lemon cheesecake

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I read somewhere the sanctimonious line that “eating for two while pregnant doesn’t mean eating twice as much, it should mean twice as healthy.” I decided early on that my my regular diet is plenty healthy, so my extra calories could come from string cheese, cereal, and a few more servings of dessert. As a result, I’ve started making the occasional dessert just for me and Dave to have at home, which pretty much never happens otherwise unless it’s our birthdays.

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Of course, more dessert isn’t so bad when you’re growing a new little person, which I am but Dave is not. So sometimes the desserts are just for me. I didn’t exactly hide this one from Dave, but I just sort of never offered him any. I’d only made a mini version, and it was just too good to share. He never showed any interest, which was a relief. I did make a big version first, to share at work, but when I didn’t get my fill from the two slivers I saved for myself, I needed a little one to hoard to myself at home. Hey, I’m growing a tiny person, I deserve my own tiny cheesecake, right?

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Lemon Cheesecake (slightly adapted from Cook’s Illustrated)

I made a few changes to this. First, if you make the lemon sugar in the food processor before the crust mixture, you don’t have to clean the processor bowl between uses; a little lemon in the crust is okay, but trace amounts of cookie crumbs in the cheesecake is not. Second, I accidentally overbaked mine slightly the first time, but I thought it was the perfect texture. The same week, my brother baked it to the temperature recommended in the original recipe and found it underdone for his taste. Therefore, I’ve increased the goal temperature of the cheesecake from 150 degrees to 155 degrees. Third, my brother and I both agreed that we prefer making the curd in a double boiler instead of directly in the saucepan. For both of us, when made in the saucepan as per the original recipe, the curd curdled. The lumps smoothed after straining, but I feel more comfortable using a double boiler and it isn’t more work, so I’ve adapted the recipe for a double boiler.

1¼ cups (8¾ ounces) granulated sugar
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
¼ cup lemon juice
1½ pounds (three 8-ounce packages) cream cheese, room temperature
4 large eggs, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon table salt
½ cup heavy cream

Cookie-Crumb Crust:
5 ounces animal crackers
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
⅛ teaspoon table salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Lemon Curd:
⅓ cup lemon juice
2 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
½ cup (3½ ounces) granulated sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes and chilled
1 tablespoon heavy cream
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
pinch table salt

1. To make lemon sugar: Process ¼ cup (1.75 ounces) of the sugar and the lemon zest in a food processor until the sugar is yellow and the zest is broken down, about 15 seconds, scraping down the bowl if necessary. Transfer the lemon sugar to a small bowl; stir in the remaining 1 cup (7 ounces) sugar. Do not wash the food processor.

2. For the crust: Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 325 degrees. In the food processor, process the cookies to fine, even crumbs, about 30 seconds (you should have about 1 cup). Add the sugar and and salt; pulse 2 or 3 times to incorporate. Add the melted butter in a slow, steady stream while pulsing; pulse until the mixture is evenly moistened and resembles wet sand, about ten 1-second pulses. Transfer the mixture to a 9-inch springform pan; using the bottom of a ramekin or dry measuring cup, press the crumbs firmly and evenly into the pan bottom, keeping the sides of the pan as clean as possible. Bake until fragrant and golden brown, 15 to 18 minutes. Cool on a wire rack to room temperature, about 30 minutes. When cool, wrap the outside of the pan with two 18-inch square pieces of foil; set the springform pan in a larger baking pan.

3. For the filling: In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a large bowl if using a hand mixer), beat the cream cheese on low to break it up and soften it slightly, about 5 seconds. With the machine running, add the lemon sugar in a slow steady stream; increase the speed to medium and continue to beat until the mixture is creamy and smooth, about 3 minutes, scraping down the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. Reduce the speed to medium-low and add the eggs one at a time; beat until incorporated, about 30 seconds, scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl well after each addition. Add the lemon juice, vanilla, and salt and mix until just incorporated, about 5 seconds; add the heavy cream and mix until just incorporated, about 5 seconds longer. Give the batter a final scrape, stir with a rubber spatula, and pour into the prepared springform pan; fill the larger baking pan with enough hot tap water to come halfway up the sides of the springform pan.

4. Bake until the center jiggles slightly, the sides just start to puff, the surface is no longer shiny, and an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center of the cake registers 155 degrees, 60 to 70 minutes. Turn off the oven and prop open the oven door with a potholder or wooden spoon handle; allow the cake to cool in the water bath in the oven for 1 hour. Transfer the springform pan without the foil to a wire rack; run a small paring knife around the inside edge of the pan to loosen the sides of the cake; cool the cake to room temperature, about 1 hour.

