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Entries in cheesecake (4)



stacked and sliced

I thought I’d tell you about where I grew up. I don’t think I have before, which is a shame, as it really was a fine place to be. 

I was born here in Canada, in Montréal, Québec to be specific. We moved to southern Ontario when I was a toddler, and it’s where I did almost all of my growing up. When I think of this place, I think of its geography.

On one side we had Lake Ontario. It is broad and blue, and, depending on where you stand, without end on the horizon. The escarpment, a rocky outcropping that carves a jagged, irregular zigzag across the map, is to its opposite. In between and all around were fields, orchards and vineyards, with their imposed geometry of pattern and crops on the landscape.

Then there was the river.

The Niagara River flows between Lakes Erie and Ontario, over its eponymous waterfalls and a breath-stealing gorge. Over that river, across that expanse that feels so big the air between feels solid, is a whole other world; a whole other country, in fact.

That’s the thing about living in a border-ish town. There’s the false familiarity of proximity with the simultaneous awareness of difference. The feeling of sameness although not quite there.

We share a lot with the United States; television stations travelled the airwaves without minding the division between us, same goes for radio. With Buffalo, New York a short drive away, I grew up with an adopted local pride (and accompanying expertise) for the distinguishing aspects of the classic hot chicken wing.

There were, of course, differences. And to a six-year-old, these were important ones. They had Apple Jacks and Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereals, for starters. And Jiff peanut butter. We had ketchup-flavoured potato chips and (sometimes) poured gravy on our fries.

Many of these disparities have disappeared in the years passed from my childhood and now, but we still spell colour and favourite with a “u”, call it Zed and not Zee for the last letter in the alphabet, our packet of ketchup-flavoured chips is emblazoned with both English and French, and we’ve got Butter Tarts. Nanaimo Bars, too.

For those who don’t know, butter tarts are basically miniature pecan pies without the pecans. Gooey, dark and the antithesis of subtle in its sweetness, the filling may include raisins or walnuts, but the inclusion of either is the subject of impassioned debate.

Nanaimo Bars, a bar cookie named after a city three time zones and 4,500 kilometers away in British Columbia, are more difficult to describe and, as far as I know, without compatriot in definition. In the way I learned to make them, you make a crust out of cocoa powder, butter, egg, graham crumbs, shredded coconut and chopped nuts (walnuts or almonds being the most trad). It’s baked until just firm and slightly crisp. I’ve recently found that other recipes cook the mixture on the stove top, with it then pressed into a pan and chilled to set.

Whatever way you make the crust, upon it you spread a concoction that’s often mistakenly-described as a custard filling. What it is, in actual fact, is a custard-flavoured icing - thanks to the brilliance of powdered vanilla custard powder. It sounds strange, and maybe it is one of those things you have to grow up with to understand, but frosting, rather than the smooth eggy tenderness of custard, is imperative for its grittyness. It is all about the specific feel of sugar and powdered custard creamed into butter.

You see, there’s ganache yet to be poured over the whole pan, and it is the texture of the custard icing that stands up to that of the chocolate. Their consistencies almost match, so that when bitten, the chocolate gives way to the filling without clear definition against the tooth.

Not to fear, the stick-to-your teeth quality of those two components is cleanly cleared by the coarse crust below. Really, they thought of everything.

It has been a long while since I’ve had a Nanaimo Bar; they went through a popularity boost in the mid-90s right when everyone was watching Friends and drinking lattes at coffee shops. Around then, you’d find Nanaimo Bars on the counters at said coffee shops, with radical frosting flavours like Irish cream, cappuccino and mocha.

But then along came Justin. Justin Schwartz, if you don’t know already, a singularly-swell individual who shares my affection for Alice Medrich’s recent book, Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cookies. He’s been baking from it, and we’ve been chatting about it, and we got on the subject of the No-No Nanaimo Bars found, fittingly, in the Gooey chapter.

He’d not heard of Nanaimo Bars, and I of course had but was curious about the cheesecake-ish filling Medrich offers in lieu of my trashy-but-beloved custard powder. He made a pan and deemed them a revelation, which was just about all the encouragement I needed to do the same.

