Much Ado About Cherries

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We are at the tail end of cherry season here in New England. This tiny window for this tart sweet gem wraps right around lat July which is about the same time that the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s free performances of a Shakespeare play in the Boston Common starts It about 3 weeks in late July/early August, and about 5 years ago we started a summer tradition of attending. This is no community theater. These actors are incredible.

Now, it is Shakespeare, which makes it difficult to understand and, because it’s Shakespeare, they usually end tragically. But unlike being forced to read it in high school, watching passionate talented actors perform these plays (which was the purpose for which they are written) alfresco on a sultry summer evening while eating a tasty picnic and drinking smuggled wine is an entirely different experience altogether.

Arriving early with a large blanket and low-profile beach chairs is a must. It gets crowded! And if you don’t have a way to mark your territory, you could end up with people sitting at your feet on the unblanketed lawn in front of you. We pack a multi-course picnic consisting of an appetizer, a cold soup, a main course, and dessert. This year our spread consisted of food from almost all local producers at the new Boston Public Market. We started with a bluefish pate from Boston Smoked Fish Company, then had gazpacho made with vegetables from Siena Farms, meats from the Salumeria in the North End, and cheese from Appleton Farms and Jasper Hill. And dessert was the luscious cherry pie bar tart that I made by adapting a recipe from The Back in the Day Bakery Cookbook.

I needed a dessert that would travel well and not require refrigeration. Although we had a cooler, the dessert needed to last for a few hours, and I didn’t want to be dependent on ice. Of course, I violated a core rule of dessert making for an event: never try a new recipe the day of the event. But, I’ve tried enough recipes from Back in the Day to know that they are fairly easy (rather opposite of my other favorite cookbook, Flour (the first one), but as equally amazing results), and very dependable. But it doesn’t all come down to dependability and ease. No, sometimes it comes down to the fact that you forgot that you ruined your 9 x 13 pan roasting a chicken recently (the chicken was fine, it just did the pan’s finish in), and just as you are ready to begin baking, you realize you have no pan.

This is where baking confidence comes into play. The more you practice, the more you know what might work instead, and why. Cue introduction of the 14″ tart pan with a bread pan for the overflow. Ultimately, I think I prefer the bars in the tart pan. The ones from the bread pan were thicker – almost a bit too thick. Splitting the recipe between the two pans took some guesswork, but I figured it was about 2/3 of it for the tart pan and a 1/3 for the bread pan. I started with putting the crust into the tart pan to ensure that it was thick enough to hold the liquid filling, but not so thick that it was unpleasant to eat. Sure enough, this was about the right split. When I filled the tart pan with filling, I filled it slowly, just to below the top edge of the crust so that it wouldn’t bubble over. Of course, if you don’t want to mess with this guesswork, the 9 x 13 pan would be great.

I also used fresh cherries because they were in season, and reduced the sugar in the filling by 25% because the cherries were fairly sweet on their own. The dessert is quite easy to make (except for the laborious cherry pitting), but it does take almost an hour and a half of baking time (15 for crust, 10 to cool, ~55 min for whole pie) and then you need at least an hour for it to cool before it’s set enough to even move, let alone cut.

It tastes like a mash-up of shortbread, cherry crumble, clafoutis, and cheesecake. It doesn’t taste a lot like pie to me, but if you like buttery shortbread and cherries, you will love it! We ate it and drank coffee from our thermos just after the closing scene of King Lear.

Cherry Pie Bar Tarte (Adapted from The Back in the Day Bakery Cookbook by Cheryl Day & Griffith Day/Artisan Books, 2012. If I haven’t said it enough, buy this book!!!!)

 

 

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CRUST AND TOPPING

  • 3 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 ½ cup sugar
  • ¼ tsp fine sea salt
  • ¾ lb (3 sticks) unsalted cold butter, cut into cubes

DIRECTIONS

  • Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F.
  • Grease a 9-by-13-by-2-inch baking pan and line with parchment, allowing the ends of the paper to hang over two opposite edges of the pan. (Alternatively, I used a 14″ tart pan and put the rest into a loaf pan. The oblong pan will give you a thicker bar, which, depending on how you like your desserts, might be a little too thick. I rather preferred the slightly thinner tart-style.)

 

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  • To make the crust and topping: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large mixing bowl, using a handheld mixer), combine the flour, sugar, and salt and mix on low speed until well blended.
  • With the mixer running on low, add the cubed butter a little at a time, beating until the mixture looks dry and crumbly.
  • Reserve 1 1/2 cups of the mixture for the crumb topping; refrigerate it while you bake the crust. This is the kind of stuff I always forget.
  • Press the rest of the mixture evenly over the bottom of the prepared pan(s).

Tart pan:

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Loaf pan:

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  • Bake the crust for 12 to 15 minutes, until lightly golden.
  • Let cool for at least 10 minutes.