5. For the lemon curd: Set a metal or glass bowl on top of a saucepan that contains 1 inch of simmering water (do not allow bottom of the bowl to touch the water). Add the lemon juice to the bowl and heat until the juice is hot but not boiling. Whisk the eggs and yolk in a separate bowl; gradually whisk in the sugar. Whisking constantly, slowly pour the hot lemon juice into the eggs, then return the mixture to the bowl set over the saucepan and cook, stirring with a rubber spatula, often at first and constantly when the mixture begins to thicken, until the mixture registers 170 degrees on an instant-read thermometer and is thick enough to cling to a spoon, about 5 minutes. Immediately remove the bowl from the saucepan and stir in the cold butter until it’s incorporated; stir in the cream, vanilla, and salt, then pour the curd through a fine-mesh strainer into a small nonreactive bowl. Cover the surface of the curd directly with plastic wrap; refrigerate until needed.

6. To finish: When the cheesecake is cool, scrape the lemon curd onto the cheesecake while it’s still in the springform pan; using an offset icing spatula, spread the curd evenly over the top of the cheesecake. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 3 hours or up to 24 hours. To serve, remove the sides of the springform pan and cut the cake into wedges.

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cinnamon zucchini cake with cream cheese frosting

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How do we justify putting zucchini in desserts? Carrot cake, for example, while it isn’t my favorite dessert, makes sense to me – carrots are sweet, cake is sweet. I don’t like beets, but I can see why they’re used in cakes, because they’re also sweet (and colorful). Zucchini, though, really isn’t that sweet.

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In fact, it really isn’t that anything – it’s fairly bland, as vegetables go. You could say it adds moisture, but there are plenty of more flavorful liquids to add to desserts than zucchini juice. So are we just trying to make cakes healthier by adding a bland, easily-disguised vegetable? Because trust me, this cake isn’t healthy, and adding a pittance of shredded zucchini to each serving isn’t going to change that.

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It certainly doesn’t taste healthy; it tastes like a delicious lightly spiced cake. Maybe the zucchini isn’t adding anything other than pretty flecks of green and a trick to use up the summer garden excess. I suppose I don’t care, because I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve baked with zucchini and have no plans to stop.

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Printer Friendly Recipe
Cinnamon Zucchini Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting (cobbled together from a bunch of recipes)

Makes 24 2-inch squares

I used one large homegrown zucchini that weighed about 12 ounces. The zucchini at my store are much smaller, so two or even three might be necessary, but they should still weigh a total of 12 ounces.

2 cups shredded zucchini
1 teaspoon table salt
2½ cups (12 ounces) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon baking powder
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
½ cup oil
1½ cups (10½ ounces) granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup buttermilk

8 ounces (1 package) cream cheese, softened
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups (12 ounces) powdered sugar

1. For the cake: Combine the zucchini and salt in a strainer set over a larger bowl; set aside for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, use a rubber spatula to press on the zucchini in the strainer to release liquid. Discard the liquid.

2. Adjust a rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with nonstick spray. In a medium bowl, mix the flour, cinnamon, baking soda, and baking powder.

3. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a large bowl if using a hand-held mixer), beat the butter, oil, and sugar, on medium speed until evenly combined, about 2 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition, then mix in the vanilla. Reduce the mixer speed to low; add half of the dry ingredients, then all of the buttermilk, and then the remaining dry ingredients, beating just until evenly combined. Stir in the drained zucchini.

4. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan, spreading it evenly to the corners. Bake until the cake is golden on top and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with no crumbs attached, 30-35 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack; cool completely before frosting.

5. For the frosting: In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a large bowl if using a hand-held mixer), beat the cream cheese, butter, and vanilla on medium speed until smooth. Stop the mixer, add the powdered sugar, and beat on the lowest speed until the sugar is incorporated, then increase the mixer speed to medium and beat until smooth and creamy, 2-3 minutes. Spread the frosting evenly over the cooled cake.

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spiced layer cake

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Oh, I just do these cakes like they’re no big deal now. Getting back from Iceland Sunday night and having a three-tier fondant-decorated cake ready to deliver by Saturday afternoon after working a 44-hour week? No problem.

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To be honest, it really was manageable. I baked, tightly wrapped, and froze the cake layers before vacation, as well as mixed and colored the fondant. Friday night I made a big batch of cream cheese frosting, layered and crumb coated the cakes, then tediously made way too many pink and purple flowers. That just left about seven hours of cake decorating on Saturday, plus a couple hours at the shower and a couple hours cleaning the kitchen afterward. And then a couple hours napping on Sunday.

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The bottom two tiers were the same as in the last cake I made, vanilla bean and red velvet. The top tier this time was spice cake. It was my first time making spice cake, but I always assumed I’d like it. It would be like apple or carrot cake, but without the fruits and vegetables.

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That describes it pretty well, and I did like it, light with a balanced level of spices. To be honest, I liked baking and decorating the cake too, even in the midst of a busy schedule. These cakes really do get easier every time, although somehow I doubt they’ll ever be no big deal.

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Spiced Layer Cake (slightly adapted from Bon Appetit via epicurious)

I frosted the cake with cream cheese frosting.

2 cups (9.6 ounces) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup sour cream, preferably room temperature
½ cup whole milk, preferably room temperature
2 cups (14 ounces) granulated sugar
1½ teaspoons grated orange zest
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
½ teaspoon salt
4 large eggs, preferably room temperature

1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray three 9-inch round pans with baking spray and line with parchment paper. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and spices. In a small bowl or measuring cup, use a fork to combine the milk and sour cream.