Justin is right, these were intensely good. I’ll add the asterisk that they're especially so straight out of the freezer - they won’t freeze solid, and so end up with a good share of the charms of an ice cream sandwich.

But, I will say, with allegiance and fidelity held firm, and as both Justin and Medrich herself note, these are not Nanaimo Bars. The cream cheese adds a new dimension, a refined edge of sharp dairy, that is a departure from the original. Dare I say, the dowdy bar is elevated to a place verging on elegant.

While something special in its own right, and with great respect to all those involved, I’ll hold tight to the false-yellow stripe of frosting between my chocolate and crust. I've got a predisposed allegiance to uphold.

Custard powder in our cookies might be a Canadian thing. As far as traditions go, I'll stand on guard for thee.


The latest issue of UPPERCASE magazine is out! Here's a preview of what you'll find in the Sweet column for winter; we're extolling the virtues of the small and making mini doughnuts. 

There's also been some exciting news that has had me grinning for days. The first annual Canadian Food Blogger Awards were announced last week, and was wonderful to see so many friends on the list of nominees and winners! The judges saw fit to include me on that list, nominated for photography, and winning in the categories of writing and recipes. It is an honour and my gratitude goes out to all those involved.

I feel a wee bit of stage fright on the mention of this one - a week ago I was on CBC Radio One's Metro Morning talking food and blogs. If you'd like to take a listen (be kind!) the podcast can be found here, with our segment beginning at around the 13:30 mark, and I first speak about a minute later.

It's been a good week. I hope yours has been too. Thanks for sharing all of this with me.


Maya's No-No Nanaimo Bars
Named after the city in British Columbia, the traditional Nanaimo bar is a no-bake layered affair with a crumb crust and layers of sweet vanilla filling crowned with chocolate. These here — with a coconut pecan crust, vanilla cream cheese filling, and dark chocolate ganache — are for people who like the idea of the Nanaimo bar but wish it were different: less sweet, more grown-up, a bit modern. Oh, and these are baked. Thus, no claims to authenticity…only a very good bar created by a very good friend, Portland food maven Maya Klein.

Excerpted from Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cookies by Alice Medrich (Artisan Books, 2010).

1 1/2 cups (5 ounces) chocolate cookie crumbs (from 9 chocolate graham crackers)
1/2 cup (1.5 ounces) unsweetened dried shredded coconut
1/2 cup (2 ounces) finely chopped pecans
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons (4.375 ounces) granulated sugar
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
2 tablespoons (0.875 ounce) packed brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 large egg
1/2 cup heavy cream
7 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate with 55% to 60% cacao

A 9-inch square metal baking pan, the bottom and all 4 sides lined with foil

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Mix the crumbs, coconut, pecans, butter, and 1/4 cup of the granulated sugar and pat it very firmly into the lined pan. Bake the crust for 10 to 12 minutes, or until it looks slightly darker at the edges and smells toasted.

While the crust is baking, mix the filling. In a large bowl, beat the softened cream cheese, brown sugar, and 1/4 cup of the remaining granulated sugar until smooth. Beat in the vanilla and then the egg. When the crust is baked, dollop the filling onto the hot crust and spread gently with the back of a spoon. Bake the bars until the edges are slightly puffed, about 10 minutes. Cool on a rack for 30 minutes. Chill for at least 2 hours.

Dissolve the remaining 2 tablespoons granulated sugar in the cream. Bring 1/2 inch water to a simmer in a medium skillet. Coarsely chop the chocolate and combine with the cream in a medium metal bowl. Place the bowl directly in the skillet of hot water and turn off the heat. Let rest for 5 minutes and whisk until smooth. Set aside until needed.

Pour the warm ganache onto the bars, spread, and chill for at least 30 minutes before serving. Lift the bars out of the pan by using the edges of the foil liner. Cut into 16 or 25 squares, wiping the knife between cuts. May be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days.

Makes 16 large (2 1/4—inch) bars or 25 smaller bars.



SHF #31: The roundup

Whew. When I was first approached by Jennifer to host this month’s Sugar High Friday, I approached it with nervous optimism. Everyone’s had that feeling, that illogical fear of “what would happen if I threw a party, and nobody came?”

