A Perfect Cheescake….Finally!

There are those recipes you dare to try, going in with great gusto and leaving all inhibitions aside. Cheesecake may safely be said to be one of those such recipes. (At least for me.) I’ve lived in New York City long enough to consider myself a New Yorker and, thus, a fan of cheesecake. Those of you inhabiting the East Coast of the U.S. may likely be familiar with Junior’s cheesecake, originating in Brooklyn; decadently rich and smooth. But, honestly, I don’t know too many people, regardless where they originate or currently find themselves geographically, who don’t enjoy a thick slice of gateaux du fromage.

I’ve attempted my hand at creating a cheesecake worthy of praise a few times in my life. I’ve had some near successes, but certainly nothing I could sell at a corner bakery. Until now…

I recently began reading a book titled, “CookWise,” by Shirley O. Corriher. I haven’t completed reading it cover to cover, so I can’t give a final review at this time, but I can tell you how exciting it is to read sections and chapters at random and get new insights about various recipes I’ve tried without a lot of success, simply due to my lack of food science knowledge. I find this book to be most like a hand guide for those of us home cooks who have always had an inkling to — but never found the time — to attend cooking school.

I tweaked the following recipe — it originally called for sour cream, and I replaced it with Greek thick yogurt, with much success. I added pure almond extract, but you could instead add an almond-flavored  liquor, such as amaretto, or simply omit the almond flavoring and opt for lemon juice and zest. The original recipe calls for chocolate wafers in the graham crust, however I used some tea biscuits and loved the outcome. It’s totally up to you and your preference.

Because this recipe doesn’t contain any starch in the batter, it must be baked in a water bath. The cake pan should be placed in a casserole dish large enough to leave a good inch of space around the entire cake pan. I was a little apprehensive the first time I attempted this recipe, but placing a thick, terry cloth towel underneath the cake pan provides extra protection from heat on the bottom of the pan, and allows the cheesecake to bake nicely without overcooking. The towel will certainly not burn, so not to worry!

Cheesecake will appear to be undercooked when you need to stop the baking process. So if the cake looks a bit jiggly in the center, don’t fret. It will set nicely in the fridge overnight. Most cheesecakes I have made in the past came out cracked in the center, which I later found meant I had overcooked the cake. I made a simple preserve syrup out of frozen strawberries, blueberry/cranberry juice, almond extract, and sugar, but it’s certainly not necessary. This cheesecake is divine on its own, topping or no.

Crust:
14 wafers, or tea biscuits (chocolate or plain)
3 Tbsp. sugar
3 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted

Filling:
2 packages (8 oz. each) cream cheese, room temperature
1 c. sugar
3 large eggs
2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. salt
4 tsp. pure almond extract, or 1/4 c. amaretto
3 c. thick Greek yogurt, such as FAGE brand

Crush the wafers or biscuits in a plastic zipper bag or in a food processor. In a small bowl, stir together the crushed wafers, sugar, and melted butter until a coarse crumb is achieved. Line the bottom of an 8 x 3″ round, straight-edged cake pan with parchment paper, cut to fit. (Despite what you see in the photo below, I do not recommend using a spring form pan, as a little bit of water will leak through the pan during the baking process, making the crumb crust soggy.) Grease the sides of the pan, then press the crumb crust into the bottom of the pan.

Preheat the oven to 350º F. Meanwhile, in a food processor or standing mixer, blend the cream cheese and sugar well, removing all lumps. Add the eggs, one at a time, blending well after each addition. Add the vanilla, salt, and almond extract (or amaretto). Blend well. Add the yogurt. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.

Prepare a water bath by folding a thick, terry cloth towel into the bottom of a roasting pan. Place the cake pan on top of the towel. Pull out the oven shelf you intend to use to bake the cake, and place the roasting pan onto the oven shelf. Carefully fill the roasting pan with nearly boiling water until the water reaches about an inch up the sides of the cake pan. Carefully slide the oven shelf back into place. Close the oven door and do not open it for 45 minutes, despite any temptation to do so. After 45 minutes, shut off the oven heat and allow the cake to sit inside the oven for another hour. The cheesecake batter may look undercooked to you, but trust me, it’s going to be fine! Remove the cake from the oven and place it in the refrigerator overnight.

The next day, you will need to remove the cake from the pan. It will need to be inverted twice, so cover a baking sheet with plastic wrap and set aside. Turn a burner on low and place the cheesecake pan on the burner for a few seconds. This will allow you to remove the cake from the pan easily. Place the plastic-coated baking baking sheet over the cake pan and invert the cake onto the sheet. Peel the parchment paper from the bottom of the cake and then re-invert the cake onto a pedestal cake dish, or cake plate. Refrigerate until you are ready to serve. Believe me, you (and all your guests) will be blown away by this cheesecake. In fact, I think I am going to have another slice from the fridge as soon as I finish writing this post!