2. With a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large bowl if using a hand mixer), beat the sugar and orange zest until fragrant. Add the butter and salt, and beat on medium speed until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating until each is incorporated before adding another. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add one-third of the flour mixture, immediately followed by half of the sour cream mixture. Repeat with another one-third of the flour mixture and the remaining sour cream mixture, then the remaining flour mixture. Beat on low speed for 30 seconds, until evenly combined.

3. Evenly divide the batter between the prepared pans. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of a cake comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Transfer the pan to a cooling rack for 10 minutes, then invert the pans to remove the cakes. Peel off the parchment paper. Let cool completely before frosting.

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cheesecake squares with sour cream topping

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I tend to think of this as my dad’s cheesecake, even though it’s really my grandmother’s cheesecake, based on the handwritten recipes that she gave to each of her granddaughters, wildly inaccurate baking time included. I think we each discovered the error the hard way before talking to each other (and my mom) and figuring out that we needed to almost double my grandmother’s recommended baking time.

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I also think of it as “the flat cheesecake.” Most cheesecakes are tall, round, and impressive. This one is flat and, served straight from the 9-by-13-inch pan it’s baked in, maybe not particularly impressive, no matter how hard I try to add pretty swirls in the topping.

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But I love it anyway. It’s simple – no goat cheese, no amaretto, no pumpkin. There’s nothing to distract from sugary cream cheese, which is one of my favorite flavors. The sour cream topping, which might sound weird, is the perfect sweet and tangy complement to the cake underneath. It’s no wonder that my grandmother and my dad and I all love this recipe so much.

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Cheesecake Squares with Sour Cream Topping

12 servings

Once the topping is added, it’s best to serve the cheesecake within about a day, because the topping dries out. However, both the cheesecake and the topping can be made several days in advance if kept separate until shortly before serving.

18 full sheets (10 ounces) graham crackers
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
pinch salt
5 tablespoons butter, melted

3 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup (7 ounces) granulated sugar
4 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons granulated sugar

1. Adjust a rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9-by-13-inch pan with cooking spray.

2. In a food processor, process the graham crackers until finely ground. (Alternatively, put the crackers in a ziploc bag and use a rolling pin to crush them. Transfer the crumbs to a bowl and stir in the remaining ingredients.) Add the sugar and salt and process until mixed. Add the butter and process until evenly incorporated, stopping to scrape the sides as necessary.

3. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large bowl if using a hand mixer), beat the cream cheese on medium-low speed until smooth. Add the salt and sugar, and continue beating until blended, about 2 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating until blended. Beat in the vanilla extract.

4. Pour the filling mixture over the crust, spreading it evenly. Transfer to the oven and bake until the cake is just slightly jiggly, 45-55 minutes. Transfer to a cooling rack to cool completely before topping.

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confetti cookies

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I had this great idea at the beginning of the year to send my eight nephews and one niece cookies for each of their birthdays. That’s less than one package per month, how hard could it be?

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Of course, that’s assuming that their birthdays are evenly dispersed, which they definitely are not. There were three the first week of February, which I scrambled to keep on top of, and then there are three the first week of April. At least I get two-thirds of them out of the way within a few months, I suppose.

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I haven’t been able to find the perfect cookie for each kid, but for my girlie-girl niece, it was an easy choice. Sprinkles! Pink! Crumbles of cake within the cookies that have more pink sprinkles! These really do scream “Happy Birthday!”, which makes them the perfect package for the birthday girl halfway across the country. And the Facebook picture of the cookies being enjoyed makes it all worth it. Only three more birthdays to go this year!

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Printer Friendly Recipe
Confetti Cookies (from Christine Tosi’s Momofuko Milk Bar via Eva Bakes)

I doubled the sprinkles in the cookie dough. The cookies needed more color, I decided.

Birthday Cake Crumbs:
50 grams (¼ cup) granulated sugar
13 grams (1 tablespoons) light brown sugar, lightly packed
45 grams (6 tablespoons) cake flour
¼ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon rainbow sprinkles
2 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract

400 grams (3 cups) all-purpose flour
50 grams (⅔ cup) instant dry milk powder
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 teaspoon baking soda
80 grams (½ cup) rainbow sprinkles
16 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
1¼ teaspoons salt
1½ cups (300 grams) granulated sugar
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Birthday Cake Crumbs

1. For the Birthday Cake Crumbs: Heat the oven to 300 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone mat.

2. In a medium bowl, combine the sugars, flour, baking powder, salt, and sprinkles. Add the oil and vanilla and stir until the mixture forms small clusters. Spread the clusters on the prepared pan. Bake for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. The crumbs should still be slightly moist to the touch; they will dry and harden as they cool. Let the crumbs cool completely before using. (Stored in an airtight container, the crumbs will keep fresh for 1 week at room temperature or 1 month in the freezer.)

