Sunday, November 26, 2006

Pecan and Salt Caramel Cheesecake

I was willing to bring any dish to Thanksgiving dinner that my host requested, but I absolutely insisted on bringing this Pecan and Salt Caramel Cheesecake. I first saw this recipe a few months ago over at (the recipe is HERE) and immediately knew I was going to have to make it. Luckily, there was very little resistance to adding another dessert to the menu--especially one with an ingredients list like this one.

Speaking of the ingredients, my only real worry with this recipe was that it would be a complete sugar overload. I easily envision the ingredients mingling together into one uniform 'sugar!!!' instead of retaining their individual flavors. And the verdict? It's a sweet dessert to be sure, but I was surprised and pleased to taste distinct layers to the sweetness and real depth of flavor. The sour of the cream cheese complimented the buttery caramel. The graham cracker was a nice balance to the sugar and vanilla. I think with a little more experimentation and refinement of the various steps, the caramel flavor could give the whole cake a roasted, smoky flavor that would really bring it all together.

My mom asked me how many Weight Watchers points each slice of this little doozy was and I just laughed at her. Honestly, folks, I didn't even bother to figure it out. This is just one of those occasions when you just need to relax and be a glut without guilt. Having said this, I do have a few ideas for making this cake a bit more waist-friendly (see below).

Some thoughts for improvements and future variations:

  • My caramel ended up with little chunks of sugar suspended in it. They weren't rock hard, didn't pose a threat to any one's dental work, and we didn't even notice them once I added the pecans, but the perfectionist in me was disgruntled. My suspicion is that I didn't stir the butter and sugar as thoroughly as I should have (I was in a bit of a rush seeing as how the Engineer's mother was arriving in about ten minutes). I've done a bit of research on the properties of sugars and making caramel sauce since making this recipe and have decided that, as you might suspect, making caramel is a bit more tricky than this recipe would lead a gal to believe. I'm actually really intrigued by the whole process since it has to do with chemical reactions on the molecular level and all sorts of science-experiment type things. I'm planning to do some more research and experimentation, and will be sure to share my findings with y'all!

  • Another caramel note: I was happy with the final flavor--it really did taste like caramel!--but I think it could have had more depth. As my pal Harold McGee says in his book On Food and Cooking, "The aroma of a simple caramelized sugar has several different notes, among them buttery and milky, fruity, flowery, sweet, rum-like, and roasted. As the reactions proceed, the taste of the mixture becomes less sweet as more of the original sugar is destroyed, with more pronounced acidity and eventually bitterness and an irritating, burning sensation." Thanks, Harold! Since my caramel could definitely be described as "buttery and milky," my suspicion is that I could have let the syrup boil for a little while longer to deepen the flavor before adding the butter and taking it off the heat.

  • I love pecans, but I'm not sure they really added very much here. The Engineer suggested briefly dry-frying or roasting the pecans before adding them to the cake. This is something that is often suggested in other recipes I've come across in order to activate the oils in the nut and enhance the overall flavor. I also think that roasting the pecans would bring out similar flavors in the caramel.

  • I also wondered about doing away with the pecans all together and instead sprinkling roughly crumbled graham crackers on the top. This would add a bit more crunch and bite in the mouth, would mirror the graham cracker crust (of course), and would also reduce the number of ingredients competing for precedence in your mouth. The taste of the cheesecake and caramel is complex enough, and unless the pecans are really enhancing the flavor in those components, I think they're just distracting. Again, I think graham crackers could compliment the flavors just as well if not better.

  • I am curious to make a lower-fat version of this cheesecake. A recipe for New York Cheesecake in The Best Light Recipes by Cook's Illustrated suggests replacing the cream cheese with a combination of light cream cheese, drained cottage cheese, and drained low-fat yogurt. The recipe is described as definitely tasting different than regular cheesecake, but just as excellent on its own merit. I've tried several recipes from this book and have been well pleased with many of the recipes, which don't just rely on using the "Low Fat" version of a full-fat product. Worth a try anyways.