 

CHERRY FILLING

  • 1 1/2  cup sugar (original recipe calls for 2 cups, but I prefer my desserts a little less sweet, so I added a little less sugar. Also, taste the cherries. They may need more or less sugar depending on how tart they are.)
  • ¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • pinch of fine sea salt
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 32 oz fresh bing cherries, stemmed, pitted and chopped (Original recipe says you can use 32oz frozen cherries, thawed and drained.)

 

  • While the crust cools, make the fruit filling.
  • In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the sugar, flour, and salt.
  • Add the eggs and sour cream and whisk until smooth.
  • Gently fold in the cherries.

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  • Pour the filling over the crust.

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  • Sprinkle the reserved crumb topping evenly on top.
  • Bake for 45 to 55 minutes, until the top is golden brown and bubbly. (Note that I actually had to broil it for a minute or two at the end to get a better golden color on the crust)

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  • Cool the bars for at least an hour before cutting into squares, or scoop them out with a spoon while they are warm.
  • The bars will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

 

 

 

 

Rum Cheesecake with Fresh Strawberries

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I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’ve lived in Boston for a bit over 10 years and never been to Newburyport. What a cute town! It’s so much bigger than the other waterfront towns that dot our coastline, with beautiful architecture and a lot of cute shops. It’s also home to the Purple Onion, a small sandwich shop that my brother-in-law’s sister and her husband just bought. (Did you follow that family tree thing there?) We’ve been wanting to see the restaurant, and with the lovely weather, it seemed like the perfect excuse for a drive up.

We met S. (the brother-in-law’s sister) and her two children at the restaurant for lunch. Sweetheart that she is, she brought me a bag of cider donuts and a pint of fresh-picked strawberries. Resisting every urge to make those our lunch instead of dessert, we had a delicious meal of sandwiches and salads in the cozy restaurant. (Unfortunately all of the outdoor tables were taken.) I had a tamari chicken salad with feta – spinach and other greens topped with freshly sauteed chicken in a balanced tamari sauce, and D. had a veggie sandwich of roasted peppers, squash, and eggplant topped with tangy, peppery boursin cheese, lettuce, tomato and balsamic vinegarette on thick slices of hearty, locally made whole grain bread. I highly recommend this family-friendly spot right in the heart of Newburyport!

So the strawberries. I don’t remember the last time I had fresh picked strawberries. We used to do that kind of thing all the time when I was a kid. But now, we settle for those awful, sterile, mass-produced Driscoll’s berries. “Awful?” you ask. Yes, even the “ripest” “freshest” ones will taste awful to you after having a fresh, locally grown berry. Once you taste that fresh berry you’ll realize that other than look and texture, the taste of Driscoll’s bears almost no resemblance to an actual strawberry.

This pint of fresh berries seemed like such a treasure, I spent an entire day trying to decide what to do with them. Should I just eat them raw and enjoy their beauty? Should I put them in yogurt? Bake something with them? I finally settled on a bit of compromise amongst the 3 ideas – Rum Cheesecake with Fresh Strawberries. Now, I didn’t actually have a recipe for rum cheesecake, and I couldn’t quite find one that I liked, so I went back to a new, old favorite, the Marbled Lemon Cheesecake, and further adapted it. It was an experiment, and one that turned out quite well.

Rum Cheesecake (Adapted from an adaption of Epicurious Lemon Curd Cheesecake)

Crust:

1 1/3 cups finely ground graham cracker crumbs (5 oz)

1/3 cup sugar

1/8 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons cinnamon

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

 

Filling:

3 (8-oz) packages cream cheese, softened

1 cup sugar

3 large eggs

1 7oz container Fage 2% Greek Yogurt

1 teaspoon vanilla

3 Tablespoons dark rum 

Special equipment: a 9- to 91/2-inch (24-cm) springform pan

 Topping:

1 pint of fresh-picked strawberries, hulled and sliced. – If they are as sweet as the ones I had, the won’t need any sugar. If they are tart, toss them in a tablespoon of sugar and let them sit for an hour)

Make and bake crust: 

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  1. Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. Invert bottom of springform pan (to make it easier to slide cake off bottom), then lock on side.
  3. Stir together crust ingredients in a bowl, then press onto bottom and 1 inch up side of springform pan. I use a flat bottomed glass to help press flatten it evenly.
  4. Place springform pan in a shallow baking pan and bake 10 minutes
  5. Cool crust completely in springform pan on a rack.

 

Make filling and bake cheesecake:

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  1. Decrease the oven temp to 300°F
  2. Beat together cream cheese and sugar in a bowl with an electric mixer at medium speed until smooth, 1 to 2 minutes.
  3. Reduce speed to low and add eggs 1 at a time, beating until incorporated.
  4. Beat in yogurt, vanilla, and rum until combined.
  5. Pour cream cheese filling into crust

 

Baking – the baking time on this is a little tricky because it depends on your oven temp and will require some observation and judgement on your part.