Thank goodness for food bloggers. I did not expect, and could not have hoped for, a more enthusiastic and supportive group of contributors to this month’s event. From the dramatic to the sublime, these desserts celebrating the shades of white run the spectrum. 45 entries from around the world, are all delicious variations on the theme. What a party!

Again, my gratitude to those who participated, and those of you who have come by to see the results of our little event. Cheers to Jennifer, once again of the Domestic Goddess, who will be the host of next month’s SHF installment. It will be a confectionery celebration of Canada’s 140th birthday on July 1st - look out for the announcement and details on her site.

And with that, on to the desserts; click the photos to link to the author's site ...


Choosing substance over style makes commitment easy

I have never been ashamed to admit that I can be utterly shallow. Nor have I ever feigned ignorance of my obsession with chocolate in its purest form. However now and again a girl is struck by something that goes beyond infatuation and adoration. Something deeper than that; something that touches your very soul. Of course, I am talking about greed.

Were you expecting something different?

I will admit, maybe something along the lines of love and affection would be more apt for today - and I have been looking at lighter-than-air mousses and soufflés, pillowy madelines and coyly trembling panna cottas. But I cannot deny my want, nay the necessity, for something much more soul-satisfyingly decadent than a trifle of the palate.

Dense and rich, these squares are so very indulgent that one overlooks their rather indelicate appearance; they are reminiscent of a elementary bake sale treat but oh so much better. A tumble of chocolate, peanut butter and toffee chips, unctuous dulce de leche tempered by a ribbon of tart cheesecake ... sigh. Attempt to restrain yourself to just one.

Chockablock cheesecake squares
Fans of the famous recipe will note that the cookie base is a variation on the classic Nestlé® Toll House® cookies. I recommend cutting these into either 1 1/2”x2 1/4” bars or 1 1/2” squares.

For the cookie base
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks, 1/2 pound) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup light brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 eggs
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
2/3 cup peanut butter chips
1/3 cup of toffee bits

For the cheesecake layer
1 8 ounce package of cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup brown sugar, packed
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg

1/2 cup dulce de leche or caramel sauce (use up to 1 cup, depending on your taste)

Preheat oven to 350ºF (175ºC). Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-by-9-inch baking pan. Line with parchment paper, allowing for a 1-inch overhang on two sides to form handles.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt. Set this aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream together the butter and sugars on medium high speed until combined. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides. Continue to beat the mixture, stopping to scrape down the sides as necessary, for approximately 3 minutes or until the butter is fluffy and pale in colour.

Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Scrape down sides of bowl. With the mixer on low speed, gradually add the flour and stir to combine. Add in chips and candy. Refrigerate dough.

In the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment in place, beat the cream cheese and sugars on medium high speed until combined and smooth. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. On medium speed, add the egg and vanilla.

Take approximately half the refrigerated cookie dough and, with floured fingers, press into the prepared pan. Using an offset spatula, spread the dulce de leche over the bottom layer. Pour over the cream cheese mixture. Crumble the remaining cookie dough over the cream cheese.

Bake 35 to 40 minutes or until golden brown. As with many cheesecake recipes, you may see a bit of “wiggle” in the centre of the pan; not to worry, it will set up as it sits. Cool 1 hour. Refrigerate at least 4 hours, preferably overnight. Cut into squares or bars, as desired.

Makes 1 9-inch pan. Approximately 24-36 bars, depending on size. These bars should be stored in refrigerator and can be frozen.

• For the cookie crust, I like to use a large flake sea or kosher salt for a salty-sweet combination.
• You can use whatever combination of morsels, nuts and candy you like for the cookie crust; aim for about 2 cups in total.
• If you prefer pockets of caramel, swirl the dulce de leche with the cream cheese filling, rather than layering it.
• The dulce de leche can be substituted with a chocolate ganache or thick chocolate fudge sauce as well.


À la mode

There has always been the need to eat; but somewhere along the way we discovered the notion of eating fashionably.

One of my greatest pleasures in my older cookbooks is to see the evolution of tastes through their pages. As Donna Hay put it in her book Modern Classics, Book 1, “What macaroni and cheese was to me, risotto will be to the children of today when they come adults doing the cooking in the future.” I find that idea fascinating; the way that foods, like any cultural phenomenon, move from innovation to trend, ending up in either the fad or classics category. We’ve all watched cuisines, techniques and specific flavours move in and out of the limelight.

