Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Neopolitan Cheesecake (Daring Bakers' Challenge, April '09)

Dispensing with the obligatory: The April 2009 challenge is hosted by Jenny from Jenny Bakes. She has chosen Abbey's Infamous Cheesecake as the challenge.

This month's Daring Baker's challenge was cheesecake, and I know I say this about every challenge, but this one really excited me. I have made cheesecake countless times, but most of the time I stick with the tried-and-true basic cheesecake with a graham cracker crust (or occasionally a bittersweet chocolate cheesecake). Yummy to be sure, but I have been wanting to branch out for a while now. My mind was a-whirl of possibilities that I had spied over the years: pumpkin cheesecake, caramel turtle cheesecake, cookies-and-cream cheesecake, the possibilities are endless! I can truly say the most difficult part of this challenge was limiting myself to just one cheesecake. And that took a lot of deciding, because I wanted something rich and yet light, appropriate for spring.

And I found my inspiration in a Starbucks, of all places, where my fiance and I went to grab some coffee one afternoon. He happily ordered a slice of neopolitan cheesecake (of which I took a bite), and as I enjoyed the yummy mingling of chocolate, strawberry and vanilla, I thought to myself: this is the one. Rich, yet with enough lightness from the strawberry and vanilla layers to make it appropriate for warmer weather, I decided this would be the cake.

And now for a brief historical interlude: Neopolitan as we now know it, the mixing of strawberry, chocolate, and vanilla ice cream, is descended from spumoni, a traditionally cherry, chocolate and pistachio ice cream block originating in Naples. In the mid-19th century, this tri-flavored ice cream spead across Europe and came to North America, where it was christened "Neopolitan" by the Italian immigrants who brought their considerable ice cream making skills to this country, as a reflection of their origins. Strawberry, chocolate and vanilla became the flavors of Neopolitan ice cream in the U.S. since these were the most popular flavors at the time.

Once I had decided on the delectable combination of chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry, I had to make a very important decision: should the chocolate layer be chocolate cheesecake, or made out of something else? I made a command decision: brownie bottom! This way, I would only have to fool with splitting the cheesecake batter 2 ways, plus, hey, brownies!


  • Springform pan (I used 9")

For Brownie base:

  • 8'' X 8" brownie mix (I chose one without chips, but I think I will add chips next time
  • Ingredients to make brownie mix according to box (some combination of eggs, oil and water)

For cheesecake:

  • 3 cream cheeses, softened
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 C sugar
  • 8 oz sour cream
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 vanilla bean (vanilla layer)
  • 1/2 C mashed strawberries, drained (strawberry layer)
  • 2 tbls flour (strawberry layer)

1. Butter or spray springform pan. Preheat oven to 350 F. Prepare brownie mix according to package.

2. Bake 30-35 minutes (adjust for your size springform) until brownies are set and done. They need to be cooked through.

3. Let brownies cool ~ 20 minutes. While they are cooling, prepare cheesecake: mix in 1 egg and 1 package of cream cheese at a time, beating until just combined. Beat in sugar, vanilla, sour cream until just combined, do not over-mix.

4. Split the batter in half. To one half, add the scrapings from half a vanilla bean and mix until combined.

5. To the other half of the batter, add the strawberries and flour, and mix until combined.

6. Gently pour the vanilla layer over the brownie layer, and the strawberry layer over the vanilla layer. Bake at 350 F for about 50-55 minutes, until set but center still jiggles slightly (this will depend on your pan size, so watch it, and make sure it doesn't brown too much).

I know a lot of directions call for a water bath. I have never personally done that, and my cheesecakes usually don't crack, but it really can help with the cooking. You know your own oven best, so if you think you need to, go ahead and use a water bath.

I was very pleased with the way this recipe turned out. I think the only thing I would change would be to add chips to the brownies. I had originally bought some strawberries for garmish on the top -- I was going to dip them in chocolate and white chocolate and put them around the perimeter of the cake (in my head, this looked fantastic), but I had to abandon my artistic plans when my precious strawberries got chopped up into a fruit salad! I also had dreams of adding decorative swirls of whipped cream around the top edge, but time just did not permit.