  • The original recipe says to bake 45 minutes. My fussy oven takes more like 60 -70 min. I start checking it at 45 min, then add time in 5 minute increments.
  • Ultimately you’ll know the cake is done when it is set about 1 1/2 inches from edge. The center will appear loose-ish, but set compared to what it looked like raw. The cake will continue to set as it cools.
  • When cake is done,  transfer springform pan to a rack and immediately run a knife around top edge of cake to loosen.
  • Cool completely, about 2 hours, then chill, uncovered, at least 4 hours.
  • Remove side of springform pan before serving.
  • Cheesecake can be chilled, loosely covered, up to 2 days. Cheesecake must be completely chilled before covering to prevent condensation on its surface.

This cheesecake is smooth and tangy with a spicy hint of the dark rum that is enhanced with the cinnamon in the crust. The tart sweetness of the fresh berries balances the richness of the cheesecake. And it just makes me want more freshly picked berries.

Easter Part 2 – Bunnycakes

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As my regular readers know, I have a tendency to figuratively bite off more than I can chew when it comes to party prep. Instead of just picking one thing to make, I feel the need to make two or three. I’m sure it’s the expression of my Italian gene that drives the need to feed everyone and feed them well. So last Easter, in addition to making the deviled eggs, I made 2.5 desserts. I’d say 3, but in reality, I turned a 3 layer chocolate cake into a 2 layer birds nest cake and peep cupcakes.

This year I limited myself to 2 desserts and the deviled eggs, not only considering the recipe complexity when selecting the desserts, but, oh, look, starting on them on Friday instead of leaving it all until Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. I really wanted to make a giant peep cake. It’s absurd to buy such a pan that literally has one use, one purpose, and would probably really only be used once because I’d be onto the next interesting cake to bake. But it was on sale for half price at Sur La Table. Somehow $9.99 seemed like an acceptable price to pay for the pan even if I did only use it once. Alas, they were sold out when Mom went to pick it up.

But she did find peep cupcake liners that came with bunny ear decorations, which greatly simplified dessert two. Realistically that peep cake would have been a lot of work, particularly if the first one didn’t come out right which is definitely a risk baking a 3D chick-shaped cake. For the bunny cupcakes, I went to my reliable favorite – the Back in the Day Bakery Cookbook. (I know. I’m obsessed. But the cookbook is SO GOOD. And what’s even more exciting is that when I sat down to write this post, I saw that they have come out with a NEW one. Yay, yay, yay!!!!) I’d been wanting to try their old fashioned cupcakes with buttercream frosting.

I’m always fascinated by cooking technique. I suppose I am more of a technician than a recipe follower. Understanding how the technique works fascinates me and allows me options when I don’t have the right ingredient or want to try to modify a recipe to achieve a different outcome. (This is why I love the show Chopped so much. And, hello, Chopped, this is why you need to have me on your amateur show!).

This particular recipe is more like bread-making than cupcake making, which Cheryl points out gives the cupcake a different texture. And by different, I mean incredible. The cake is airy, but substantial, a lattice evenly distributed throughout, and tasting of vanilla, a hint of butter, and the slightest note of caramel from the crisp exterior of the top. It taste like the cakes I remember as a kid. Like homemade.

Important things to know before making these

  • The recipe calls for cake flour, and I recommend using it. I tried the cornstarch/flour cake flour substitute which has worked just fine in other recipes. However, these cupcakes didn’t raise as much as I think they should have which I’m blaming on this substitution. Despite that, the were still delicious, so if you don’t have cake flour, use the substitute.
  • The recipe says it makes 24. I filled my cups full, and I still got 30.
  • Buttercream can be a bit dependent on heat and humidity. If it’s dry, you’ll need less powdered sugar and a bit more milk. If it’s damp, the reverse will be true. I really like the way she recommends it be made, starting with the 4 cups of powedered sugar and adding up to 3 more. Add the additional sugar slowly, like in 1/4 to 1/2 cup increments. Don’t get impatient and dump it all in or you’ll end up going back and forth with adding more milk then more sugar and ending up with buttercream that doesn’t taste right because the proportions are off.
  • It seems like a lot of buttercream. But even if you just frost them lightly without adding any decorative frosting enhancements, you’ll still need more than half a batch of buttercream, and seriously, who wants to be bothered with trying to adjust a recipe for 3/4 of it?
  • The buttercream is pretty sweet as most buttercream is. It’s your call, but I wouldn’t frost the cupcakes with as much as she does in her illustrations. I love my frosting, but that would be too much even for me.
  • The recipe says they can be kept covered at room temp for 2 days. I had a couple of mistake ones left over in the fridge for a week that I’d forgotten about and once brought to room temp, they were still pretty good. 🙂

Old-Fashioned Cupcakes with Buttercream Frosting

Makes 24 – Or because I made them smallish, 30

 

Cupcakes:

  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 teaspooon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 3/4 cups cake flour (not self rising) – I used the substitute of swapping 2T of every cup of flour with 2T cornstartch. Next time I’ll use cake flour
  • 1 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 tablesppon baking powder, preferably aluminum free
  • 3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1/2 lb (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch cubes, at room temperature
  • 4 large eggs at room temperature
  • 1 recipe buttercream frosting (recipe follows)

 

Buttercream Frosting:

  • ½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 6 to 7 cups confectioners’ sugar
  • ½ cup whole milk
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • Liquid gel food coloring (optional)

 

Cupcakes

  • Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F. Line 24 cupcake cups with paper liners.
  • In a large measuring cup or a small bowl, mix together the milk and vanilla; set aside.