  • It would also be fun to experiment with different flavors in the caramel. This could be done by either infusing the syrup while it's melting or by adding flavors to the final caramel as it's cooling. Cook's Illustrated has several mouth-watering suggestions: Orange-Espresso Caramel Sauce, Coconut Ginger Caramel Sauce, and Dark Rum Caramel Sauce, to name a few.
Some serving suggestions:

  • I think that this recipe could translate really well into a finger-food, buffet-table item. My thought is to make the cheesecake as normal, but then cut out mini-cheesecakes (either in square or in circles using a biscuit cutter) that would be about an inch or so across--small enough to be eaten in one single bite. Then use a chopstick or other poking-device to dowel a little hole in the top of the cake. Fill the hole with caramel and top with one whole pecan or a fragment of graham cracker.

  • Another serving option would be to make several mini-cakes in individually-portioned ramekins. This would be fun for a dinner party and would be a bit more elegant than cutting slices of cheesecake.
Ok, ok, enough jabbering. Here's the recipe itself:


Pecan and Salt Caramel Cheesecake
Adapted from


1 1/4 c. graham cracker crumbs (5-6 graham cracker rectangles)
4 tbsp (1/2 stick) unsalted butter--at room temperature
3 tbsp granulated sugar


2 lbs (4 8-oz packages) cream cheese--at room temperature
1 c. granulated sugar
1 large egg yoke--at room temperature
3 whole eggs--at room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract

Caramel Topping:

1 c. granulated sugar
4 tbsp (1/2 stick) unsalted butter--at room temperature
1/2 c. heavy cream--at room temperature
1 c. roughly chopped pecans
1 large pinch sea salt

To begin:

Place all ingredients (included refrigerated ingredients) on workspace. Allow refrigerated ingredients to come to room temperature. The butter should be soft and malleable. Eggs can also be placed in a bowl of hot water to bring them to room temperature.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

To make the crust:

To make graham cracker crumbs, break several squares of graham crackers into rough pieces in a bowl. Use the bottom of a cup or a pestle to grind the crackers into uniform-sized crumbs. This was one of the most satisfying parts of the process--I may start crumbling graham crackers for stress relief. Mix sugar into the crumbs. Mix in the butter with your hands, squeezing gobs of butter together with the crumbs with your fingers, until thoroughly combined. Press into the bottom of a 9- to 10-inch spring form pan. (If you don't have a spring form pan and want to make this cake in a regular pie dish, make sure to use a deep dish pan at least 2.5 inches deep. There's lots of toppings that go on this and the cheesecake with rise quite a bit in the oven!)

To make the cheesecake:

In the bowl of a stand mixer (or medium-sized bowl if using hand mixers), roughly combine sugar and cream cheese with a spoon. Once the sugar is adhered to the cream cheese, beat with a mixer until light and smooth--about the consistency of ganache frosting. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing until the egg is completely blended in (but be careful of over-mixing; the egg should just be barely blended so you can no longer see strings of the yellow yoke). Add vanilla extract and mix.

Pour mixture into the spring form pan on top of the graham cracker crust. Bake until a toothpick or a cake tester comes out clean and the center is set. The instructions say this will take about 40 minutes, but mine ended up taking about 55 minutes, so just monitor your cake carefully. It will rise significantly in the pan and turn a deep golden color around the edges. It will also likely crack along the top--this is not so desirable in normal cheesecake, but fine for this one--just more nooks and crannies for the caramel!

Let the cheesecake cool completely on a cooling rack with the spring form still attached to the base. As it cools, the cheesecake will sink a bit into itself. Ultimately, the sides will be sloped slightly higher than the middle.

For the caramel:

Combine the sugar and 1 tablespoon of water in a small saucepan and stir until you make a thick sugar paste. Place over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. At this point, the recipe says to allow the mixture to boil until it is amber in color. While this is true, I think it's a bit misleading about what you should expect.

In this first picture (left), the sugar/water paste has just come to a boil. It looks a bit shiny, but is still a grey color. This will boil furiously for a few minutes without changing color and the boiling will slowly begin to stop. In my first batch of caramel, I kinda panicked at this point and assumed that I had done something wrong since it wasn't changing colors. I stirred it a bit, and the mixture started to reform itself into granules of sugar (the middle image). I waited for a while longer and noticed that the sugar on the bottom was melting again, and the re-melted sugar was indeed turning an amber color. However, the sugar was really clumping together and looking more like rock candy than sauce, so I dumped it into a pan to cool (far right picture) and started over again.

