Monday, June 14, 2010

Say Cheesecake—New York Deli-Style, "Crackless" Please

There are cheesecakes, and then there are cheesecakes. In the interest of staying current, I've made the over-the-top sort with espresso chocolate chunks, pumpkin swirls and lavender-berry puree. And, of course, chi-chi cheesecakes can be quite spectacular when I’m in the right mood. But when I’m in my comfort food zone, I invariably opt for the basic New York deli-type version. It’s always gratifying, and never, ever, goes out of style.

A bite of a well-made slice is firm, dense, rich, and toothsome, never fluffy, insubstantial, or quivery soft. It’s about the cream cheese, and eggs, and perhaps vanilla or lemon zest, and, usually, nothing else. It’s never too sweet and seems elegant in an understated way.

Since the New York deli-style cheesecake looks so simple and straightforward, it might seem like—um—a piece of cake to make. And it is, if you rely on a well-tested, carefully written recipe.

But coming up with a good recipe is not so simple, often due to the dreaded “cracking problem.” Almost all the food stylists I know have stories about the cheesecake from hell—one they were readying for a photo shoot that developed huge fissures down the center no matter how many times or how carefully they made, baked, and cooled it. After hearing all these tales, I’m suspicious whenever I see New York-style cheesecakes pictured with a berry, cherry, or sour cream topping: it may cover craters below. I’ve showed you mine “as is” just to assure you it’s crackless!

After doing lots of experimenting with ingredients and mixing and baking techniques, I’ve made some discoveries concerning the cracking. It turns out that unless you bake the cheesecake in a warm water bath, it’s almost essential to include some cornstarch (or flour) to stabilize the filling mixture. And with the New York deli-style cheesecake, the water bath isn’t an option because this step produces a soft, custardy, quivery texture instead of firm, toothsome one required.

I think it’s fitting that our favorite cheesecake hails from New York. Cream cheese was likely invented by New York dairymen in about 1870. Kraft Foods, owner of the Philadelphia Brand company, says that cheese distributor A. L. Reynolds named and introduced it into New York in 1880. Supposedly he chose the “Philadelphia brand” moniker simply because, at the time, consumers associated Philadelphia with top-quality food products.

Before cream cheese came along, cooks prepared their cheesecakes from mild, fresh, unripened cottage-style cheese curds or farmer cheese mashed or sieved to smooth their texture. A seventeenth century manuscript, Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery, starts with the following cheesemaking instructions: “Take 6 quarts of stroakings or new milk & whey it with runnet [sic] as for ordinary cheese, then put it in a streyner & hang it on a pin or else press it with 2 pound weight. Then break it very small with your hands or run it through a sive [sic] ....”

Thank goodness we can just purchase our cream cheese and get on with the baking!

New York Deli-Style Cheesecake

Here’s my version of the quintessential New York deli-style cheesecake—it’s firm, dense, rich, mild, and, to my mind, great eating. It is excellent as is, but you could dress it up with any fruit topping desired. I love strawberry slices.

For a smooth texture and uncracked surface, beat the filling on medium-low speed. Also, be very careful not to over-bake; the center of the cheesecake should still be jiggly when the oven is turned off. If your springform pan happens to be a little larger than the one called for, that’s fine; it will just yield a cake with less height.

Tip: It's best to prepare your own graham cracker crumbs. For some reason, the boxes of ready-to-use crumbs don't taste nearly as fresh and appealing.

4 ounces (about 14 2 1/4-inch squares) graham crackers, coarsely broken (enough to yield 1 generous cup fine graham cracker crumbs)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 2/3 cups granulated sugar
2 1/2 pounds (5 8-ounce packages) cream cheese cheese, at room temperature
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespon cornstarch
1 1/2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest (yellow part of the skin)
6 large eggs
1/2 cup sour cream
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon almond extract, optional

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Very generously grease a 9- to 9 1/2-inch by at least
2 1/2-inch high springform pan, or coat with nonstick spray.