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  • In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large mixing bowl, using a handheld mixer), combine both flours, the sugar, baking powder, and salt and mix on low speed for 2 to 3 minutes, until thoroughly combined.

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  • With the mixer on low speed, add the cubed butter a few pieces at a time, mixing for about 2 minutes, until the mixture resembles coarse sand.

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  • With the mixer on medium speed, add the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition.
  • Turn the speed to low and gradually add the milk and vanilla, then mix for another 1 to 2 minutes.
  • Remove the bowl from the mixer and, using a rubber spatula, incorporate any ingredients hiding at the bottom of the bowl, making sure the batter is completely mixed.
  • With a large ice cream scoop or spoon, scoop the batter into the prepared cupcake cups, filling each baking cup about two-thirds full.

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  • Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until a cake tester inserted in the center of a cupcake comes out clean.
  • Let cool for at least 20 minutes.

Buttercream:

  • In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large mixing bowl, using a handheld mixer), cream the butter on medium speed until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes.
  • Add 4 cups of the confectioners’ sugar, the milk, and vanilla and mix on low speed until smooth and creamy, 2 to 3 minutes. Gradually add up to 3 cups more sugar, mixing on low speed, until the frosting reaches the desired light and fluffy consistency, 3 to 5 minutes.
  • If desired, to tint the frosting, add a drop or two of food coloring to the frosting, mixing well; add more coloring as necessary until you reach the desired shade. If you want multiple colors, scoop the frosting into several bowls, then add the food coloring. The frosting can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 days.
  • To frost the cupcakes: Using a spatula or a butter knife, spread the tops of the cupcakes with swirls of frosting. Top with sprinkles, if desired.

To make them into bunny cakes:

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  1. Make sure the cupcakes are cooled.
  2. Divide frosting into thirds. Keep 2/3 white.
  3. Split the remaining 1/3 into thirds again. Tint 2/3 of it pink.  Tint the remaining 1/3 black.
  4. Frost the cupcakes with the white keeping the frosting relatively flat across the top.
  5. Fill a piping bag with the pink frosting.
  6. Using a #2 or #3 wilton round tip, pipe on bunny nose, mouth and whiskers on all cupcakes.
  7. Fill a piping bag with the black frosting.
  8. Using a #2 or #3 tip, pipe on the eyes.
  9. Insert bunny ears just above the eyes.

Easter Part 1 – Marbled Lemon Cheesecake

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Last Easter, for the first time, we met our distant cousins who’d recently moved to Boston. Since we grew up far away from extended family, it’s been delightful to have local cousins our age who we so enjoy spending time with. It also does not hurt one bit that are foodies as much as we are.

This year we introduced our cousins to part of my sister’s husband’s family. (I know, it’s getting a little confusing isn’t it?) My sister’s sister-in-law, husband and two children came for dinner, too. And we suddenly had a houseful of 15 people including 5 little kids. Quite different than we from a small family are used to. And it was so much fun.

M and C cooked the giant 19lb porchetta again. I only had to do dessert. Having spent so much of this winter indoors because of our epic snowfall, we were craving light, fresh flavors which immediately made me think of lemon. I was going to make the Tarte au Citron again, but then decided I should try something new. We all love cheesecake, and I found a recipe that married the best of the two. (And without requiring a pastry crust, which still intimidates me and may have been part of the reason I avoided making the Tarte au citron.)

Important things to know before making this:

The working prep time is fairly minimal. But some of it needs to be done in advance.

Making the Lemon Curd  (min. 4 hours to max. one week in advance) – I recommend making the lemon curd the day before. The curd is so easy to make, but it does require mixing hot liquid with eggs (aka tempering) and through experience I have learned that the odds of scrambling the eggs instead of tempering them increases proportionally to the  make the lemon curd  the day before. And HIDE it in the fridge. From yourself and everyone else. Because the temptation to grab a spoon and eat the whole bowl of this as if it were ice cream or Trader Joe’s cookie butter will be almost irresistible. The Epicurious recipe says you can make it a week in advance. So if you have the restraint to not eat it, have at it. Just make sure that you have it well covered and not stored near any strongly-flavored food or the lemon curd will absorb that flavor.

Making the crust – (min 1 hour to max 8 hours in advance) This also should be done in advance. A crispy crust highlights the spice of the cinnamon against the tart of the lemon curd. Letting the crust cook for the full 10 minutes and ensuring it’s fully cooled before putting the filling in will prevent it from being soggy and will take this cheesecake from delicious to spectacular.