Despite the lack of decoration, however, this recipe is definitely a keeper, and a great option if you can't decide between a rich chocolatey cheesecake and a light fruity one.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Tsoureki (Sweet Greek Easter Bread)

One of my most consistent childhood memories is of the tsoureki my Yia-Yia would always bring to my house at Easter. She would get it from the church, and I was always fascinated by the slightly sweet, almond topped bread with a blood-red egg stuffed into it. This year, I decided to try my hand at making my own. I have never made a yeast bread before, and every Easter when I see the tsoureki at the Greek store by my house, I think "I can do that" but I never actually try. So I decided that 2009 would be the year. Ignoring my family's dusty, obligatory "Joys of Greek Cooking" book, I located a recipe online that I liked the look of, from Evelyn/Athens at RecipeZaar.

For those who don't know, tsoureki is a braided Greek sweet bread, traditionally served at Easter. It has many equivalents in other cultures, including: corek (Turkey); panaret (Albanian); choreg (Armenian); and, more distantly, Challah. It is considered a "brioche-like" bread, meaning that it is tender and yet has a dark outer crust courtesy of an egg wash. Although it has the right amount of flour, it does not, however, contain enough butter to be truly considered a brioche bread. In Greece, tsoureki can also be known as lambropsomo, which is a derivative of the Greek name for Easter Sunday, and literally means "shining bread." The outer glossiness of the bread is considered an important symbol for the light of Christ, and the blood-red egg (kokkina avga) is also highly symbolic -- red for the blood of Christ, and egg as a symbol of renewal and rebirth. All of this, of course, went right over my head as a child. I just thought I was getting a yummy dessert!

The prospect of tsoureki-making was exciting to me because it was such a familiar part of my life (and yet I had no clue how to make it), because it was a yeast bread, and because it contained a few elements out of the common way.

The first of these are the main spices in the bread, mahlepi and masticha. I had never heard of these spices until I started looking up recipes. Mahlepi are seeds from the St. Lucie cherry, most common to the Mediterranean and southern Europe, but found all the way to Morocco and Pakistan. The seeds, which need to be ground to a powder before using, taste like a mixture of cherry and almond. Masticha is the resin from the mastic plant, an evergreen shrub in the pistacio family. Here's an interesting tidbit of trivia: although mastic plants are found over a wide geographical area, only the mastic shrubs on the Greek island of Chios are capable of producing the resin for the spice. As such, Chios has been granted "protected designation of origin" status by the EU. To this day, the masticha production of Chios is controlled by the Mastichochoria, a collective of medieval villages. But enough with the trivia!

The second element of the bread is, of course, dying the egg a deep blood red. I have done it before, and instructions can be found here , but this time (because I was short on time) I chose to just use Paas, and try to get the pink as dark as I could.

I found the mahlepi and masticha at my local Greek store,Pithari/Hellas Greek Food in Highland Park, NJ. Many ethnic grocery stores, or supermarkets with extensive grocery sections should carry both, especially at this time of the year, but if you can't find them, anise and vanilla can be substituted as indicated below.
2 cups milk
2 (1/4 ounce) envelopes active dry yeast
8-9 cups bread flour
1 3/4 cups sugar
1 cup almonds, very finely chopped (optional)
1 teaspoon salt
1 orange, zest of, grated
1 tablespoon mahlepi (or 2 teaspoons finely ground anise seed)
1 teaspoon ground masticha (optional - can also use 1-2 tsp vanilla)
1/4 cup butter, melted
5 eggs, very well beaten

1 egg yolk
2-3 tablespoons milk
1/2 cup slivered almond


1. Warm two cups of milk (110-130 F) and place in a large bowl. Add the yeast, one cup of the flour, and 1/4 cup of the sugar. Cover and proof for one hour.

Here is the mixture, happily bubbling away

Here are my spices and such (clockwise from plate): orange zest, masticha, mahlepi, and pulverized almonds. I used the same nut chopper to powderize the mahlepi and masticha

2. In a large bowl, combine seven cups of flour, the ground almonds, salt, remaining sugar, orange rind, aniseed or mahlepi and masticha (if using). Make a well in the center. Add the yeast mixture, melted butter and eggs. Work from the center outwards, bringing flour into the well, stirring the mixture until a dough begins to form.

