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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Mini-Cheesecakes

I have a thing for mini-desserts. Not only do I like the fact that they are built in portion control... well, unless you eat multiple of them... but I just think they're so dang cute!!

Mini pies, mini cakes, mini loaves of bread; I've even done small cheesecake tarts before. But for my birthday this year, my in-laws gave me this sweet little mini-cheesecake pan from King Arthur Flour. Two perfect bites of sweet, cheesy goodness in every cake. I also like how quick they are to mix up and bake.

I use my Perfect Graham Cracker Crust recipe and then whip up a basic cheesecake filling, which has nice lemony overtone. The cutest thing, which I did not take advantage of in this instance, is that they end up with a slight dimple in the middle of the cake, perfect for filling with whatever fruit or chocolate topping you think your mini-cheesecakes deserve!

Mini-Cheesecakes
Yield: 12 mini-cheesecakes

1 recipe Perfect Graham Cracker Crust
1 package cream cheese, softened to room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 TBS lemon juice
1 tsp lemon zest
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Prepare the graham cracker crust and tamp about a 1/4-inch layer of crust in the bottom of each pan. Bake at 400 degrees F about 8 minutes or until nicely golden. Let cool.

Adjust the oven temperature to 325 degrees F. Mix all ingredients together with an electric mixer. Pour batter evenly into the twelve molds. Bake at 325 degrees F for 20 minutes. After twenty minutes, turn off the oven and let the cakes sit in the oven ten minutes longer. Remove pan from oven and let cool completely. For easiest removal, chill cheesecakes in the refrigerator a few hours until they are firm and then remove the cakes onto a serving dish.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Perfect Graham Cracker Crust

I am pleased to announce that crumbly graham cracker crusts are no longer going to be a problem I have to deal with. I have always been frustrated by how the traditional graham cracker crust turned out for me.

It made perfect sense to me... I mean, really: crushed up graham crackers, sugar, and butter... there's no glue in there! What is supposed to hold it all together?

Fortunately, the cure is simple and wonderful. If you add one single egg yolk to the mixture, you end up with a perfect graham cracker crust that holds it's own once baked.

Perfect Graham Cracker Crust
Yield: enough for one pie/tart shell

1 pouch graham crackers (there are usually three pouches per box, 9 full sized crackers per pouch)
4 TBS melted and cooled butter
1 egg yolk
1/2 cup sugar
dash cinnamon

Grind the graham crackers into a fine meal. A food processor is easiest, but you can also use a rolling pin and a plastic bag. Then add the remaining ingredients into the mixture and be sure everything is well incorporated. Press into whichever mold or tart shell you choose and bake in a 400 degree F oven until the crust is gently golden, between 8 and 12 minutes depending on the size and thickness of your shell.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Grilled Turkey and Pesto Sandwich

We love sandwiches around here. My husband's been working such late hours that many days by the time he calls to let me know he's on his way, I just can't think about cooking a full-fledged meal.

Yes. Soup and sandwiches visit our house very often.

But, when I'm really looking for a satisfying meal, cold sandwiches just don't quite measure up to the task. Ergo, we eat a lot of soup and grilled sandwiches at our house.

The great thing is that you have almost as much flexibility with a grilled sandwich as a cold one. Granted, I'm not a big fan of lettuce and tomato condiments on a grilled sandwich, for instance, but you can add all kinds of other great things! Besides the regular grilled ham and cheese (yes, I live with a man and, apparently, men cannot abide by a meatless sandwich), the sky's the limit. Swap out your cheeses; go with a variety of meats. My favorites often include caramelized onions and/or mushrooms. Oh, yes, the options are many.

Funny, then, that this one has made so many regular appearances lately. It's much easier to make than a sandwich that requires cooking onions or mushrooms separately. I can slap these together in no time flat, and my husband says they're good! And they have turkey on them. GASP! What, no beef? I guess when you slather a sandwich with pesto, turkey is A-OK.

So, here's the deal: Butter the outsides of your bread and spread the inside of each slice with a little pesto. I have a bunch of homemade pesto in my freezer that I froze in ice cube trays. I use one ice cube worth of pesto per sandwich. I then place a slice of smoke provolone cheese on each slice of bread (read: two slices per sandwich). Fold some deli smoked turkey in the middle, put them together, and grill over medium heat until nice and golden and heated through. Yup. This one's a keeper.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Stew Dumplings

You ever noticed how sometimes folks start doing something because they think it's convenient and then they forget there ever was an original way to do it? I think stew dumplings fall in that category. When was the last time you had chicken and dumplings with dumplings made from scratch? It seems like everyone now just throws some refrigerator biscuit dough in their stew and calls it good.

There are only two problems with this practice that I can see. First: Biscuit dumplings have a weird texture that in no way resembles scratch dumplings. I find the refrigerator dough dumplings to be very chewy and dense. The real thing is just slightly chewy on the outside and somewhat fluffy on the inside. Second: It only takes me 2.4 minutes to mix up a batch of dumpling dough from scratch. Is that really more trouble than trying to open a roll of store bought biscuits?

Mix this dough together and drop by the tablespoon full on top of any stew you're cooking and see what a difference it makes! You may never look back!

Stew Dumplings
Yield: approximately 6-8 dumplings
Adapted from the New Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook

2/3 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 cup milk
2 TBS cooking oil
1/8 tsp salt
pinch of dried herbs (such as parsley, thyme, or oregano)

Stir together all ingredients. For the most tender dumplings, do not over mix the dough. Drop tablespoon sized blobs of dough onto any finished, bubbling stew (you will not want to have to mix anything else into the stew after you add the dumplings). Reduce heat to just maintain a simmer. Cover the pot and cook 10-12 minutes until dumplings are just cooked through.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Phyllo Dough Shortcut

Good news! Your life is about to get easier.

For a long time now, I've wondered, do I have to brush phyllo dough with butter to get the best results? I love baking with phyllo dough... those flaky layers get me every time, but I hate brushing each layer with butter. And, in this case, I really mean hate.

So, the other evening I conducted a test. I built two stacks of plain phyllo dough and baked them for comparison. On one I brushed butter like I usually do, on the other, I sprayed plain old cooking spray on each layer. First, I want to let you know that building the stack using the cooking spray was a breeze! It was wonderfully easy and I could control the amount of fat I used somewhat too. When you're trying to brush tissue paper thin sheets of dough with butter, there's no such thing as going easy on the stuff.

I purposefully made the stacks with no flavorings whatsoever. I wanted to be see if I could discern a difference in flavor between the two, because - as we all know - butter has a special flavor profile and if there was a difference, the hassle of brushing might be worth it.

And the good news is: knock yourself out with the cooking spray. Not only was the result just as flaky and puffed as the butter (in fact, maybe even more so), there was no significant flavor difference between the two. Make your life easy! Make phyllo with cooking spray!

NOTE: The cooking spray tower is on the right in the above picture, the butter on the left. When I bit into them, there was really no significant difference in flakiness. I think the difference you see in the picture is due to the edges of the layers sticking more with the butter when I trimmed around each stack before baking. Another kudos to the cooking spray, I suppose!
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