3. For the cookies: Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone mats. In a medium bowl, mix the flour, dry milk powder, cream of tartar, and baking soda.

4. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a large bowl if using a hand mixer), beat the butter, salt, sugar, and corn syrup on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating until incorporated, then mix in the vanilla; continue to beat on medium-high speed for 6 to 7 minutes. Reduce the mixer speed to low and gradually add the flour mixture, mixing just until incorporated. Stir in the Birthday Cake Crumbs.

5. Using an ice cream scoop, scoop the dough 4 inches apart onto the prepared baking sheets. Transfer the pans to the refrigerator and chill for at least one hour. (The prepared and portioned dough can be chilled for up to 1 week; if storing for longer than an hour, wrap the pans tightly in plastic wrap. If you’re storing for a while, you can save space by arranging the dough portions closer together on one baking sheet, then dividing them onto separate pans right before baking.)

6. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake the cookies until very lightly browned around the edges, about 18 minutes.

7. Cool the cookies completely on the pans before transferring to a plate or to an airtight container for storage. The cookies can be stored for up to five days.
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coconut cake

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I’ve been plastering pictures of this cake on all of my social media outlets, and I’m starting to feel like quite the attention whore, but I’m just so dang proud of it. The decorations are cute; the buttercream is smooth; the tiers are centered. The railroad tracks have wood grain! And then, someone at the shower told me it was the best cake she’d ever eaten.

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Not only that, but there were no tears in the making of this cake. There was certainly struggle, and there wasn’t as much sleep as I would have liked, and I was sore the next day from all the fondant-kneading, but it was overall a much smoother process than the last fancy cake I made.

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The recipes were all familiar to me, so that helped. I keep meaning to do a comparison of vanilla cakes, but in the meantime, this one has always served me well, so I made that for the bottom layer. The middle was my favorite red velvet cake, and the top was a coconut cake I made years ago. People raved about the coconut cake more than either of the others, which was a surprise to me. The host and I had chose it for the smallest tier because coconut can be polarizing; either you love it or you hate it.

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The cake gets a lot of its flavor from cream of coconut, which seems to me to be the coconut equivalent of sweetened condensed milk. It’s very rich, and very sweet. You can use it to make a calorie-buster of a piña colada, which is maybe why it’s usually sold in the drink section. It also makes great cake – the best cake some people have ever eaten, and the best cake I’ve ever decorated.

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Coconut Cake (from Cook’s Illustrated)

1 large egg plus 5 large egg whites
¾ cup cream of coconut
¼ cup water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon coconut extract
2¼ cups cake flour (9 ounces), sifted
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
¾ teaspoon table salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter (1½ sticks), cut into 12 pieces, softened, but still cool

1. Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 325 degrees. Grease two 9-inch round cake pans with shortening and dust with flour.

2. Beat egg whites and whole egg in large measuring cup with fork to combine. Add cream of coconut, water, vanilla, and coconut extract and beat with fork until thoroughly combined.

3. Combine flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in bowl of standing mixer fitted with paddle attachment. Mix on lowest speed to combine, about 30 seconds. With mixer still running on lowest speed, add butter 1 piece at a time, then beat until mixture resembles coarse meal, with butter bits no larger than small peas, 2 to 2½ minutes.

4. With mixer still running, add 1 cup liquid. Increase speed to medium-high and beat until light and fluffy, about 45 seconds. With mixer still running, add remaining 1 cup liquid in steady stream (this should take about 15 seconds). Stop mixer and scrape down bowl with rubber spatula, then beat at medium-high speed to combine, about 15 seconds. (Batter will be thick.)

5. Divide batter between cake pans and level with offset or rubber spatula. Bake until deep golden brown, cakes pull away from sides of pans, and toothpick inserted into center of cakes comes out clean, about 30 minutes (rotate cakes after about 20 minutes). Do not turn off oven.

6. Cool in pans on wire racks about 10 minutes, then loosen cakes from sides of pans with paring knife, invert cakes onto racks and then re-invert; cool to room temperature.

7. While cakes are cooling, spread shredded coconut on rimmed baking sheet; toast in oven until shreds are a mix of golden brown and white, about 15 to 20 minutes, stirring 2 or 3 times. Cool to room temperature.

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lemon cake with lemon curd filling and cream cheese frosting

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Two years ago, I made this cake for a Tiffany-themed baby shower (and I’m just now telling you about it), and it became infamous for the cake that made me cry. I wouldn’t have told anyone that myself, but Dave blurted it out when we delivered the cake. “Never again!”, he told our friends.

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I’m actually proud of the cake, but it’s true that it wasn’t a smooth process. When my friend showed me a picture of the cake and asked me to reproduce it for the baby shower she was hosting for her daughter, I ambitiously agreed. I had never worked with fondant before, but how hard could it be?

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Well, pretty hard, actually, at least when you’re both inexperienced and a perfectionist. I found a few opportunities to practice before the shower and learned some valuable lessons, but on the morning of the shower, the ruffles and lace were still uncharted territory. Looking back, I can’t remember what caused the tears, but it could have been any number of things – the lace sticking to the mold, running out of fondant, running behind schedule.