My recommendation is DON'T STIR the mixture--a crust will form on the top and you'll see it pushing and dipping here and there as the sugar melts into a liquid again. Eventually (in about 5 minutes or so), the crust will melt as well and you can stir it a bit. I wasn't sure exactly what constituted an 'amber' color, so I erred on the side of caution and called it good when the sugar was about the color of browned butter.

Add the butter to the pan, and be careful because the mixture will pop and bubble and generally behave like a spoiled brat of a sauce. Stir until the butter is completely combined with the sugar. Remove from heat and add the cream in two batches. Again, the mixture will boil and bubble, toil
and trouble, for a bit. Keep stirring until everything is well combined and the caramel is a milky tan color. As you stir and the sauce cools, it will thicken slightly into a more familiar caramel consistency. The milk and butter also stabilizes the caramel, so it won't harden into rock-candy and will stay a thick syrup.

When the caramel has cooled to room temperature (you should be able to dip your finger in for a taste test), pour it over the cheese cake. Sprinkle a few pinches of sea salt over the top and then sprinkle on the pecans.

Once the bottom of the pan is cool enough that you can touch it with your bare hands, cover and let the entire cake cool in the fridge. The longer it sits, the more the caramel will absorb into the nooks and crannies of the cheesecake. If you like this effect, let it sit for a few hours (for instance, while you're eating turkey n' stuffing). If you like your cake pristine and the layers separated, serve it a bit sooner.

Tuesday, November 7, 2006

Il Lasagna Perfetto

You should all know by now that I love to cook. No doubt about it. But what I do not love is cooking every day. In fact, if I have to cook two days in a row, I get a bit cranky and start taking out my frustrations on the unsuspecting Engineer by muttering things under my breath like, "Though I may look and occasionally act like a 1940's housewife, I am not a 1940's housewife, mister." * He usually grins and says, "Pizza, then? Where are my keys?"

This is why I love love L-O-V-E love making humungoid meals
one or two times a week that will feed us both for lunch and dinner over several days. Luckily, the Engineer and I are both fairly monogastronomic (yes, I made up that word) and don't require a lot of variety in our diet to keep us satisfied. Throw in a few meals of eggs n' toast and a coupla stir fries and we're happy clams.

Whenever I come across a new recipe that I think has potential for deliciousness, I immediately begin to consider of two things: 1) How can I double or triple the amount of servings in this Bad Larry, and 2) How can I make it healthier? (The answer to both questions, by the way, is usually "add more vegetables." Just don't forget to adjust the spices.) I typically follow the recipe exactly one time and then modify on subsequent repetitions.

I've been working on my lasagna for about two years now--how's that for tenacious? My family was staying in a rented cabin tucked into the woods somewhere near Lake Superior--a winter vacation tradition in my family. The cabin came equipped with hand sewn quilts, a gorgeous view of one of Minnesota's 10,000 lakes, and a little kitchen of its own. After we were settled into our various cozy nooks, my mother started making "I'm-cooking-who-wants-to-help?" noises in the kitchen and organizing the various ingredients for lasagna.
Lasagna was a regular meal in our house--in fact I think it was my all-time-favorite food for a good chunk of elementary school, much to my mother's delight and disbelief. But this was the first time I consciously helped my mother make lasagna and recognized it as a meal that I could replicate for myself. It was a light bulb kind of moment.

At this time, my mother had been on WeightWatchers for a few years, but I hadn't yet started. As we got everything together, my mom explained the various substitutions she made to make the lasagna WeightWatcher's friendly: substituting lo-fat cottage cheese for
ricotta, using only 10 lasagna noodles over two layers, fattening up those layers with lots of veggies, and using a tomato sauce like Healthy Choice. I was intrigued, if skeptical, and was incredibly surprised at how fabulous it turned out. This lasagna did not taste like the lo-cal, limp, healthy-shmealthy dish I was expecting, and I was very relieved to see that the servings were much larger than a postage stamp. Mom's technique of using dry lasagna noodles in the layers rendered noodles that were al dente and richly flavored with absorbed tomato juice. Every bite was full of perfectly cooked vegetables, a bit of meat, a bit of noodle, and a bit of cheese--chewy and moist and perfect.

