Smooth and rich, this recipe is a winner.

Smooth and rich, this recipe is a winner.

So the Daring Bakers are at it again. The April 2009 challenge is hosted by Jenny from Jenny Bakes. She has chosen Abbey’s Infamous Cheesecake as the challenge.

The recipe was not difficult at all; in fact, I’ve made this cheesecake a total of three times this month. The challenge did allow for some freedom of choice in the flavoring of the cheesecake, by changing out the called-for lemon juice, vanilla, and liquor components. Coming up with a delicious and original flavor based on three tablespoons of liquid took some thought.

The first thing that came to mind was my favorite cheesecake flavor, key lime. Adding tequila to make it a margarita naturally followed. At least for me. Hi, margaritas naturally follow waking up.

Cute, but lacking

Cute, but lacking

I wanted a unique and surprising presentation, and mulled over a bunch of different ways to make it look like a margarita in a glass, but decided to go with the safest route and bake it in rocks glasses. The whipped cream isn’t quite a salt rim, but I call artistic license.

The problem was that it tasted terrible. Maybe I went overboard with the lime juice or my limes weren’t great tasting, or maybe tequila should only be consumed in liquid form, but these little cuties were all show and no substance.

Meanwhile, back at the drawing board, I decided to try again with my current obsession, cinnamon.

Swirly happiness

Swirly happiness

Now we’re talkin’. I wasn’t sure how to add cinnamon to the cheesecake in liquid form, since what we were changing for flavoring were three water-consistency components. So I first infused the cream in the recipe with cinnamon sticks, by bringing the cream and cinnamon sticks almost to a boil and letting it cool for several hours. I left the lemon juice in because I love the lift lemon gives, left the vanilla in, and 86ed the liquor altogether.

I added only about a half teaspoon cinnamon to the batter itself. For the swirls, I melted cinnamon chips — in the baking aisle along with the chocolate chips, if you can find them — with some butter. I knew from previous experience that those chips don’t melt well, but the butter loosened them up enough to swirl directly into the batter. All of the cracks in the top of my cheesecake came where the cinnamon chips swirls were the heaviest, so I am not complaining. The second time I made it, I mixed in the cinnamon chips and butter with some of the batter and swirled that in, and voila: no cracks. Of course, no pictures, either, but trust that it got raves from the girls at poker night.

Cheesecake Slice

This will definitely be my go-to cheesecake recipe. And the best tip Jenny gave us was if we didn’t have a springform pan, to bake the cheesecake in a disposable foil pan and cut the pan away for serving. Worked like a dream! And no possibility of the pan leaking, like many of my compatriots who used springform pans suffered.

Abbey’s Infamous Cheesecake:

2 cups / 180 g graham cracker crumbs
1 stick / 4 oz butter, melted
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
3 large eggs
1 cup / 8 oz heavy cream
1 tbsp. lemon juice
1 tbsp. vanilla extract (or the innards of a vanilla bean)
1 tbsp liqueur, optional, but choose what will work well with your cheesecake

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. 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.

Thanks again to Jenny from Jenny Bakes for a fun and creative challenge!



April 17, 2009

Couldn’t shake the craving for some super spicy shredded beef tacos, and you know how I love a good braise, so here’s what I did:

3.5 pound round roast
2 stalks celery
2 carrots
2 T Spicy Monterey Steak Seasoning*
1 t cumin
1 t coriander
1 t garlic salt
1 can green chiles
1 small can jalapenos
1/4 red wine
1 1/2 cup chicken stock

1. Rub spices all over roast. I’d like to tell you I seared the roast first, but I was too lazy and it didn’t matter a lick. Place roast in roasting pan on top of the celery and carrots.

2. Top roast with chiles and jalapenos. pour wine and chicken stock in botton of the pan.

3. Cover with foil and place in 300 degree oven for three and a half to four hours or until beef shreds easily.

And here is what I came up with:

There is really only one thing to miss about Texas...

There is really only one thing to miss about Texas...

When cool, shred the beef with two forks. Servce on corn or flour tortillas with cilantro and a squeeze of lime.

*Note:   I am truly sorry I had to resort to a packaged seasoning mix, but dammit, it’s good!

