another party, another round of "Diane, this cheesecake is awesome!" Although I've always had a love for baked goods (for more evidence, see Cookie of the Month), it took me a while to attempt a cheesecake. Part of it might be that I was never that wild about cheesecake, having only been exposed to it in restaurants, where it was usually plain, dry, and accompanied by fruits I didn't really like. I have to admit, though, that a big reason I didn't attempt a cheesecake was the pan. That's right, I was intimidated by the springform.

I mean, look at it. It's got some kind of mechanism on the side. If it looks  complicated, I reasoned, it must be tricky to use. I bet the recipes must be tricky, too. Why should I bother to play around with tricky pans and tricky recipes when there are so many cookies and cakes I could make instead?

Well, I finally broke down and got one at the first Pampered Chef party I ever attended. You go to those things and eat the food or sample the wares and feel like you should buy something. I was living in England at the time and had a tiny oven, and the springform was cheaper than stoneware anyway, so I bought one. And lo! It wasn't that hard to use. And guess what? Fresh cheesecake, made with interesting flavors, is pretty damn tasty. I became a cheesecake baking fiend. So I am going to share some of my cheesecake baking tips with you, along with a recipe that never fails to get compliments.
  1. Digestive biscuits make a better crust/base than graham crackers. I learned this out of necessity, as  digestive biscuits are native to England while graham crackers are not. They are made from wheat flour and wholemeal, and have a denser, grittier texture than graham crackers. This makes them great for a cheesecake base, as they don't collapse under moisture like graham crackers do. I usually find them in the international section at the grocery store, or at specialty stores like Cost Plus World Market.
  2. You can reduce the fat/calorie content by judicious substitution: neufchatel or light cream cheese instead of the full-fat stuff, vanilla yogurt instead of sour cream. I've used all these with success, although you might need to adjust baking times (see number 4 below).
  3. I can't stress enough how much a real mixer can make the cheesecake. It's just too hard to get cream cheese blended by hand; a powerful stand mixer will take care of all those lumps. Making sure you let your cream cheese soften before mixing is helpful, too.
  4. Don't trust your recipe when it comes to baking times. I often have to leave my cheesecakes in for longer than recipes say to make sure that the center gets set. This time can be 10 or even 20 minutes longer than a recipe's baking time, but cheesecakes are so dense that it's hard to overbake them. Fail to bake them enough, though, and the center will be too gooey. (Not that anyone will complain, it still tastes great, but it's hard to serve a gooey cheesecake.)
  5. Experiment with flavors! I've had success with chocolate, Bailey's (or both!), peppermint/candy cane, pumpkin, cranberry, triple berry, M&Ms ... lots of things lend themselves to cheesecake, because the cream cheese base is so bland it mixes with any kind of flavor. I simply Google "cheesecake recipe" to find something new and interesting to try.
And now, one such Googled recipe that gets great results with a relatively simple instructions.

Cranberry Cheesecake with Walnut Crust
1½ cups graham cracker/digestive biscuit crumbs
½ cup finely chopped walnuts
¼ cup butter, melted
1 can (16 oz.) whole cranberry sauce
3 packages (8 oz. ea) cream cheese, softened
¾ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup flour
3 eggs
8 oz. dairy sour cream
2 t. vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 325F. Combine crumbs, walnuts, and butter. Firmly press crumb mixture into the bottom of a 9-in springform pan. Bake until golden, 5 or 6 minutes; remove from oven. Cool slightly. Spread with cranberry sauce and set aside.

Reduce oven temperature to 300F. Use mixer to beat cream cheese, sugar, and flour until smooth. Beat in eggs, sour cream, and vanilla until well-blended. Pour evenly over cranberry sauce. Bake until a knife insert1 to 1½ inches from edge comes out clean, about 1 hour [or longer, if necessary--D]. Turn off oven; leave the cheesecake in over with door ajar until top is firm to the touch, about 30 minutes. Cool on a wire rack about 1 hour. Cover and refrigerate until cold, about 4 hours. Just before serving, remove cheesecake from pan onto a serving plate.

Serve and receive compliment!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Photo of the Week--12/20/10

I chose this photo not so much because the building is that interesting in itself, although it is a pretty example of a British manor house. No, St. Michael's Mount is more interesting because of how it's situated. Take a look at the picture to the right: St. Michael's Mount is just off the Cornwall coast in a nice little bay. When the tide is in, as in this picture, it's an island. When the tide is out, you can walk from the mainland to the mount. That makes this building, and the little village at the base of the mount, much more interesting. Imagine how much work it must have been to get all the building materials up to the site! Although the St. Aubyn family has owned the mount since the mid-1600s, the National Trust manages visitors, so you can visit most of the island, either by boat or on foot. If you've ever seen the 1996 film version of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night with Helena Bonham Carter and Imogen Stubbs (and if you haven't, you should), you might recognize the island as the setting for Orsino's castle. We visited in 1999, and the mural/map along one building in the film was still visible. Cool.