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Marbled Lemon Cheesecake (Adapted from Epicurious Lemon Curd Cheesecake)

Lemon Curd:

1 teaspoon finely grated fresh lemon zest

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice

1/2 cup sugar

3 large eggs

1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

 

Crust:

1 1/3 cups finely ground graham cracker crumbs (5 oz)

1/3 cup sugar

1/8 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons cinnamon

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

 

Filling:

3 (8-oz) packages cream cheese, softened

1 cup sugar

3 large eggs

1 7oz container Fage 2% Greek Yogurt

1 teaspoon vanilla

Special equipment: a 9- to 91/2-inch (24-cm) springform pan

Accompaniment: blueberries Um, no. A) I’m allergic, and B) Why dump boring old blueberries on this when you can make…Red Wine Raspberry Sauce

Red Wine Raspberry Sauce

3 containers fresh raspberries – that’s 2 to use and one to throw out because it’ll be moldy

1/4 cup sugar

1 – 2 Tblsp red wine

1 Tblsp raspberry jam

Wash and dry the raspberries. Place raspberries, sugar, wine, and jam into a small saucepan over medium heat and cook until sugar and jam melt, stirring constantly to ensure that they don’t burn. Allow to reduce by 1/3. You may need to add a bit of extra sugar if the raspberries are too tart.

Strain the sauce through a mesh strainer to remove all of the pesky seeds. Let cool in fridge.

 

Make Lemon Curd – 

  1. Get a strainer. Place it near your work area.
  2. Break eggs into a medium-sized heatproof bowl. Whisk them together. – At this point, you may want to put the bowl onto a damp washcloth since you’ll need both hands to temper the eggs (step 5), leaving no hands free to hold the bowl still. (Alternatively, you can ask a significant other. Or just be stubborn like me. And do it yourself.)
  3. Stir together zest, juice, sugar in heavy saucepan.
  4. Add butter and cook over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally until butter melt
  5. When the mixture is melted, remove the pan from the heat, and slowly pour the warm mixture into the eggs, whisking constantly, to warm them but ensure they don’t scramble.
  6. Once full combined, pour the egg-lemon-butter mixture back into the saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens and almost begins to bubble around the edges – This thickening will be palpable. You’ll see that it holds the marks of the whisk. You’ll feel it go from liquid to like loose pudding. Be patient. Don’t rush this, but don’t take it off too soon!
  7. Force lemon curd through a fine-mesh sieve into a wide shallow dish, scraping bottom of sieve, then cover surface with wax paper.
  8. Cool completely, stirring occasionally, at least 30 minutes.

 

Make and bake crust: 

  1. Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. Invert bottom of springform pan (to make it easier to slide cake off bottom), then lock on side.
  3. Stir together crust ingredients in a bowl, then press onto bottom and 1 inch up side of springform pan. I use a flat bottomed glass to help press flatten it evenly.
  4. Place springform pan in a shallow baking pan and bake 10 minutes
  5. Cool crust completely in springform pan on a rack.

 

Make filling and bake cheesecake:

  1. Decrease oven temp to 300°F
  2. Beat together cream cheese and sugar in a bowl with an electric mixer at medium speed until smooth, 1 to 2 minutes.
  3. Reduce speed to low and add eggs 1 at a time, beating until incorporated.
  4. Beat in yogurt and vanilla until combined.
  5. Pour two thirds of cream cheese filling into crust, then spoon half of lemon curd over filling and swirl curd into filling with a small knife. (Avoid touching crust with knife to prevent crumbs getting into filling.)
  6. Repeat with remaining filling and curd.

 

Baking – the baking time on this is a little tricky because it depends on your oven temp and will require some observation and judgement on your part.

  • The original recipe says to bake it for 45 minutes. My oven is so fussy that I have it in there for more like 60 – 70 minutes.
  • Ultimately you’ll know the cake is done when it is set about 1 1/2 inches from edge. (It should not be brown at the edges at all.) The center will appear loose-ish, but set compared to what it looked like raw. The cake will continue to set as it cools.
  • When cake is done,  transfer springform pan to a rack and immediately run a knife around top edge of cake to loosen.
  • Cool completely, about 2 hours, then chill, uncovered, at least 4 hours.
  • Remove side of springform pan before serving.
  • Cheesecake can be chilled, loosely covered, up to 2 days. Cheesecake must be completely chilled before covering to prevent condensation on its surface.

Care Packages Part 2 – Candy

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Those of you who have read my blog for a while or know me personally, know that I have a thing for foreign snack food. As small as the world has gotten, snack food can still be very place-specific. Even at the 7-11 just over the Canadian border on the way to Whistler, you can find a plethora of snack food you can’t get in the US. Despite their mass-production, snack foods often still reflect local taste preferences. And, candidly, I think the foreign snack foods taste better. Some might argue that is because I don’t usually eat snack foods, and thus they taste better because they are a treat. But I stand by my claim. The foreign snack foods seem to be slightly higher quality and better-tasting, particularly when it comes to candy.