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Fortunately, whether the lace had obvious seams or the fondant cracked at the corners, I knew the cake itself would taste good. I’m much more confident in my baking skills than my decorating skills. I took one of my favorite white cakes and added lemon zest, so that, at least, was one part of this project that wasn’t complicated.

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Despite my struggles, I think the cake turned out great, and the host seemed pleased. It tasted at least as good as it looked. Still, it was two years before anyone asked me to make a tiered cake with fondant for them again. That is what I’ll be doing this weekend. Any bets on how many times I cry this time?

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Printer Friendly Recipe
Lemon Cake with Lemon Curd Filling and Cream Cheese Frosting
(adapted from Cook’s Illustrated’s Classic White Cake)

Makes a double-layer 8-inch or 9-inch cake

1 cup whole milk, at room temperature
6 large egg whites (¾ cup), at room temperature
2 teaspoons almond extract
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
zest of 1 small lemon
1¾ cups granulated sugar (12¼ ounces)
2¼ cups cake flour (9 ounces)
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon table salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter (1½ sticks), softened but still cool

1. Adjust an oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 8- or 9-inch-wide by 2-inch-high round cake pans and line with parchment paper. In a 4-cup liquid measure or medium bowl, whisk together milk, egg whites, and vanilla.

2. In bowl of standing mixer fitted with paddle attachment, mix the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt at low speed. With the mixer running at low speed, add the butter one piece at a time; continue beating until the mixture resembles moist crumbs with no visible butter chunks. Add all but ½ cup milk mixture to crumbs and beat at medium speed until mixture is pale and fluffy, about 1½ minutes. With mixer running at low speed, add remaining ½ cup milk mixture; increase speed to medium and beat 30 seconds more. Stop mixer and scrape sides of bowl. Return mixer to medium speed and beat 20 seconds longer. Divide batter evenly between cake pans; using rubber spatula, spread batter to pan walls and smooth tops.

3. Bake until toothpick inserted in center of cakes comes out clean, about 20 minutes for 6-inch pans, 22 minutes for 8-inch pans, and 26 minutes for 10-inch pans. Loosen cakes from the sides of the pans with a small knife, cool in pan 10 minutes, then invert onto greased wire racks; peel off parchment. Invert the cakes again; cool completely on rack, about 1½ hours.

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Lemon Curd Filling (from Cook’s Illustrated)

⅓ cup lemon juice, from 2 lemons
2 large eggs
1 egg yolk
½ cup sugar (3½ ounces)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes and chilled
1 tablespoon heavy cream
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
pinch table salt

1. Heat lemon juice in small nonreactive saucepan over medium heat until hot but not boiling. Whisk eggs and yolk in medium nonreactive bowl; gradually whisk in sugar. Whisking constantly, slowly pour hot lemon juice into eggs, then return mixture to saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with wooden spoon, until mixture registers 170 degrees on instant-read thermometer and is thick enough to cling to spoon, about 3 minutes.

2. Immediately remove pan from heat and stir in cold butter until incorporated; stir in cream, vanilla, and salt, then pour curd through fine-mesh strainer into small nonreactive bowl. Cover surface of curd directly with plastic wrap; refrigerate until needed.

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Cream Cheese Frosting (adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

Makes 6 cups

You can use 12 ounces powdered sugar instead of 16 if you’re going to make pretty swirls with the icing instead of decorating. It’ll taste less sweet and more cream cheesy.

8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter room temperature
4 cups (16 ounces) powdered sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Place cream cheese and butter in a medium bowl. With a handheld electric mixer, beat until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add sugar and vanilla. Beat on low speed to combine.

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cappuccino fudge cheesecake

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Cheesecake, the more I think about it, is an almost perfect choice for bringing to dinner parties. It’s universally loved. It’s rarely complicated to make. It can be made several days in advance (or farther in advance and frozen). It transports well. The only tiny potential issue is that a full slice of cheesecake after a big meal can be tough to tackle.

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I get together with a group of friends every month; usually it’s some version of a potluck – perhaps the host will provide salad greens and dressings while everyone else contributes toppings (and wine). Or perhaps the host will provide corn tortillas and barbacoa and everyone else contributes toppings and sides. Last month, the host provided crostini, zuppa toscana, and salad. I was thrilled she didn’t have a dessert planned, providing me with an opening. Cappuccino fudge cheesecake seemed to fit the theme.

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Still, I was worried that 2 pounds of cream cheese, 1¼ pounds of chocolate, 1½ cups of heavy cream, and 1½ cups of sour cream would be overkill after bread and soup and lasagna, so I pared down the recipe to something more reasonable. Considering how much my friends raved, I’m not sure I needed to make a smaller version. Yes, there were leftovers, but there was no shortage of people to take them home. I might start bringing cheesecake to all the parties; I can’t imagine anyone will complain.