For the crust: In a food processor, grind the graham crackers to very fine crumbs. Add the butter; process until the mixture begins to hold together, scraping down the bowl once or twice. If the mixture seems too dry to hold together (press together with the fingertips to check), add up to 4 teaspoons water, a teaspoon at a time, and process until evenly incorporated. Press the crust evenly and firmly into springform pan bottom (not sides). Bake (middle rack) until nicely browned, 10 to 15 minutes. Set aside.

For the filling: Beat the sugar and cream cheese in a large bowl on medium-low speed just until completely smooth, carefully scraping down the bowl and beaters as needed. Beat in the cornstarch and lemon zest, then one at a time, on medium-low speed beat in the eggs, then the sour cream and vanilla and almond extract (if using) just until evenly incorporated and smooth.

Turn out the mixture into the crust, spreading evenly to the edges. Shake the pan and rap on the counter to even the surface. Bake (middle rack) for 15 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 275 degrees F. Continue baking for 50 to 60 minutes longer, or until the mixture appears done around the perimeter but is still slightly jiggly and unset in the center when the pan is shaken. Turn off the oven; open the oven door wide and let the cheesecake cool in the oven for 30 minutes. Transfer it to a cooling rack immediately.

Let the cheesecake stand until completely cooled, several hours. Cover and refrigerate for at least 6 hours or until very thoroughly chilled before serving. If the cheesecake has not already fully pulled away from the pan sides, carefully run a knife around the edge to loosen it at any points it is still sticking. Release the clamp and lift the cake up through the hoop. Serve the cheesecake directly from the pan bottom. For best appearance, cut the slices with a large knife and wipe the blade clean with paper towels between the cuts. The cheesecake will keep, covered airtight and refrigerated, for 5 or 6 days.

Makes 12 to 15 servings.

Another classic cake you may like: Peach Crumb Cake.

Or perhaps this classic Banana Bundt Cake here:
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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Homemade Ice Cream Sandwiches--Make the Cookies, Add Fave Ice Creams

I love baking these plump, homemade chocolate cookies and turning them into ice cream sandwiches. Crispy, light and just chocolatey enough to show off dollops of ice cream, they make a wonderful summer dessert, especially after a supper on the deck. Besides being economical and tasting much better than store-bought, they can be paired with any ice cream desired—I found that purchased fudge chunk, mint chip, coffee-ripple, chocolate-cherry, and vanilla-custard sandwiches have all been good. (For another cooling treat, check out my all-natural homemade ice pops here.)

The sandwiches are such a breeze to make that even children as young as my six- and seven-year old grandchildren, Lizzie and Charlie, can ready their own. My favorite sweet freak, Charlie, likes his ice cream sandwiches decorated with colored sprinkles. He’s drawn to the colorful look, but he also sees the decorating as an opportunity to snitch some candy dots when nobody’s looking.

While most grownups love ice cream sandwiches, too, they have been considered mostly kids’ treats since they first turned up in America around 110 years ago. In her fascinating book, Chocolate, Strawberry, and Vanilla: A History of American Ice Cream, researcher Anne Cooper Funderburg discovered a 1902 New York Daily Tribune article mentioning that street vendors had been selling ice cream sandwiches to New York City children for several years. The reporter noted that during a “hot spell” one vendor with an elaborately decorated cart did such a big business that “he could not make change, but insisted on receiving the actual price for each ice cream sandwich—1 cent."

Sandwiches, whether savory or sweet, are so commonplace today it's hard to believe they didn't appear in America until the nineteenth century. One very early recipe, for a sandwich of ham or tongue and optional mustard, was published in Eliza Leslie’s 1837 American cookbook, Directions for Cookery. Clearly, sandwich makers hadn’t gotten creative yet! The first savory sandwich, bread slapped around beef, supposedly originated in Britain in the 1700s when the Fourth Earl of Sandwich asked the cook to ready something he could eat without having to leave the gaming table.