European chocolate is better. Period. From cheap candy aisle chocolate to the artisanal brands, I would choose European chocolate any day. Even Cadbury is substantially better outside the US. I recently tested this hypothesis again when I tried some American Cadbury chocolate and nearly spit it out because it has such a strong chemical taste. It just tasted artificial. Ah, but I tried it in Ireland, and while it was no Caillier, it was so milky and chocolaty. Yes, it still has a mass-produced sensibility, but for chocolate that isn’t $30, I’d still eat it and rather enjoy it, whereas I’d skip almost every US mass-produced chocolate product. (Peanut butter m&ms, Reeses’ eggs, and an occasional Twix bar being the only exceptions).

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So Michelle threw a few Cadbury treats into the care package she sent me – milk chocolate and caramello Easter eggs, a mini fruit and nut bar, and a mini chocolate bar. My favorite flavor that I discovered while in Ireland are the golden biscuit crunch – shortbread cookies in milk chocolate – and the golden crisp – honeycomb in milk chocolate. The shortbread cookies in milk chocolate is an English thing. This combination is found in tea biscuits and was also the basis for the “chocolate biscuit cake” that Michelle’s mother-in-law won when I was visiting. The honeycomb in the chocolate is a European thing, and one of my favorite Callier bars. It’s a cross between a crunch bar made with crisp rice and a chocolate bar made with toffee chunks – sweeter than but not as crunchy as the rice, but definitely not as sweet as toffee. I

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She also included another British favorite of mine…toffee. This made me smile because it has a history back to one of my first trips to London (gasp – over 20 years ago) where I found Thornton’s treacle toffee. Giant chunks of chewy, caramelly toffee with a rich molasses flavor from the treacle, I found Thornton’s at Piccadilly Circus, and fell in love immediately. Michelle sent me it as a treat and somehow remembered how much I loved it. This time she sent me Butler’s Toffee. Butlers Chocolates is an Irish institution. Neither she nor I are huge fans of it, because it’s a little waxy. I think they were one of those places that may have gotten too big too fast such that the artisanal aspects gave way to more industrial production. Nonetheless, their toffee is pretty good, but made in individually wrapped pieces that are a little too big for as hard as it is. Definitely worth a try. And I’m cutting them up to enjoy them.

Care Package Part 1 – Crisps

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Remember care packages from our college days? Since I lived at home instead of going away to school, I was more of a sender than a receiver of the care package. One of my favorites to send was to my penpal Michelle in Northern Ireland. The mere fact that we were penpals illustrates exactly how long ago this was. We met as young teenagers through penpal want-ads in the U2 fan club magazine. I couldn’t have imagined at the time that placing that ad would result in a nearly 30-year long friendship that is still going strong today.

Anyway, back then, well before the days of the Irish Tiger and the opening of the border with the South, Northern Ireland was in many respects, much further away. (Now I can hop one of the several direct Aer Lingus flights from Boston to Dublin and be there almost as quickly as going to Seattle.) There weren’t Starbucks in suburban Belfast where she’d grown up, and she’d never experienced the pleasure of “great” American snack foods like Reeses’ Peanut Butter Cups or Oreos or Doritos. So I used to take my hard-earned money from working as a grocery store cashier and create the most fantastic boxes of American treats I could find.

As we got older and moved to bigger cities, the world got smaller and it wasn’t as exotic to send these packages back and forth. Until my trip to Dublin to see her in February when I discovered Keough’s potato chips – or crisps, as the Irish call them.Photo Mar 20, 8 55 22 AM

Proof positive that the local seasonal movement is more than just a US phenomenon, these proudly Irish chips labeled with the exact field in which the potatoes were grown and the farmer who harvested them, border on mimicking the famous Portlandia episode in which the server takes the couple to the farm on which their chicken was raised in order to prove its local, sustainable organic origin.

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In addition to this personal touch on the chips, the flavorings are very Irish – Beef and stout Stew, Dubliner Irish Cheese and Onion, Atlantic Sea Salt and Irish Cider vinegar. And oooh are they good! Yes, the idea of a beef and stout stew potato chip does sound rather disgusting at first. But think for a moment about stew. There are potatoes in stew, and they soak up all of the meaty stew gravy. So conceptually, it makes perfect sense. And taste? They managed to make a chip taste like a potato gently simmered in a pot full of beef, veg, and stout all day. There is nothing fake-tasting about these chips. How do they do it?

The Dubliner Irish cheese and onion tastes like Funions. Remember those? And I love a good salt and vinegar potato chip if it’s not so tartly vinegary or so overly salty that it’s unbearable. Keough’s are seasoned with a perfect balance, and the potato flavor still shines through in all of their flavors. They are fresh, light, and potato-y.

Now I’m very curious to try the two flavors she didn’t send. The first is a fall holiday special called “roast turkey and holiday stuffing”, which Michelle has declared her favorite flavor of all of Keough’s crisps. I had no idea that turkey stuffing was a holiday thing outside the US. The other one is shamrock and sour cream. My hope is that the shamrock tastes like an onion (or a chive) and not grass like I’d expect a shamrock to taste. I think I need to try them both.

Chewy Candy Chip Cookies

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My sister’s friend asked her to ask me how to replicate a chocolate cookie they’d had in Shanghai and described as the best chocolate chip cookie ever. Which is hilarious from several aspects. First, who equates Shanghai with amazing chocolate chip cookies? Ramen, yes. Chocolate chip cookies? Not really. And second, the idea of trying to replicate a cookie I’d never tasted is a bit absurd. But this made me like the challenge even more.