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Printer Friendly Recipe
Cappuccino Fudge Cheesecake (adapted from Bon Appetit via epicurious)

16 servings

5 ounces chocolate cookies
1 tablespoon sugar
5 tablespoons butter, melted

1 cup heavy cream
12 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
3 tablespoons Kahlúa or other coffee-flavored liqueur

3 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, room temperature
1 cup (7 ounces) sugar
1½ tablespoons all-purpose flour
1½ tablespoons dark rum
1½ tablespoons instant espresso powder
1½ tablespoons ground whole espresso coffee beans (medium-coarse grind)
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1½ teaspoons light molasses
3 large eggs

1 cup sour cream
¼ cup (1.75 ounces) sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
chocolate-covered espresso beans

1. For the crust: Spray the bottom of a springform pan with nonstick spray. Either grind the cookies with a food processor or place them in a ziptop bag and crush with a rolling pin. Add the sugar and butter to the crumbs and stir until evenly mixed. Press the crumbs into an even layer covering the bottom of the prepared pan and up the sides an inch or so. Put the pan in the freezer for 30 minutes.

2. Bring the heavy cream to a simmer in a small saucepan; pour over the chocolate and stir in the kahlua. Gently whisk until the chocolate is melted and the ganache is smooth. Pour 1½ cups of the ganache over the bottom of the crust. Freeze until the ganache layer is firm, about 30 minutes. Reserve the remaining ganache; cover and let stand at room temperature to use later for decorations.

3. For the filling: Position a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 350°F. Beat the cream cheese on low speed until smooth; add the sugar and beat until blended. Mix in the flour. Combine the rum, espresso powder, ground coffee, vanilla, and molasses in a small bowl until the instant coffee dissolves; beat into the cream cheese mixture. Beat in eggs one at a time, occasionally scraping down the sides of the bowl.

4. Pour the filling over the cold ganache in the crust. Place the cheesecake on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake until the top is brown, puffed and cracked at the edges, the center two inches moves only slightly when pan is gently shaken, and the cheesecake reads 150 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, about 1 hour 5 minutes. Transfer the cheesecake to a rack. Cool 15 minutes while preparing the topping (the top of the cheesecake will fall slightly). Maintain the oven temperature.

5. For the topping: Whisk the sour cream, sugar, and vanilla in a medium bowl to blend. Spread the topping over the hot cheesecake, spreading to cover the cheesecake filling completely. Bake until the topping is set, about 10 minutes. Transfer the cheesecake to a rack. Refrigerate the hot cheesecake on a rack until cool, about 3 hours.

6. Run a small sharp knife between the crust and pan sides to loosen the cake; release the pan sides. Transfer the cheesecake to a platter. Spoon the reserved ganache into a pastry bag fitted with small star tip. Pipe lines one inch apart atop the cheesecake. Repeat in the opposite direction, making a lattice. Pipe ganache around the top edge of the cake. Garnish with chocolate-covered espresso beans, if desired. Chill until the lattice is firm, at least 6 hours. (Cheesecake can be made 4 days ahead. Wrap loosely in foil, forming a dome over the lattice; keep chilled.)

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buche de noel

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I was tense for the entire 2½ hours I spent making this cake. I’d signed up to bring it to the office holiday party potluck, and I wasn’t sure which title was more commonly known, yule log or buche de noel, so I wrote down both. This was a mistake; several hours later, Big Boss came barreling down the hall blustering about using fancy French words and/or bringing a piece of wood to the party.

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He was mollified when I told him it was a cake. “Chocolate”, he asked? “Um, yes, chocolate”, even though I hadn’t really planned on chocolate.

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So I felt like the stakes were high. And considering that I hadn’t made a rolled cake in seven years, the risk was high as well. This is why I spent all afternoon nervous, waiting to make a mistake that would result in a cake disaster.

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There were no cake disasters. It wasn’t a perfectly smooth process – the grocery store ran out of mascarpone, the cake cracked when I rolled it, my baking pan is too small so the spiral was loose, the ganache didn’t set up, the cake cracked again when I tried to move it, and the last minute sugared rosemary and cranberries I made for decorations weren’t dry so the sugar dissolved instead of sparkled – but there was nothing that a little ganache couldn’t cover up. Once the ganache was frantically put in the freezer so it would set, that is.

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Substituting cream cheese for mascarpone worked in my favor in the end, because when Big Boss asked me what the filling was made of, I told him cream cheese and didn’t mention the mascarpone. I’ve learned my lesson about fancy European words. Fortunately, the cream cheese/mascarpone filling really was delicious, just like the chocolate cake, and the ganache. Even the mushrooms were all gone by the time we left the party. It was an unqualified success; still, next year I’m bringing all-American cheesecake.

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Printer Friendly Recipe
Bittersweet Chocolate Yule Log (slightly adapted from Cook’s Illustrated)

Serves 8 to 10

The ganache didn’t firm up for me in an hour at room temperature, so I put it in the refrigerator for a 10 minutes or so before icing the cake.

I was afraid to move the cake after it was formed and frosted, so I put it together directly on the serving plate. I slipped thin strips of wax paper under the edges of the cake to catch extra ganache, then discarded the strips before serving.