The three books pictured in my inaugural post were all ones stolen from my Mother’s collection. Spanning 32 years, these publications chronicle an amazingly rapid progression of tastes, all promoting the au courant menus of the moment.

The oldest, The Ogilvie Cook Book (Ogilvie Flours Mills Co., Limited, 10th edition, revised 1957) promotes itself as “a liked and respected friend of our modern homemakers.” Truly the must-have guide to home entertaining, it includes Appetizer Rolls made with Velveeta Cheese, undiluted condensed soup, bacon and Parker House rolls; Extra Good Homemade Chili with cayenne, salt and pepper as the only seasonings; and Half Moon Bay Crabs served in homemade tin foil faux crab shells. Italian food is still an emerging cuisine for the North American household, while German specialties are mainstays and French cuisine is chic. Aspic and jellies figure heavily into multiple chapters.

I realize I sound tounge-in-cheek, but my interest in these recipes is sincere – the attention to detail and specificity of garnishes show evident care and a belief in these dishes. And though these may not be staples in my current repertoire, I respect what they represent to the homemakers of 50 years ago.

These mini cheesecakes are far from revolutionary. Simplicity itself, without much accoutrement or fuss – a soft vanilla centre topped with tart berries, presented in a crumbly crust. I remember when cheesecakes were all the rage when I was little – I am pretty sure I remember the first cheesecake I’d ever tried, one brought from New York by a favourite uncle. And though the humble cake may now be prominent on most chain-restaurant menus (and in the name of one chain in particular), in my opinion, its allure has not diminished.

My idea of a classic cheesecake
An amalgamation of recipes

1/4 cup butter, melted
1 1/4 cups graham wafer crumbs

24 ounces cream cheese (three packages), at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
3 eggs
1 tablespoon lemon zest (optional)
2 teaspoon vanilla
Pinch of salt (up to 1/2 teaspoon)
1 cup sour cream
Fresh berries, chocolate or sauces to garnish

Preheat oven to 180°C (350°F).

Lightly butter bottom and sides of a 91/2-inch springform pan. In a small bowl, stir crumbs with butter until mixed. Press onto bottom of pan. Bake in centre of preheated oven until set, about 8 to 10 minutes. Cool completely. Leave oven on.

Meanwhile, using a stand or handheld mixer beat cream cheese until smooth and creamy. Slowly add sugar and cornstarch, beating well combined, scraping down sides of bowl as needed. Add eggs one at a time, beating after each addition until incorporated. Beat in lemon juice, vanilla and salt. Add sour cream and stir just until mixed.

Wrap the underside and halfway up the sides of the springform pan with a double layer of heavy-duty foil. Pour cream cheese mixture into pan. Set pan in a larger ovenproof dish. Fill larger dish or roasting pan with enough hot water to come about 1 inch up the sides of pan. Do not fill water higher than where the foil comes up the side. Bake in centre of preheated oven. After 45 minutes the cheesecake will not be completely set; keep the door shut to the oven and turn it off. Allow the cheesecake to rest in the cooling oven for about one hour.

Remove pan from water and discard foil. Run a thin knife around outside edge of cheesecake to release it from the pan. Cool in pan on a baking rack at room temperature for one hour. Refrigerate for at least three hours, preferably overnight. Garnish with fresh berries, chocolate, whipped cream or however desired.

Cheesecake will keep well refrigerated for several days or can be frozen.

• To make the mini version as pictured, use standard 24 x 1/2 cup capacity muffin tins. Double the graham cracker crust amounts and divide mixture between the tins. Bake for only 4-5 minutes to set. Ladle cheesecake mixture into each muffin tin, until about 2/3 full. Bake in a Bain Marie for about 12 minutes, or until just set (the sides will be dry, the centre still quite moist). Follow cooling directions as listed above. After chilling, invert cakes onto a baking sheet, then carefully transfer to plates. Garnish and serve.
• If garnishing with chocolate, sweetened whipped cream or a particularly sweet fruit, I sometimes cut the sugar down to 3/4 cup.