This incredible cookie was supposedly chewy, but not cakey, and a bit caramelized on the outside. Not much to go on, but it was a start. I knew I’d read an article that meticulously analyzed the effects of modifying each ingredient in a chocolate chip cookie, but I couldn’t find it. (I have since found it, and you can read it here.)

Instead, I had to settle for a recipe search. Starting with “chewy chocolate chip cookie”, I found The Mod Magpie’s Thick n’ Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe. It looked good and got good reviews. I figured I’d try it, and if they didn’t come out like what I imagined this cookie to be like, I’d move on to the next recipe. There are worse experiments to have to run.

I think I may have hit the lottery on the first try with this one. Although neither C nor A has made these cookies themselves to confirm their similarity to the magic Chinese chocolate chip cookie, they matched my imagined version of it exactly. Well, maybe not exactly because I didn’t use chocolate chips.  I used chopped miniature Reeses Peanut Butter Cups…

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and Cadbury Honey Crunch chocolate bar (a chocolate bar mixed with crystalized honey chips).

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But regardless, these may be my new favorite cookies period. They are chewy, but not floury. Crispy and caramely on the outside and soft on the inside.

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Chewy Candy (or Chocolate) Chip Cookies

  • 2¼ cups of all purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • ½ cup of butter
  • 1 tsp salt (if using unsalted butter)
  • 1 cup of packed brown sugar
  • ½ cup of granulated sugar
  • 1½ tsp vanilla
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 cups of chopped chocolate candy or semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • Coarse sea salt (optional)
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees
  2. Line your cookie trays with parchment paper.
  3. Cream together butter and sugar until it’s light and fluffy. Approx 3 -5 minutes in a stand mixer.
  4. While that’s going, chop the candy if necessary. Toss them in a tsp of flour.
  5. Add in the eggs and vanilla, mixing thoroughly.
  6. Mix in in the flour, baking soda and salt.
  7. When that is done, fold in the two cups of chocolate chips (or candy) by hand
  8. Drop by small cookie scoop or rounded teaspoonful onto the baking sheets.
  9. Sprinkle tops with a few flakes of coarse sea salt if desired. Press in lightly
  10. Bake at 350 for 10-12 minutes, until golden brown and slightly underdone.
  11. Cool on the sheets completely.

Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic

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I had a mad book purge this weekend. I read a ton and love books, but living in an apartment doesn’t offer the space for keeping all of them. (And I’m not switching to the iPad completely. The feel of a printed book is just too pleasing. And I find that reading print is more relaxing than on the iPad.) Part of the purge included cookbooks.

For some reason, getting rid of cookbooks makes me feel guilty. But let’s face it, there are some cookbooks that you use all the time and some that you don’t. However, there were a few that I’ve never used so I’ve put them on probation. I have to cook a few recipes out of them to determine whether or not I keep them.

First is the Ina Garten French Cooking book. My sister gave this to me, and she waited in a pretty long line to get it autographed. Which makes it a little harder to get rid of. But I’ve never made anything from it. So I picked the Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic. That’s not a typo, 40. Seemingly excessive, but Ina (or her writer) insisted that the flavor was subtle because the garlic takes on a sweet flavor.

The problem is that I ultimately couldn’t determine from this recipe whether to keep the cookbook because I modified it. Of course. The garlic does become sweet with a very subtle flavor, and I would venture to say the dish is not flavorful enough. Ina instructs the cook to liberally season the sauce because chicken is bland. A very uninspiring direction if I ever heard one. Why not try to infuse more flavor into the chicken? Maybe I diluted the sauce too much by adding the extra chicken stock. But if I hadn’t, the chicken would have burnt while simmering because there just was not enough sauce. If I try this dish again, I will treat it more like a tagine or stew which become better when sitting overnight. The recipe states that you can make it a day before and warm it over low heat. This may be the trick to getting more flavor.

Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic (adapted from Ina Garten’s recipe)

Serves 6

Ingredients

  • 3 whole heads garlic, about 40 cloves
  • 3.5 lbs chicken thighs
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons Cognac, divided – I substituted Woodford Reserve bourbon
  • 1 1/2 cups dry white wine
  • 2 cups unsalted chicken stock – my addition because her recipe didn’t make enough sauce
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons heavy cream – I substituted butter because I had no heavy cream.

Directions

  • Separate the cloves of garlic and drop them into a pot of boiling water for 60 seconds. Drain the garlic and peel. Set aside.
  • Dry the chicken with paper towels. Season liberally with salt and pepper on both sides.
  • Heat the butter and oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat.
  • In batches, saute the chicken in the fat, skin side down first, until nicely browned, about 3 to 5 minutes on each side. Turn with tongs or a spatula; you don’t want to pierce the skin with a fork. If the fat is burning, turn the heat down to medium.

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  • When a batch is done, transfer it to a plate and continue to saute all the chicken in batches.