Or maybe just not MY mother's lasagna

Or maybe just not MY mother's lasagna

I will admit to being slightly intimidated by this month’s Daring Bakers Challenge.
The March 2009 challenge is hosted by Mary of Beans and Caviar, Melinda of Melbourne Larder and Enza of Io Da Grande. They have chosen Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper as the challenge.
This was not only  a break from what I grew up thinking was a traditional lasagna — multitudes of cheeses and mega-tomatoey sauce — it seemed almost miserly, using a simple white sauce, a meat sauce, and one measley, sparingly used cheese.   But get this:  the main part of the challenge was handmaking — and handrolling — the lasagna noodles.  Now that’s a challenge! 
Honestly, it wasn’t until  it came out of the oven and I tasted a bite that I saw how these sparse ingredients could come together to be exactly how it was described in the challenge:   a “vivid expression of the ‘less is more’ philosophy of cooking. Mere films of béchamel sauce and meat ragu coat the sheerest spinach pasta. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese dusts each layer. There is nothing more; no ricotta, no piling on of meats, vegetables or cheese; little tomato, and no hot spice. Baking performs the final marriage of flavours. ”   In a word, it’s sublime. 
Here’s how it all went down:
This is what flour and egg look like on my counter...

This is what flour and egg look like on my counter...

I completely forgot to add the finely minced spinach to these noodles.  I ended up adding it to my ragu instead, with spectacular results. 
And then I stuck my fingers in it

And then I stuck my fingers in it

Homemade pasta was not nearly as difficult as I thought.  Mix the flour and egg, let it rest occasionally when it starts getting indignant on you, and roll, stretch, roll, stretch, roll.   I was really pleased with how thin I was able to get the noodles rolling them by hand.
The dough just as it came together

The dough just as it came together

The recipe says you’ll feel when the dough has been kneaded enough, and yeah, you just kind of do.  I don’t know if I would describe it as feeling “alive,” as we were told, but it definitely feels like it just belongs.  
Kneaded to what felt like the right point

Kneaded to what felt like the right point

I originally wanted to make really rustic, individual servings, so I didn’t care what the noodles looked like as I rolled them.  I also couldn’t take pictures of the rolling because it took two hands.

Pasta drying on my makeshift rack

Pasta drying on my makeshift rack

 It surprised me a little that we were invited to use our own recipes for the two required sauces.  I made a pretty simple, traditional bechamel, with a little garlic in it and probably a hint of lemon for some brightness.  But it was the ragu that got me.  Wholly cow was it amazing.  I loosely followed the sample recipe given, grinding some steak and pork chop together for the meat component and using a few strips of bacon instead of prosciutto or pancetta.  I did add a little tomato paste, which it didn’t call for and which I browned to within an inch of its life, and the canned tomatoes it did call for.  I also used half and half instead of milk, just because I had it.

 Let me tell you, I wanted to bathe in this stuff by the end.  I started out as white as cream gravy, but as it simmered it just turned browner and browner, and the minced spinach I added made it somehow taste like home. 

Maximum sauce, minimum cheese

Maximum sauce, minimum cheese

Cooked noodles ready for assembly

Cooked noodles ready for assembly

So, again in stark contrast to what I am used to in building a lasagna, the assembly began:  on an initial bed of sauce, I placed noodles, bechamel, and ragu, then dotted on a tiny bit more bechamel, a light dusting of cheese, and back to the noodles.  Even though I was trying to only use a spoonful or two of each sauce, I still feel like I might have been a little heavy handed.  Somehow I can live with that.
Assembling the last layer

Assembling the last layer

Because HI. 
Come to mama.

Right out of the oven

Right out of the oven

Twelve layers of rich, gooey goodness

Twelve layers of rich, gooey goodness

Oh, and I halved the recipes for everything.  As this recipe was trying to teach me,  a little goes a long way.

Thanks again to the Daring Bakers and our happy hosts for this suprising and fulfilling challenge.


From The Splendid Table: Recipes from Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Food by Lynne Rossetto Kasper (published by William Morrow and Company Inc., 1992).

Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna (Lasagne Verdi al Forno)
(Serves 8 to 10 as a first course, 6 to 8 as a main dish)

Preparation Time: 15 minutes to assemble and 40 minutes cooking time

10 quarts (9 litres) salted water
1 recipe Spinach Pasta cut for lasagna (recipe follows)#1
1 recipe Bechamel Sauce (recipe follows)#2
1 recipe Country Style Ragu (recipe follows)#3
1 cup (4 ounces/125g) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Working Ahead:
The ragu  and the béchamel sauce can be made up to three days ahead. The ragu can also be frozen for up to one month. The pasta can be rolled out, cut and dried up to 24 hours before cooking. The assembled lasagne can wait at room temperature (20 degrees Celsius/68 degrees Fahrenheit) about 1 hour before baking. Do not refrigerate it before baking, as the topping of béchamel and cheese will overcook by the time the center is hot.

Assembling the Ingredients:
Have all the sauces, rewarmed gently over a medium heat, and the pasta at hand. Have a large perforated skimmer and a large bowl of cold water next to the stove. Spread a double thickness of paper towels over a large counter space. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius). Oil or butter a 3 quart (approx 3 litre) shallow baking dish.

Cooking the Pasta:
Bring the salted water to a boil. Drop about four pieces of pasta in the water at a time. Cook about 2 minutes. If you are using dried pasta, cook about 4 minutes, taste, and cook longer if necessary. The pasta will continue cooking during baking, so make sure it is only barely tender. Lift the lasagne from the water with a skimmer, drain, and then slip into the bowl of cold water to stop cooking. When cool, lift out and dry on the paper towels. Repeat until all the pasta is cooked.

Assembling the Lasagne:
Spread a thin layer of béchamel over the bottom of the baking dish. Arrange a layer of about four overlapping sheets of pasta over the béchamel. Spread a thin layer of béchamel (about 3 or 4 spoonfuls) over the pasta, and then an equally thin layer of the ragu. Sprinkle with about 1&1/2 tablespoons of the béchamel and about 1/3 cup of the cheese. Repeat the layers until all ingredients are used, finishing with béchamel sauce and topping with a generous dusting of cheese.

Baking and Serving the Lasagne:
Cover the baking dish lightly with foil, taking care not to let it touch the top of the lasagne. Bake 40 minutes, or until almost heated through. Remove the foil and bake another 10 minutes, or until hot in the center (test by inserting a knife – if  it comes out very warm, the dish is ready). Take care not to brown the cheese topping. It should be melted, creamy looking and barely tinged with a little gold. Turn off the oven, leave the door ajar and let the lasagne rest for about 10 minutes. Then serve. This is not a solid lasagne, but a moist one that slips a bit when it is cut and served.

#1 Spinach Egg Pasta (Pasta Verde)

Preparation: 45 minutes

Makes enough for 6 to 8 first course servings or 4 to 6 main course servings, equivalent to 1 pound (450g) dried boxed pasta.

2 jumbo eggs (2 ounces/60g or more)
10 ounces (300g) fresh spinach, rinsed dry, and finely chopped; or 6 ounces (170g) frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry
3&1/2 cups (14 ounces/400g) all purpose unbleached (plain) flour (organic stone ground preferred)

Working by Hand:


A roomy work surface, 24 to 30 inches deep by 30 to 36 inches (60cm to 77cm deep by 60cm to 92cm). Any smooth surface will do, but marble cools dough slightly, making it less flexible than desired.

A pastry scraper and a small wooden spoon for blending the dough.

A wooden dowel-style rolling pin. In Italy, pasta makers use one about 35 inches long and 2 inches thick (89cm long and 5cm thick). The shorter American-style pin with handles at either end can be used, but the longer it is, the easier it is to roll the pasta.
Note: although it is not traditional, Enza has successfully made pasta with a marble rolling pin, and this can be substituted for the wooden pin, if you have one.

Plastic wrap to wrap the resting dough and to cover rolled-out pasta waiting to be filled. It protects the pasta from drying out too quickly.

A sharp chef’s knife for cutting pasta sheets.

Cloth-covered chair backs, broom handles, or specially designed pasta racks found in cookware shops for draping the pasta.

Mixing the dough:
Mound the flour in the center of your work surface and make a well in the middle. Add the eggs and spinach. Use a wooden spoon to beat together the eggs and spinach. Then gradually start incorporating shallow scrapings of flour from the sides of the well into the liquid. As you work more and more flour into the liquid, the well’s sides may collapse. Use a pastry scraper to keep the liquids from running off and to incorporate the last bits of flour into the dough. Don’t worry if it looks like a hopelessly rough and messy lump.