3. Dust a worksurface with a little of the remaining flour and knead, adding more flour if necessary, until the dough is smooth and doesn't stick to your hands, about 12 minutes. Don't skimp on this, it is important.
4. Place in an oiled bowl, cover with a cloth, and set aside in a warm, draft-free place to rise until doubled in bulk, about two hours. Punch down dough. It'll feel like marshmallow when it comes back out of the bowl. And...it'll be huge...
5. Divide into six small balls and roll each into strips 12-15 inches long, and abut 2 inches in diameter. I did this by cutting the dough ball in half, and then cutting three wedges from each half. In retrospect, my loaves were too big, so I think I will cut the dough into quarters before dividing each piece into three wedges. This will increase the recipe yield from two to four.
6. Lay three strips side by side, pinching together at one end, and braid. Pinch together at the other end to hold the loaf intact. At this point you can press dyed eggs between the strips of the braid or just leave the braided loaf plain. Repeat for the second loaf (or however many you decide to make).
I had a mishap with my second pink egg, so I had to use a blue.
A little large...
7. Place the breads on a parchment-lined baking sheet, covered, and let rise for two hours, or until doubled in bulk. While the braids are rising, preheat oven to 375F (190°C). Yeah, another two hours. Yeast breads are time-consuming. But very rewarding!
8. Beat together the egg yolk and remaining milk. Brush over tsoureki loaves and sprinkle with slivered almonds.
9. Bake for about 40-45 minutes, or until golden brown. The bread should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. Remove and cool on racks.

This bread had such a great flavor, it tasted like coming home to me. But everyone will like this bread, it is a truly great sweet bread recipe. Sans the egg if you want, substitute in sesame seeds for almonds in the topping if your tastes would prefer it, make it any shape you want -- twist, round, braid...yeast breads are time consuming, but they are just plain fun to work with, and they taste great. Success!

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Squash Macaroni and Cheese

So, I've been trying to eat healthy lately. Or, at least more healthy than in recent memory. The biggest obstacle between me and my goal? The food! Quite a big obstacle! I love food. I love eating. I love baking. And I am even starting to nurture a budding love of cooking. With this in mind, I got it into my head to scope out some new "healthy" recipes, and I came across this on the Food Network website, from Ellie Krieger's show, Healthy Appetite (which I've personally never even watched, but maybe I should put it on my list).

It is a recipe for squash mac and cheese, and it caught my attention because 1) mac and cheese is a major comfort food for me; 2) I like squash; 3) mac and cheese is not diet friendly; and 4) the recipe uses ingredients like part-skim cheese and 1% milk. Notice how anything health-related is relegated to the end of the list. Ahem. Be that notwithstanding, I decided to give it a try, how bad could it be?

The recipe below is with my modifications. If you want to see Ellie's original recipe, follow the link above to the Food Network site.

  • Cooking spray
  • 1 pound elbow macaroni
  • 1 (10-ounce) packages frozen pureed winter squash
  • 2 cups 1 percent lowfat milk
  • 8 ounces extra-sharp Cheddar, grated (
  • 1/2 cup part-skim ricotta cheese
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoon powdered mustard
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 4 tablespoons unseasoned bread crumbs
  • 4 tablespoons grated Parmesan
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil or olive oil spray

1) Preheat the oven to 375 F and spray a 9"X13" pan

2) Cook the macaroni according to the package, until firm but slightly tender, 5-8 minutes. Drain and transfer to large bowl or back into pot

3) Combine squash and milk in a saucepan over medium heat until squash defrosts. Stir in cheddar. find it is easier to combine the cheese in with a whisk, to make sure it melts and doesn't clump somewhere at the bottom. Cook until mix is almost simmering, stirring occasionally.

4) Remove from heat and add ricotta and spices. Combine with macaroni, stirring well to coat. Transfer to pan.

5) Combine bread crumbs and parm, and sprinkle on the top. Spray top with olive oil spray.

6) Bake for 20 minutes, broil for 3 to brown crumbs

You'll notice that my mac and cheese isn't exactly uniformly brown -- that's because I forgot to spray the crumbs after I sprinkled them on! Because of this, my crumbs tended to flake off of the noodles, so don't forget to spray!

2 tsps of mustard powder and 1/4 tsp of cayenne may seem like a lot, but I originally made this recipe with half as much, and it was on the bland side, so trust me. You might even want to put more in, honestly.

I really liked this recipe. Don't get me wrong, you will never mistake this for traditional mac and cheese -- the consistency and feel are right, but it isn't quite cheesy enough. I only used pre-shredded cheddar, which isn't very sharp, I have a feeling it wasn't sharp enough. So, next time I will not be lazy. I'll get a nice block of the sharpest cheddar I can find, and grate it myself. You can also taste squash, although that really shouldn't be an impediment. I fed it to my fiance, Charlie, who hates squash and pumpkin with a passion, and he liked it. But this is why I recommend using one package of squash instead of the 2 I originally used. 2 overwhelms the cheese too much.

All in all, however, I would call this a successful experiment. I liked the texture, liked the taste (although I think I'll like it more with sharper cheese and more spices), and it was easy to put together. All in all, a great meal for the health conscious!