Chocolate Ice Cream Sandwiches

If you like, ice cream sandwiches can be made completely in advance and frozen. I pack and store each one in its own little plastic bag. Another possibility is to make and freeze the cookies ahead, then bring them out with an assortment of ice creams so folks can create their own customized desserts right at the table. I find that this works best outdoors at a picnic or deck table, where nobody minds a little mess. The ice cream choices are nearly endless—everything from plain old vanilla to gourmet banana-fudge will have fans. Kids (and some grownups!) also enjoy rolling their sandwiches in colorful add-ons like colored sprinkles, finely chopped nuts, toasted coconut and chopped chocolate chips and other morsels. Just keep in mind that fine bits are best for both rolling and eating.

Note that cocoa powder called for in the recipe is unsweetened; it is not the same as cocoa drink mix, a much milder, sweeter product that will not work. The dutch process cocoa powder I prefer in the recipe is darker in color, but has a mellower flavor and less acid than American-style cocoa. It is sometimes labeled “dutched” or “European-style cocoa.

Tip: The cookie recipe calls for mini-morsels because the regular-size chocolate morsels become too hard and difficult to eat when frozen. If you don’t have mini-morsels, chop up regular-size morsels before adding them to the dough.

3 cups all-purpose white flour
1/2 cup minus 1 tablespoon unsweetened Dutch process cocoa, sifted after measuring
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, slightly softened
1/4 cup corn oil or other flavorless vegetable oil
1 cup granulated sugar, plus about 3 tablespoons for shaping the cookies
2/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon instant coffee or espresso granules or powder dissolved in 3 tablespoons tap water
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups (12 ounces) semisweet chocolate mini-morsels, or regular-size morsels, chopped
Ice Cream and Optional Garnishes
2 to 3 quarts ice cream, just slightly softened
Finely chopped nuts, chopped chocolate, toasted coconut, decorator sprinkles and/or crushed candy bits for garnishing sandwich edges (optional)

In a large bowl, thoroughly stir together the flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt. In a mixer bowl with the mixer on medium speed, beat together the butter, oil, granulated and brown sugars, and espresso-water mixture until well blended and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the eggs and vanilla, beating until very well blended.

Beat in half the flour mixture until smoothly incorporated. Stir in the remainder of the flour mixture and the chocolate morsels until evenly incorporated. Cover and refrigerate the dough for 20-30 minutes, or until firm enough to handle. (Or if desired, chill dough overnight, then let it warm up slightly before using.)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line several baking sheets with baking parchment (or spray them generously with nonstick spray). Working on a sheet of wax paper, divide the dough into quarters with greased hands. Divide each quarter into 10 equal balls. Space them about 3 1/2 inches apart on the baking sheets to allow for spreading.

Spread the 3 tablespoons sugar in a shallow bowl. Grease the bottom of a large drinking glass, then dip the surface into the sugar. Press down the cookie tops until they are 2 1/4 inches in diameter; dip into the sugar before each cookie. (If the dough has been refrigerated more than 1 hour or is very cold, flatten the cookies a little more, into 2 1/2-inch rounds.)

Bake, one pan at a time, in the upper third of the oven for 7 to 11 minutes or until the cookies are firm at the edges but still slightly soft and underdone when pressed in the middle; turn the pan halfway through baking to ensure even browning. Remove the pan to a cooling rack, and let stand until the cookies firm up just slightly, 2 minutes. Then, using a wide spatula, transfer them to racks.

Let stand until completely cooled. Freeze the cookies, airtight, to ready them for making sandwiches. (They may be frozen, airtight, for up to 1 1/2 months.)

To ready sandwiches: Pair up the chilled cookies, undersides visible. Spread about1/3 cup just slightly softened ice cream on one cookie of each pair. Press the pair together until the ice cream squeezes out to the edges. If desired, smooth edges with a knife. Roll the ice cream edges in chopped nuts, colored sprinkles, chopped morsels, etc., if desired. Serve immediately, or if preferred, slip each sandwich into a plastic bag and freeze for later use.

Makes 20 3-inch diameter sandwiches.
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