Saturday, November 29, 2008

Pumpkin Spice Cheesecake

I will be the first to admit that there are some superstitions that have been so bred into me that there is no getting away from them. I know that there is no sense to them, and I laugh at myself while doing it, but I still won't let a black cat cross the road in front of me, I don't walk under ladders when I can help it and I knock on wood every chance I get (and if not on wood, then on my head, because, as the joke goes, it's hollow like a tree... ha. ha. ha. thanks, family, for that one).
One deeply ingrained superstition is not to talk about how sweet life is because you will jinx it. So, I won't talk about it. I won't say how blessed I am to have my husband, my family, my friends, my work and my hobbies. I will just think quietly about how the light hits my living room in the morning just so and the top stair creaks in ways that I think are charming at 3pm but I curse at 3am. I won't even begin to contemplate the color of Gala apples and the leaves outside of my window, bright red and tinged with gold, the sweet smell of earth after the rain (I did a rain dance, and it worked) and blue eyes crinkling with laughter. Other people can talk about it, can shout it from the roof tops, but not me, no sirree. I will instead brush the flour off my apron and talk about food. "If music be the food of love, play on," said the Bard, and I play on because the converse is also true.

This recipe is fantastic. I know that pumpkin type dishes are usually made for Thanksgiving, but my husband craves this cheesecake from about September to February, so it's a great thing to have in your arsenal, especially for those cold weather months (even in California, where 'cold weather' means that the thermometer dips below 65). It's easy to put together, bakes up beautifully and the taste is out of this world. It's a more European type of cheesecake - meaning that it's soft and fluffy, not dense like a New York style cake, which is something that I love. Delicately flavored with pumpkin and spiced to the hilt, it's an instant favorite.

Pumpkin Spice Cheesecake

1 1/2 cup graham cracker crumbs
5 T butter, melted
1 T sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

24 oz cream cheese, just softened
15oz of pumpkin puree
3 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg (I use a big more than this)
1/4 tsp ground cloves

Preheat oven to 350F and prepare an 8 or 9 inch springform pan.

Whisk melted graham cracker crumbs with sugar and cinnamon. Combine with the melted butter to coat all the crumbs lightly. Press the crumbs into the bottom and about two-thirds of the way up the sides of the springform pan. Bake for 5 minutes and then set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the cream cheese, 1 cup of sugar and vanilla extract. Mix until smooth. In a large mixing bowl combine the cream cheese, 1 cup sugar, and beat until smooth. Add the pumpkin, eggs and spices and continue to beat until very well incorporated. Scrape down the bowl really well after adding each ingredient. Pour the filling into the pan and bake in a water bath for 60 to 70 minutes. The top will turn darker and will spring back when pushed a little. The water bath is important because it keeps the cheesecake soft and creamy and also gives much needed moisture so that the crust doesn't crack, so don't skip that step (after the cheesecake is done, I drain the water into a heat proof bowl with a turkey baster before taking the cheesecake out of the oven).

Garnish with whipped cream and a sprinkle of cinnamon (as you can tell, I went a little overboard with the whipped cream here... what can I say, my decorating skills are... um... evolving).

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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Best Crab Salad Ever

If you come to a Thanksgiving dinner at a Russian's house, you will be certain to find much more than turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing and pumpkin pie there. Sure, those things will be present on the menu -- don't let anyone say that we did not faithfully adopt the customs of this holiday -- but any holiday for a Russian is a blank canvas upon which he or she can paint the feast of their desires. As a result, the cold and hot appetizer spread ("zakuski") is probably a full dinner in itself, after which you may or may not want a bit of turkey and stuffing (the men in the family usually end up on the "may" side of that equation).

There are many things you will almost always find at a zakuski table -- pirozhki (meat or cabbage pies), salad Olivier (the Russian version of potato salad), cold cuts and pickled vegetables, and also crab salad. Russians love crab salad. I don't know why, I don't know how, but it's one of those things that invariably finds its way onto the menu, and I am invariably disappointed in its taste. There are many different ways to make it, but usually it involves chunks of crab and cucumbers swimming in a mayo or buttermilk-based dressing. Um. Not my idea of a good time, I can tell you.

Once I tasted my mother in law's crab salad, however, all my crab salad dreams were answered. People, this is the best crab salad ever, and I am not prone to hyperbole here. Her secret is to use the food processor to do the chopping, which produces the tenderest little flakes of crab and egg, mixed with a little fresh, crunchy cucumber and larger, succulent shrimp.... as my dad says, it's a song. There is maybe 1 tablespoon of mayo in the whole thing because the cucumbers give off enough moisture to hold it together, and my MIL sprinkles the salad with a little masago (smelt fish roe) for crunch, and it's just... so, so good. No more chunks, no more dull flavors. Every ingredient shines. And best of all (besides the taste) is that it's the quickest dish in the world to make. If you have your ingredients ready, give yourself 5-10 minutes with the food processor and it's done. Bring a little Russian flavor to your holiday table this Thanksgiving!