Spinach Salad – Nutrition Made Simple

So how does one emerge from the holidays and their aftermath without completely running the nutrition tank on empty? With party after party, it’s certainly easy enough to overdo it on rich foods that are full of sugar, fats, and salt…and within days the effects on our bodies can be felt inside and out. I know that many families, like mine, use the holidays to indulge in some of their less healthy, but favorite family recipes. Well, after a couple days (or weeks) of those rich foods, I found myself going a little crazy on a spinach salad at my sister-in-law’s house the other day instead of filling up on the various tasty, high-fat and carb-heavy offerings available. Now, being pregnant and vegetarian, I am well aware of my daily nutritional needs, and when I go to fill my plate, I’m not happy unless there is a fair amount of green covering it. But this salad was so delicious and so simple that I was thinking about it well into the next day. (Luckily, there were leftovers!)

So here’s the recipe:  baby spinach leaves, chopped roasted red pepper (in olive oil), and some crumbled feta cheese. That’s it! Add a vinaigrette, if you so desire, but, honestly, the oil from the roasted red peppers is more than enough to dress it up, especially if you buy (or make) the kind that is seasoned with a couple garlic cloves.

Granted, I am a huge lover of spinach, and I use it in salads all the time, incorporating all kinds of things, like hard-boiled eggs, onions, tomatoes, berries, sunflower seeds, walnuts, etc. But this one is simple, pretty, and delicious, and it will likely become a new staple on my table.

Tips on fresh spinach:

  1. Unless you can get locally-grown spinach, go for the pre-washed bagged kind. It’s so easy to just pull a handful of it out anytime you want a quick salad.
  2. If you are already a big fan of spinach (like me), don’t bother splurging on the baby variety. The full-grown version is not quite as sweet and tender, but it’s delicious, nutritious, and much more affordable. But if spinach is a new flavor that you are acquiring, or if you are serving it to guests, the baby leaves are probably worth the extra cost.
  3. Baby spinach requires little preparation, but you may want to remove the stems and thick spines from some of the larger leaves of other varieties.
  4. Buy organic, if possible. There’s a lot of surface area on those leaves for pesticides and other chemicals to penetrate.
  5. Never let your spinach go bad. It’s a nutritional powerhouse, and there are so many other uses for fresh spinach that there’s no reason to let it spoil. You can add it to soups, dips, pasta sauces, etc. Just be careful when adding it to something like eggs — a lot of moisture is held in the leaves, which needs to be removed before cooking anything with a delicate moisture balance.
  6. Nutritional information of raw spinach – this food is low in Saturated Fat, and very low in Cholesterol. It is also a good source of Niacin and Zinc, and a very good source of Dietary Fiber, Protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin E (Alpha Tocopherol), Vitamin K, Thiamin, Riboflavin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Potassium, Copper and Manganese.*

Rice, Nut, and Seed Loaf

This is a nice meat-alternative dish that is hearty enough to please even the meat and potatoes crowd.  In fact, my very carnivorous husband sometimes even requests this!  Served like a meatloaf, it does well as the centerpiece of a meal, or as an accompaniment to pasta and veggies.  It also freezes well, uncooked, so if you have a large enough mixing bowl, consider doubling the ingredients for an easy meal another day.

This is also a great recipe for the novice cook – it simply requires a bit of chopping and shredding, and if you have a food processor, those steps are a snap.

We realize that this is not the most visually appetizing dish, but it does taste good!

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups cooked brown rice
  • 1 1/2 – 2 cups shredded cheese (more or less depending on your taste) — cheddar or mozzarella, or a combination of the two
  • 4 lightly beaten eggs
  • 1 medium chopped onion
  • 1 cup shredded carrots
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 cup bread crumbs
  • 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesano Reggiano cheese
  • 1/4 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1/4 cup chopped sunflower kernels
  • 1/8 cup sesame seeds
  • 1/8 cup flax seeds
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon of Italian seasoning, or 1/2 teaspoon of each of the following dried herbs: thyme, oregano, basil, marjoram, parsley

Combine all the ingredients and pack into a greased 9″ loaf pan.  Bake at 350°F for 50-60 minutes or until firm.  Let cool in pan for 10 minutes.  Serve in slices and top with warm marinara sauce.

Mexican flavor variation — instead of Italian seasoning, use chili seasoning (cumin, paprika, chili powder, and oregano) and replace some of the cheese with shredded Pepper Jack or Monterey Jack.  Top with your choice of traditional red tomato salsa or salsa verde.