With the aid of the scraper to scoop up unruly pieces, start kneading the dough. Once it becomes a cohesive mass, use the scraper to remove any bits of hard flour on the work surface – these will make the dough lumpy. Knead the dough for about 3 minutes. Its consistency should be elastic and a little sticky. If it is too sticky to move easily, knead in a few more tablespoons of flour. Continue kneading about 10 minutes, or until the dough has become satiny, smooth, and very elastic. It will feel alive under your hands. Do not shortcut this step. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, and let it relax at room temperature 30 minutes to 3 hours.

Stretching and Thinning:
If using an extra-long rolling pin work with half the dough at a time. With a regular-length rolling pin, roll out a quarter of the dough at a time and keep the rest of the dough wrapped. Lightly sprinkle a large work surface with flour. The idea is to stretch the dough rather than press down and push it. Shape it into a ball and begin rolling out to form a circle, frequently turning the disc of dough a quarter turn. As it thins outs, start rolling the disc back on the pin a quarter of the way toward the center and stretching it gently sideways by running the palms of your hands over the rolled-up dough from the center of the pin outward. Unroll, turn the disc a quarter turn, and repeat. Do twice more.

Stretch and even out the center of the disc by rolling the dough a quarter of the way back on the pin. Then gently push the rolling pin away from you with one hand while holding the sheet in place on the work surface with the other hand. Repeat three more times, turning the dough a quarter turn each time.

Repeat the two processes as the disc becomes larger and thinner. The goal is a sheet of even thickness. For lasagne, the sheet should be so thin that you can clearly see your hand through it and see colours. Cut into rectangles about 4 by 8 inches (10 x 20 cm). Note: Enza says that transparency is a crucial element of lasagne pasta and the dough should be rolled as thinly as possible. She says this is why her housekeeper has such strong arms!

Dry the pasta at room temperature and store in a sealed container or bag.

Another First

February 28, 2009

Chocolate Valentino

Chocolate Valentino

February is my first month as a member of an outstandling online community called Daring Bakers.

Each month, a baking challenge is issued and bakers across the world unite in producing the chosen treat and posting about their experience doing so.

The February 2009 challenge is hosted by Wendy of WMPE’s blog and Dharm of Dad ~ Baker & Chef. We have chosen a Chocolate Valentino cake by Chef Wan; a Vanilla Ice Cream recipe from Dharm and a Vanilla Ice Cream recipe from Wendy as the challenge.

A valentino is a flourless chocolate cake, to be served with baker’s choice of homemade ice cream.

The challenge stated that with only three ingredients, the valentino would come out tasting exactly like the (one pound of!) chocolate used,  so of course I wanted to find an interesting and tasty chocolate.  My first thought, of course, was bacon chocolate, which I would pair with eggnog ice cream, but I was serving my valentino as a Valentine’s Day dinner for four, including a pastry chef who teaches at Le Cordon Bleu and a connoisseur whom I love too much to subject to my silliness.*

I also considered and dismissed the idea of chocolate spiced with cayenne and various others available at the regular grocery store, in favor of my favorite chocolate as a kid, Ice Cube candies.  I wondered if the cold sensation would carry over to the Valentino.

Then, the night before my dinner and baking extravaganza, I tried one of the 42 Ice Cube candies I had to buy to make a pound, at $.50 apiece. Yeah, not so much happening. Despite what I paid for it, this was not $21.00/lb chocolate.

After spending about 45 minutes debating in front of the chocolate display at Whole Foods, I ended up with Dagoba organic Lemon Ginger bars and went home to try my luck.

It came out of the oven looking just like the showroom model:

Looks can be deceiving

Looks can be deceiving

But crumbled upon release. Plus, the 63% cacao, or whatever the Dagoba bars were, came out way too bitter, even this non-sweets-lover.

But I'm not bitter...

But I'm not bitter...

Luckily for me, with 3 hours until dinner guests arrived and no other options, I still had my Ice Cube candies, so I got to work on v2.0.