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  • Remove the last chicken to the plate and add all of the garlic to the pot.

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  • Lower the heat and saute for 5 to 10 minutes, turning often, until evenly browned.

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  • Add 2 tablespoons of the Bourbon (or Cognac) and the wine, return to a boil, and scrape the brown bits from the bottom of the pan.

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  • Add 1 cup chicken stock if there isn’t much sauce.
  • Return the chicken to the pot with the juices and sprinkle with the thyme leaves. Cover and simmer over the lowest heat for about 30 minutes, until all the chicken is done.

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  • Remove the chicken to a platter and cover with aluminum foil to keep warm.
  • In a small bowl, whisk together 1/2 cup of the sauce and the flour  and the butter (if you aren’t using cream) and then whisk it back into the sauce in the pot.
  • Raise the heat, add the remaining tablespoon of  bourbon (or Cognac) and the cream (if you are using cream instead of butter) and the other cup of chicken stock if there’s not enough sauce, and boil for 3 minutes.
  • Add salt and pepper, to taste; it should be very flavorful because chicken tends to be bland.
  • Pour the sauce and the garlic over the chicken and serve hot.

My Irish Greek Valentine

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Presidents’ Day and Valentines Day have been on the same weekend the past 2 years, and I’ve spent both of them in Ireland since it’s a long weekend. This has not gone over well with D. But the flights are so cheap in February, and I’m just going to visit a girlfriend, so good weather is not a necessity when we spend most of our time drinking tea and catching up.

While I was there, M’s mother-in-law won a cake at her grandson’s cake sale at school. (That’s Irish for bake sale. :)) Aside from being gorgeous, it was a very interesting “cake”. They call it chocolate biscuit cake, and it’s apparently quite the thing there. The “cake” tastes like fudge chock full of shortbread cookies. It is dense, a tiny bit dry, and really unlike cake in every way. A few bites are good, but then it becomes cloyingly sweet. I found a recipe for it on Epicurious, but I’m not sure I would actually make one.

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For Valentine’s Day, M and I had a girl date at a lovely Greek restaurant called Cape Greko  in downtown Malahide. With a very modern, and non-traditional Greek interior I wondered if we would get standard Greek food or an interpretation of it. Having not been to Greece myself, I can only speculate, but it seemed to be the contemporary version of Greek food – like one would get at a nice restaurant in Athens. All of the usual suspects were on the menu – spanikopita, moussaka, gyro, etc. – as well as some other items, such as a vegetable mezze. Once I laid eyes on this mezze I couldn’t consider anything else. And I was astounded at the bountiful, beautifully arranged wooden platter of vegetables they placed in front of me.

Starting on the left and going clockwise, there were thinly-sliced roasted beets with tatziki sauce, grilled holumi, some of the most flavorful grilled vegetables I’ve ever had, and two beautiful falafel. Alongside this goodness? Two adorable miniature crocks of tatziki sauce and roasted red pepper hummus. It was spectacular.

But even better was the company. We shared a bottle of wine and talked and talked. Which is the best part of any meal.

Irish Eats

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I spent President’s Day weekend in Dublin again this year. Who would have thought that I’d go to Ireland in the winter for better weather? But indeed, given our 6 feet of snow and frigid temps in Boston, Ireland’s high 40s temps seemed nearly tropical.

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After  a red-eye and a good nap, I ventured out on the short 2.5 mile walk to downtown Malahide, a charming village that is now a bedroom community for Dublin. It was sunny and I was nearly too warm in my heavy sweater and rain jacket. The light sparkled off the estuary that the main road runs along just before the town center. I was on a mission to find a pub for a Guinness and lunch.

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In the true spirit of a connected world, I used Yelp to assist and I selected Fowlers. (Which, I later learned from locals, is actually more of a British-style pub. Oh well.)The clean, richly wooded bar was topped with gleaming taps including the desired Guinness.

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I was greeted by a cheery bearded Irish barman who handed me a menu and told me about the daily special – housemade lasagna with a side of chips (french fries) or a baked potato. Ah the Irish and their starch.Wanting something a bit more local, I ordered the fried Atlantic cod and chips.

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While waiting for a reasonable 20 minutes or so – and realizing based on the time that they were indeed making the fish from scratch – I sipped on the expertly poured Guinness, not so much because I like it, but because it gives a clear sense of place. Guinness is heavy and lacks the hoppy beer flavor I prefer. I journaled. I watched the locals.

Then the server brought my fish and all else was forgotten. I cracked open the shiny golden batter shell to find a snow white  pliantly flaky filet of cod that was not the least bit greasy. This can only be achieved from quick frying at the right (hot) temperature. The plump steak fries’ crispy exterior yielded to a creamy, nearly mashed-potato like center – a redeeming quality for sure because I’m normally not a fan. Nearly lost behind the generous portion of fish and chips were homemade mushy peas, a vegetable preparation that looks almost as bad as it sounds, but is utterly delicious.

While they may have some odd choices as accompaniments to lasagna, these people know how to fry fish.