Best Crab Salad Ever
(via my MIL)
makes a large bowl

1 lb crab meat, cooked
1 lb medium shrimp, cooked, peeled and tails off
6 eggs, hardboiled
6 small cucumbers (or one of the huge English cucumbers)
1-2 T mayonnaise
2-3 T masago (optional)

Put all your ingredients in prep bowls and make a large salad bowl ready.

Put the crab meat in the food processor and give it a few pulses until the crab is reduced to tiny flakes and no large pieces remain. Turn the crab out into the salad bowl.

Cut the hardboiled eggs in half and put into the bowl of the food processor, processing for a few seconds until the eggs too are reduced to small pieces and no large pieces remain. Turn out into a bowl next to the crab. I usually do this in two additions (so 3 eggs at a time), but if you have a larger food processor, you might be able to put all the eggs in there at once.

Chop the cucumbers very roughly and do the same thing with the food processor (a fwe pulses of 2/3 seconds each usually suffice). Watch out not to process too much so that the cucumbers don't become slush. Turn out into the salad bowl.

Remove the tails from the shrimp and turn them out into the bowl as well (reserving a few for decoration). Mix the lot with about a tablespoon of mayo. Add more mayo, salt and pepper to taste, making sure all the ingredients are distributed evenly. If you are using masago, mix in about 2 tablespoons with the rest of the ingredients. Arrange the left over shrimp on top decoratively (and if using masago, sprinkle with the left-over tablespoon of masago).

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Pumpkin bread

People, I am officially getting on the pumpkin bandwagon. When I just came to this country, many years ago, using pumpkin in sweets sounded like another one of those wacky American ideas (along with PB&J sandwiches, cottage cheese and alfalfa, though the last one probably sounds wacky to anyone who doesn't live in California). It took me all the way until last year (I KNOW, what was I thinking?) to try a pumpkin dessert, and luckily for me, it was a pumpkin cheesecake. I don't have to tell you how insanely awesome that is, right? Just thinking about it is making me drool.

There is something about pumpkin puree that is quintessentially fall, its gentle aroma wafting through the house just as the wind beats against windows and doors and ruffles the dry leaves. Snuggled on the couch during one such evening, I was flipping through Dorie Greenspan's book, Baking, and I saw the recipe for pumpkin muffins, and I knew that this was going to be my first pumpkin dessert experiment. The recipe seemed very straightforward, not fussy at all. I liked that -- I like food that can make you feel great but still remain a background for good friends and good conversation. Oh, how glad I am that I made this! This is a bread that has to be eaten warm, maybe even with a dollop of spiced whipped cream, and surrounded by a spread of all my favorite fall fruit - persimmons, apples and pomegranates. I substituted black currants for raisins, upped the nutmeg and added a dollop of brandy (hey, don't judge me), which gave this unassuming quickbread a nice flavor kick. Not too moist and not too dry, this is a perfect tea cake. Almost absentmindedly, the four of us went through most of the loaf in a few hours, chased by a few small glasses of delicious Framboise (right, like I said, "tea cake"). I can tell you that I was very happy with the way it all turned out and will gladly repeat the experiment. Pumpkin cheesecake -- here I come!

Pumpkin Bread

(adapted from Dorie Greenspan's Pumpkin Muffins recipe)

2 cups all purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
pinch of allspice
1 stick (8 T) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 cup canned unsweetened pumpkin puree
1/4 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup black currants (or raisins)
1/2 cup chopped pecans of walnuts
2 T brandy

Preheat oven to 400F. Butter or spray your mold. Soak the black currants in about a cup of boiling water until soft and plump.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and spices. In a mixer bowl, beat the butter until soft and fluffy. Add sugar and continue to beat until smooth. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each egg. Beat in the vanilla and the brandy. Lower mixer speed and incorporate the pumpkin and the buttermilk. With the mixer on low, add the dry ingredients in a steady stream, mixing only until incorporated (don't overmix!).

Drain the black currants and, with a rubber spatula, stir in the currants and the chopped nuts. Pour into a loaf pan and bake for about 50 minutes or until a knife inserted into the middle comes out clean.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008


It's been a while since I last posted, but I promise, there is something yummy coming very soon. Meanwhile, enjoy this non-food-related yummy - my fav football player de jour, the gorgeous goalkeeper for Real Madrid, Iker Casillas.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Today, eight years ago, A. and I shared our first kiss. I can't tell you how wonderful those years have been. It seems like time has passed so quickly, and yet, I can barely remember what my life was like before we were together -- all I know is that it was incomplete. Thank you, my darling, thank you for everything.

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Saturday, November 8, 2008

Apple Tart Bread

It will come as no surprise that I find baking to be very therapeutic. Especially, when I bake in the morning and the light in my kitchen is bright and golden and the house is quiet, quiet except for the rustle of leaves outside or the quick spatter of someone's footsteps. I don't get to do this often (unfortunately, my full time job intrudes), but when I do, I treasure it. It's my time, as much mine as I can make it. The magic that happens here is mine alone and mine to share.