My grocery store ran out of mascarpone, so I used half mascarpone and half cream cheese in the filling, which worked very well.

The original recipe calls for an espresso-flavored filling instead of vanilla, but I didn’t think espresso would be as popular with the crowd I served this to. If you’d rather have the espresso, replace the vanilla flavorings in the mascarpone cream with 2 teaspoons espresso powder.

Dark Chocolate Ganache:
¾ cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 ounces semisweet chocolate (high-quality), chopped
1 tablespoon Cognac or brandy

Vanilla Bean-Mascarpone Cream:
½ cup heavy cream
seeds from 1 vanilla bean
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar (1½ ounces)
16 ounces mascarpone cheese (about 2 cups)

¼ cup unbleached all-purpose flour (about 1¼ ounces), plus more for dusting baking sheet
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate or semisweet chocolate, chopped fine
2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into two pieces
2 tablespoons cold water
¼ cup cocoa (¾ ounce), Dutch-processed, sifted, plus more for unmolding and garnish
⅛ teaspoon table salt
6 large eggs, separated, room temperature
⅓ cup granulated sugar (2⅓ ounces)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
⅛ teaspoon cream of tartar

1. For the Dark Chocolate Ganache: Bring the cream and butter to a simmer in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Place the chocolate in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. With the machine running, gradually add the hot cream and brandy through the feed tube and process until smooth and thickened, about 3 minutes. Transfer the ganache to a medium bowl and let stand at room temperature 1 hour, until spreadable (ganache should have consistency of soft icing).

2. For the Vanilla Bean-Mascarpone Cream: Bring the cream to a simmer in a small saucepan over high heat. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla seeds, extract, and confectioners’ sugar; cool slightly. With a rubber spatula, beat the mascarpone in a medium bowl until softened. Gently whisk in the cooled cream mixture until combined. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to use.

3. For the Roulade: Adjust an oven rack to the upper-middle position and heat the oven to 400 degrees. Spray an 18 by 12-inch rimmed baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray, cover the pan bottom with parchment paper, and spray the parchment with nonstick cooking spray; dust baking sheet with flour, tapping out excess.

4. Bring 2 inches of water to a simmer in a small saucepan over medium heat. Combine the chocolate, butter, and water in a small heatproof bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Set the bowl over the saucepan, reduce the heat to medium-low, and heat until the butter is almost completely melted and the chocolate pieces are glossy, have lost definition, and are fully melted around edges, about 15 minutes. (Do not stir or let water in saucepan come to boil.) Remove the bowl from heat, unwrap, and stir until smooth and glossy. While the chocolate is melting, sift the cocoa, flour, and salt together into a small bowl and set aside.

5. In the bowl of a standing mixer, beat the egg yolks at medium-high speed until just combined, about 15 seconds. With the mixer running, add half of the sugar. Continue to beat, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary until the yolks are pale yellow and the mixture falls in a thick ribbon when the beaters are lifted, about 8 minutes. Add the vanilla and beat to combine, scraping down the bowl once, about 30 seconds. Turn the mixture into a medium bowl; wash the mixer bowl and beaters and dry with a kitchen towel. (If you have 2 mixer bowls, leave the yolk mixture in the mixer bowl; wash and dry the beaters and use second bowl in step 6.)

6. In a clean bowl with clean beaters, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar at medium speed until foamy, about 30 seconds. With the mixer running, add about 1 teaspoon of the remaining sugar; continue beating until soft peaks form, about 40 seconds. Gradually add the remaining sugar and beat until the egg whites are glossy and supple and hold stiff peaks when the whisk is lifted, about 1 minute longer. Do not overbeat (if the whites look dry and granular, they are overbeaten). While the whites are beating, stir the chocolate mixture into the yolks. With a rubber spatula, stir a quarter of the whites into the chocolate mixture to lighten it. Fold in the remaining whites until almost no streaks remain. Sprinkle the dry ingredients over the egg and chocolate mixture and fold in quickly but gently.

7. Pour the batter into the prepared pan; using an offset icing spatula and working quickly, smooth the surface and spread the batter into the pan corners. Bake until the center of the cake springs back when touched with a finger, 8 to 10 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through the baking time. Cool the cake in the pan on a wire rack for 5 minutes.

8. While the cake is cooling, lay a clean kitchen towel over a work surface and sift 1 tablespoon cocoa over the towel; with your hands, rub the cocoa into the towel. Run a paring knife around the perimeter of the baking sheet to loosen the cake. Invert the cake onto the towel and peel off the parchment.

9. For the finished cake: Starting at a long side, roll the cake and towel together into a jelly roll shape. Cool for 15 minutes, then unroll the cake and towel. Using an offset spatula, immediately spread the mascarpone cream filling evenly over the surface of the cake, almost to the edges. Reroll the cake gently but snugly around the filling. Set a large sheet of parchment paper on an overturned rimmed baking sheet and set the cake seam-side down on top. Trim both ends of the cake on a diagonal. Reserve ¼ cup of ganache for attaching meringue mushrooms. Spread the remaining ganache over the roulade with a small icing spatula. Use a fork to make wood-grain striations on the surface of the ganache before it has set. Refrigerate the cake, uncovered, on a baking sheet to slightly set the icing, about 20 minutes.