When I went on WeightWatchers myself a little over a year ago, I made Mom's recipe for lasagna often, but somehow it
wasn't quite as good as I remembered it. And although it was already significantly healthier than regular lasagna, I still grumbled about how much of my daily food allowance a slice would use up. Did I really need to use tomato sauce, or would crushed tomatoes work just as well? Did I need to use a whole pound of hamburger, or could a smaller amount still give that same meaty flavor and chew in every bite? To the kitchen I scurried.

I didn't go completely bananas and make 10 batches of lasagna in a weekend, but I kept notes on each batch I made and tried new little tweaks and twiddles each time. Crushed tomatoes does indeed make a good substitute for tomato sauce, though the flavor was a bit metallic and acidic until Mom suggested sprinkling just a touch of sugar over each layer of tomatoes. You don't taste the sugar specifically in the finished lasagna, but the metallic flavor was gone. Turns out that you can also get away with less meat (or meat-substitute if you're a veggie)--about 3/4 of a pound was good, and if you were really gung ho, you could happy reduce that further
or even cut the meat out all together. Just veggies makes a terrific lasagna on its own. I also tried using non-fat ricotta cheese and decided that I liked that traditional Italian flavor and mouthfeel. These three changes, along with experiments on spices and amounts of spices, has given me a purty darn near perfect lasagna, which I've now happily eaten for two weeks straight. But hey, that's monogastronomic ol' me.
Il Lasagna Perfetto

10 dry lasagna noodles (not 'no boil')
1/2 - 3/4 lb of ground lean turkey, lean beef, or meat substitute
1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes
2 1/2 tsp sugar
1 onion--diced
1 small eggplant, zucchini, or summer squash--diced
1 red bell pepper--diced
1 pkg baby bella mushrooms or portabella mushrooms--diced
1 c. non-fat ricotta cheese

1/2 c. low-fat cottage cheese
2 c. low-fat shredded cheese
1 tsp sea salt
1 tsp chili powder
1 tsp dried basil
1 tsp dried thyme
1/8 cup of water or chicken broth

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

1. Mix all the chopped vegetables together in a large bowl and combine with all the spices. Taste a piece of eggplant or mushroom and adjust the spices if necessary--the mix should actually taste a bit too salty at this point.

2. Combine ricotta and cottage cheese together in a small bowl

3. In a 9x13 casserole dish or baking pan, spread a light layer of crushed tomatoes and sprinkle 1/2 tsp of the sugar over the top. Arrange a layer of 5 noodles--in my pan, I can fit 4 noodles length-wise and then have to break off about one inch on the fifth to fit it in along the side.

4. Spread half of the ricotta-cottage cheese mixture over the noodles. Then spread half of the veggies and half of the meat. Finally layer on about 1 cup of cheese and half the can of crushed tomatoes. Sprinkle 1 tsp of sugar over the tomatoes.

5. Add another layer of noodles and repeat step 4. Reserve a bit of cheese for the topping.

6. Swish the water or chicken broth (I prefer stock) in the empty can of tomatoes and dribble evenly over the top of the lasagna.

7. Cover the lasagna with a double layer of tinfoil and bake for 1 hour. After an hour, check the to see how done the noodles are and the onions are. I usually need to bake it covered for another 15 minutes. When the onions taste just a bit under done, uncover the lasagna and top with the reserved cheese. Bake uncovered for another 10-15 minutes or until the cheese is completely melted and a bit brown.

Let the lasagna cool for about 10 minutes and then cut into 12 portions.

WeightWatchers: If you made any substitutions or adjustments, I recommend tallying everything up for yourself to be on the safe side. Made with the above ingredients,12 portions is about 4.5 points per portion. If you're being really strict, you can cut it into 16 portions for about 3.25 points each, but, honestly, those portions are a bit measly--ok for lunch, but probably not enough for dinner unless you were also eating a side dish.

*For the record, I would like to state that while I definitely do the lion's share of the cooking in our household, the Engineer is always a willing and able sous chef. I admit to having tendencies toward control-freak-ism and have been known to hyperventilate if the onions are not diced to proper proportions. I'm much better than I used to be, mostly because I was came to realize that I needed to chill out or my sous chef would not be quite so willing and able. Still, we find it works best to divide tasks by type: I'm in charge of cutting and stir frying, and the Engineer is in charge of the pilaf; I'm in charge of toast and the Engineer is in charge of scrambling the eggs; and so on. *shrug* It works for us.