I hope you are not yet sick of apple cakes, because I am offering another one from this website that has quickly become one of my favorites since I discovered it a short time ago. What I really wanted to do was make an apple pie. However, I have sort of a phobia of apple pies and I have never baked one before, and that morning was not the one for experimenting. You see, even though I have spent most of my life in this country, my genes are European and I just don't know what a true American apple pie is supposed to taste like. I do not have that innate sense of rightness or that intuition that most people have when cooking a dish native to their ancestors' land. Some day, I will research and tackle this project (or just shoot from the hip and make the first recipe that sounds good to me), but the morning I baked this, I felt a tug of nostalgia and I wanted something that tastes familiar, something I could smell even before the first flour was sifted or the first apple was cut.

All I can say is that this cake is a delight and you must -- no, really, you must -- make it. It is everything that is rustic and yet elegant, complex and simple, tasting of mellow October sun and apple orchards heavy with ripened fruit. It's the kind of cake where you think "will all these apples really fit?" but fit they do, and gloriously so. I would make it again and for every occasion. Slicing the apples thinly gives it the softness and delicacy of French apple tarts, but the robust batter (which, by the way, tasted amazing) provides a nice, comforting heft. I am completely in love with this cake.

Apple cake 2

The Knead For Bread Apple Tart Bread

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 large eggs
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup melted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3.5-4 large apples or 5 smaller ones
Confectioners' sugar for dusting

Peel and core your apples, and then slice them thinly. Prepare an 11 inch tart pan and turn the oven to 350F. If you don't want the apples to brown, you can squeeze some lemon juice over the apples (but there is no need here, as the apples will go into the batter anyway).

Sift the flour, baking powder, salt and cinnamon into a small bowl. Melt the butter and leave it to cool. In a large bowl combine the eggs and sugar. Using a mixer mix on high speed for three minutes. The mixture will become pale and thick.

Add in the slightly warm melted butter and vanilla extract. Mix until well blended. Add in the sliced apples and stir until the apples are coated. Add in the sifted dry ingredients and mix until the flour in incorporated.

Pour into the prepared tart pan and place into the preheated oven for 50-55 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool on a wire rack. Once cooled, dust with confectioners' sugar. I think this tastes the best when warm, and I would not be averse to trying it with some whipped cream next time.

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Saturday, November 1, 2008

World Peace Cookies

It is a truth universally acknowledged that cookies make people happy (sorry, Jane Austen, I just had to crib that line). It's so true, though -- have you ever been unhappy while eating a cookie? No, I think not, my friends. Cookies are like a shot of tequila, only without the headache. I have a friend whose grandmother told me that every time she travels, she bakes cookies. She says that it immediately breaks the ice and makes people smile -- especially harried, stressed out people who only expect complaints and demands from passengers. I love that sentiment and I do find that food is the greatest communal experience through which we bond with others (ok, maybe not *the* greatest, but you know what I mean!). These cookies hit the spot completely. They are as intensely chocolate as they look, and the bit of salt gives it a grown up, sophisticated flavor. All I can say is, bake them, share them, enjoy the smiles.

World Peace Cookies

(Dorie Greenspan - makes 36 cookies)

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 stick plus 3 tablespoons (11 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup (packed) light brown sugar
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon fleur de sel or 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped into chips, or a generous 3/4 cup store-bought mini chocolate chips

1. Sift the flour, cocoa and baking soda together.

2. Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the butter on medium speed until soft and creamy. Add both sugars, the salt and vanilla extract and beat for 2 minutes more.

3. Turn off the mixer. Pour in the dry ingredients, drape a kitchen towel over the stand mixer to protect yourself and your kitchen from flying flour and pulse the mixer at low speed about 5 times, a second or two each time. Take a peek — if there is still a lot of flour on the surface of the dough, pulse a couple of times more; if not, remove the towel. Continuing at low speed, mix for about 30 seconds more, just until the flour disappears into the dough — for the best texture, work the dough as little as possible once the flour is added, and don't be concerned if the dough looks a little crumbly. Toss in the chocolate pieces and mix only to incorporate.

4. Turn the dough out onto a work surface, gather it together and divide it in half. Working with one half at a time, shape the dough into logs that are 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Wrap the logs in plastic wrap and refrigerate them for at least 3 hours. (The dough can be refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 2 months. If you've frozen the dough, you needn't defrost it before baking — just slice the logs into cookies and bake the cookies 1 minute longer.)

Getting Ready to Bake:

5. Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment or silicone mats.

6. Using a sharp thin knife, slice the logs into rounds that are 1/2 inch thick. (The rounds are likely to crack as you're cutting them — don't be concerned, just squeeze the bits back onto each cookie.) Arrange the rounds on the baking sheets, leaving about 1 inch between them.

7. Bake the cookies one sheet at a time for 12 minutes — they won't look done, nor will they be firm, but that's just the way they should be. Transfer the baking sheet to a cooling rack and let the cookies rest until they are only just warm, at which point you can serve them or let them reach room temperature.

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