This cake is so easy, the hardest part may have been unwrapping 41 candies

This cake is so easy, the hardest part may have been unwrapping 41 candies

Plan B worked a lot better.

Upside down, but still heart shaped and all in one piece

Upside down, but still heart shaped and all in one piece

I served my valentino with two kinds of ice cream:  homemade chocolate butter almond, which I have been dying to try to replicate since I first tasted it circa 1986, and, in keeping with the childhood memories theme, Ovaltine ice cream, which came out malty, salty, and good.



Everyone loved this cake, and the ice cream was a perfect pairing. Having baked two, I think the cake comes out a little less sweet than whatever choclate is used, so the darker stuff is a bit of a risk if you don’t love it. I definitely still want to try it with bacon chocolate, and the ice cream maker I found ($24.99 Big Lots kismet, I like to call it) is already being used in almost weekly ice cream experiments. Help me.

Thanks again to the Daring Bakers for the opportunity to participate in this great group, and special thanks to Wendy at wmpesblog and Dharm at Dad – Baker and Chef for hosting this month’s Daring Bakers Challenge.

* Yes, I see the irony of serving my fancy friends candy bar and Ovaltine based desserts. They loved them.

Chocolate Valentino
Preparation Time:  20 minutes
16 ounces (1 pound) (454 grams) of semisweet chocolate, roughly chopped
½ cup (1 stick) plus 2 tablespoons (146 grams total) of unsalted butter
5 large eggs separated

1. Put chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl and set over a pan of simmering water (the bottom of the bowl should not touch the water) and melt, stirring often.
2. While your chocolate butter mixture is cooling. Butter your pan and line with a parchment circle then butter the parchment.
3. Separate the egg yolks from the egg whites and put into two medium/large bowls.
4. Whip the egg whites in a medium/large grease free bowl until stiff peaks are formed (do not over-whip or the cake will be dry).
5. With the same beater beat the egg yolks together.
6. Add the egg yolks to the cooled chocolate.
7. Fold in 1/3 of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture and follow with remaining 2/3rds. Fold until no white remains without deflating the batter. {link of folding demonstration}
8. Pour batter into prepared pan, the batter should fill the pan 3/4 of the way full, and bake at 375F/190C
9. Bake for 25 minutes until an instant read thermometer reads 140F/60C.
Note – If you do not have an instant read thermometer, the top of the cake will look similar to a brownie and a cake tester will appear wet.
10. Cool cake on a rack for 10 minutes then unmold.

Green Chicken Chili

February 22, 2009

Hearty, but still light and fresh tasting Green Chicken Chili

Hearty, but still light and fresh tasting Green Chicken Chili

Green Chicken Chili

2 T olive oil (divided)
1 bunch kale, stems removed, and chopped
1 1/2 t cumin, divided
1/2 c white wine, divided
1 small onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb dark and white meat chicken, cut into bite sized pieces
1 t coriander
4 tomatillos, diced
1 can diced green chiles
1 small jalapeno, seeds and ribs removed, finely chopped
1/2 c fresh cilantro, chopped, plus some for garnish
juice of one half lime
2 cups chicken stock
1/2 salt
1 15 oz can cannellini, drained and rinsed
1/3 c fresh or frozen white corn

1. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium high heat in a medium skillet. Add chopped kale and 1/2 teaspoon cumin, and saute for 3-5 minutes until dark green and wilted. Add 1/4 cup white wine, cover, and turn heat to low.

2. Season chicken pieces with salt and pepper. In a medium stockpot, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat. Add chopped onion and cook for 1-2 minutes. Add garlic and cook for one more minute. Add chicken pieces, coriander, and one teaspoon cumin, and saute for 4-5 minutes, stirring often, until chicken is cooked most of the way through. Add tomatillos, green chiles, jalapenos, cilantro, and lime juice and cook for 3-4 minutes, until tomatillos start to break down.

3. Add remaining 1/4 cup white wine, chicken stock, sauteed kale, salt, and cannellini; turn heat to low and simmer for 30-40 minutes, until slightly thickened and kale is tender.

4. Just before serving, add corn and cook for 1-2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

To serve, top with shredded monterey jack cheese, sour cream or creme fraiche, and tortilla chips. Garnish with fresh cilantro. Serves 4.