Cheese Pie with Mint

While I can’t say this dish is necessarily healthy for you, it certainly does taste good. Then again, most things that aren’t good for you tend to be that way, don’t they? Greek pies, or pitas, as they are called in Greek, are made in many different ways: fried, baked, made into snail shapes, figure eights, and even cake-like pieces. The fillings for these divine little pies are even more innumerable. Cheese, spinach, pumpkin, leek, minced meat, and sweet cream are just a few ways these pies are filled. Honestly, the possibilities are limitless, sort of like toppings for a pizza. Whatever your taste buds fancy can be placed inside, or on top, of dough!

I suppose that, not unlike the perfect pizza, the perfect pita requires a bit of practice. The following recipe for dough is rather easy, and is the basic recipe most Greek women use to make homemade phyllo. (For those of you unaware, phyllo dough is the extremely thin pieces of dough used in many Greek pitas and desserts. If you watch a skilled cook roll out phyllo, it looks as easy as a ballet dancer performing a full-length ballet. Both artists have honed their skill to perfection, and to the novice, every move seems to be done with extreme ease. However, this is not the case. Making sheets of homemade phyllo is a bit difficult, so by all means practice your heart away, but don’t be too discouraged. Most grocery stores carry packages of phyllo sheets in the frozen section.)

The original recipe does not call for mint, but I think it adds a wonderful dimension to the cheese filling. Although these pies are definitely best eaten straight from the pan, they do keep well once refrigerated and make a great snack for the beach. This recipe is fun to make with children, and can be an exciting birthday party activity, so get your children involved if they are interested.

Yield: 24 pitas

For the dough:

2 c. flour
1 c. water
1 lg. spoon of red wine vinegar, or lemon juice
¼ c. olive oil
1 sm. spoon of salt

Combine all the ingredients together in a large bowl. The resulting dough should be a bit more sticky than pizza dough. Cover and place in the refrigerator for about one hour.

Cheese Filling:

1 c. grated feta cheese
2 lg. eggs
1 small bunch of fresh mint, finely chopped
(alternatively, you could use 1 Tbl. dried mint)
Freshly grated pepper

Combine all the ingredients together in a large bowl. Set aside.

When the dough is ready, cut off small chunks of the dough. On a floured surface, roll out the small chunks of dough into thin circles, much like little pizzas. You can even perform this task with your hands, stretching the dough into the correct thickness and shape.

Place a small amount of the cheese filling onto one side of the dough, flattening it slightly with a fork. (Be careful not to add too much filling onto the dough, as you will not be able to completely seal the pita’s edges for frying.)

Fold the dough over, making a half moon shape. Pinch the edge of the dough together, forming a “pocket” around the filling. Set aside and repeat with the remaining portions of dough and filling.

Prepare a large sauté pan with about an inch of oil. You can use olive oil, or another seed, or vegetable oil of your choice. When the oil is ready (you can fling a few droplets of water into the oil, and if it hisses and bubbles, the oil is at the correct temperature for frying), gently place about five of the pitas into the pan. Be sure to poke each pita a few times with the tines of a fork to allow the pies to cook through properly.

Once one side is nicely browned, flip over and cook the opposite side. You will know if your dough came out well if the crust of each pie is a bit bubbly. Allow to cool about 10 minutes before eating, however, I usually can’t wait that long and end up burning my tongue a bit. Enjoy!

Have any other ideas for Greek pie fillings? Let us and our other readers know by commenting below, or by sending us an email: twodancingbuckeyes@gmail.com

Cheddar Cheese and Lentil Loaf

This recipe came from my husband’s Aunt Maria.  Every time I make it, I vary the ingredients, depending on what I have and for experimentation, so I encourage you to change things up, if you want.  The original recipe goes as follows:

1/2 lb. cheddar cheese, shredded

2 c. cooked lentils

1/2 small onion

2 t. thyme

1/2 t. salt

1/4 t. freshly ground pepper

1 c. soft bread crumbs, packed

1 egg, slightly beaten

1 T. butter, softened

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Combine the cheese, lentils, and onions, then add the salt, pepper, and thyme.  Next, add the bread crumbs, egg, and butter and mix thoroughly.  Bake in a greased loaf pan for 45 minutes to an hour (when cooking other things at the same time, it will take a bit longer).

A few notes:

This is great served with winter squash and rice.  I also like to serve it with pasta and marinara sauce (in which case I replace most or all of the cheddar with mozzarella).  Speaking of the cheese, you can use less if you’re looking for something lower in fat.  Just add a couple tablespoons of liquid (e.g. vegetable stock or water) to keep it from getting too dry.  Speaking of dry, if you cook your own lentils for this, be sure that they are fully cooked, or the loaf will turn out dry.  I’ve never used canned, but I’m sure they’re fine, just don’t include the canning juices.  When I make this, I usually make a double batch and freeze half of it to pull out on a busy night.  It’s a great substitute for meat as a main dish.  In fact, my carnivorous husband started craving this recently after I’d been out of the house for a couple weeks while our bathroom was getting remodeled.  So I made it the first week I was back home….I hope you love it as much as we do!