10. When ready to serve, carefully slide two wide metal spatulas under the cake and transfer the cake to a serving platter. Arrange the meringue mushrooms around the cake, attaching them with dabs of reserved ganache. Sift a light dusting of cocoa over the mushrooms. Sift the yule log with confectioners’ sugar. Serve within 2 hours.

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Meringue Mushrooms (from Cook’s Illustrated)

Makes about 30

I didn’t need 30 mushrooms, so I cut the recipe in half, using a hand mixer and a small mixing bowl. Although maybe 30 mushrooms wouldn’t have been so bad, considering how smooth and airy and delicious these were.

CI note: If the caps and stems become soggy during storage, crisp them in a 200-degree oven for 30 minutes before assembling the mushrooms.

¼ cup water
½ cup (3.5 ounces) granulated sugar
2 large egg whites, room temperature
Pinch table salt
⅛ teaspoon cream of tartar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Adjust oven racks to the middle and lowest positions and heat the oven to 200 degrees. Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. Combine the water and sugar in heavy saucepan. Cover and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Boil, swirling the pan once or twice, until the sugar has dissolved, 1 to 2 minutes. If necessary, wipe down any sugar crystals on the side of the pan with a damp pastry brush. Cook, uncovered, until the temperature registers 238 degrees on a candy thermometer, about 10 minutes.

3. While the sugar is cooking, place the egg white in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whisk. Beat at medium-low speed until frothy, about 1 minute. Add the salt and cream of tartar and beat, gradually increasing speed to high, until the whites hold soft peaks, about 1 minute.

4. With the mixer at medium speed, slowly pour the hot syrup into the egg whites, avoiding the whisk. Increase the speed to medium-high and continue to beat until the meringue cooks to room temperature and becomes very thick and shiny, 5 to 10 minutes. Using a rubber spatula, fold in the vanilla.

5. Fit a pastry bag with a ¼-inch pastry tip and fill with the meringue. Pipe about 30 caps and an equal number of stems onto the prepared pans.

6. Bake the meringues for 2 hours, then turn off the oven, leaving the meringues in the oven until very dry and crisp, about 30 minutes longer. Cool the mushroom caps and stems on the baking sheets. (Caps and stems may be stored in an airtight container for up to 1 week.) To assemble the mushrooms, use ganache to glue the caps and stems together.

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chocolate port wine cake

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I try not to be a hoarder. If I splurge on something, the last thing I want is for it to go to waste. That’s what almost happened with this bottle of port. We bought it last fall on a trip to Texas’s hill country, known for its wines. I have a friend who loves port, so we brought it over a few weeks later when we were invited to their house for dinner. And then, since port has a long shelf life, even after it’s opened, we put it back in the pantry.

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And that’s where it stayed, for a year. I think the problem is that I always think of port as pairing nicely with desserts, particularly chocolate, but Dave and I rarely eat dessert at home. I couldn’t bear to pour it down the drain, so instead, I put it in cake.

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Considering how good this cake was, the port can’t be said to have gone to waste. The port wasn’t an obvious flavor in the cake, but it must have contributed something to how rich and soft this cake was. Still, next time I buy an expensive bottle of wine, I’ll drink it with cake and save the cheap stuff for putting in the cake.

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Printer Friendly Recipe
Port Wine Chocolate Cake (rewritten but barely adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

8-12 servings

1 cup + 1 tablespoon (5.1 ounces) all-purpose flour
½ cup (1.5 ounces) Dutch cocoa powder
½ teaspoon baking powder
⅛ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
¾ cup (5.25 ounces) firmly packed dark brown sugar
¼ cup (1.75 ounces) granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon table salt
1 large egg + 1 large egg yolk, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¾ cup port wine (tawny or ruby)

½ cup mascarpone cheese
½ cup chilled heavy or whipping cream
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract

1. For the cake: Adjust a rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 325 degrees. Line the bottom of a 9-inch round cake pan with parchment paper; butter and flour the bottoms and sides of the lined pan, or spray with baking spray. In a small bowl, combine the flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, and cinnamon.

2. In the bowl of electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the butter, sugars, and salt; beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, 3-4 minutes. Add the egg yolk, beat until fully incorporated, then add the whole egg. Add the vanilla. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add one-third of the dry ingredients, followed by half the wine, another one-third of the dry ingredients, the remaining wine, and the remaining dry ingredients.

3. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan, smoothing the top. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Let the cake cool in the pan for about 10 minutes, then turn it out onto a wire rack. Cool completely before topping, at least 1 hour. (The cake can be baked, cooled, tightly wrapped, and stored for at least one day before serving.)

4. For the topping: In the bowl of electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the mascarpone, cream, sugar, and vanilla together until soft peaks form. Spread the topping over the cooled cake.

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