Daring Baker's Challenge: Abbey's Inspiring Cheesecake

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

Ahhh, cheesecake. And not just any cheesecake, but any cheesecake. Yes, Jenny from Jenny Bakes brought us her friend Abbey's cheesecake recipe, and allowed us to play with it. (Thanks Abbey! Thanks Jenny!) And if there's anything you've learned about me, it's that I love to play with my food.

One of my all-time favorite desserts hails from Thailand: mango with sticky rice. I first met up with this idea while working at a Thai restaurant, quite a few years back, and have been obsessed ever since. It is, on its own, in and of itself, quite perfect.

I am fortunate to live not far from a favorite Thai restaurant offering the most sublime adaptation I've tasted yet. Soft, sweet, sticky rice, steaming hot and topped with just a dab of salty coconut sauce, sesame seeds and chilled slices of the most faultlessly ripe mango. It really is something else. Knowing I could never recreate this dish with such exacting detail (I'm really bad at choosing mangoes, for one), I have always dreamed up ways to bring these flavors together in a different expression.

And here we are, Coconut Mango Cheesecake. I chose a neutral crumb (Nilla Wafers) so as not to compete with the addition of sesame seeds. I also chose to use mangoes at a time when they're not yet at their best. (The favorite Thai restaurant won't even serve the favorite Thai dessert when the mangoes aren't just right.) I originally intended to somehow incorporate sticky rice into this cheesecake, though I never quite figured out how. I didn't give up, see, I just put a reign on the wild ideas this time around. That happens, every once in a while.

Sometimes I'm just so impatient for the right season to roll around. So, if you do what I did (and don't be coy, I know it happens from time to time), seek out The Perfect Purée of Napa Valley, they produce some of the finest fruit purees you can find. Obviously, in season fruit is best, but in a pinch or on the outskirts of that season, these purees are a great substitute. Just so you know, if I could have a do-over, I would've tried a little harder to get my hands on some.

Coconut Mango Cheesecake

1¾ cups
Nilla Wafer crumbs
¼ cup sugar
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
4 oz (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted

3 – 8 oz packages cream cheese
½ cup sugar
1½ cups coconut cream (Coco Lopez or the like)
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon salt

Mango swirl:
1¼ cup mango
puree (approx. 2 mangoes)
1 egg yolk
½ cup sugar

Preheat oven to 350°

Mix together the crust ingredients until uniformly moist. Press into an even layer across the bottom and roughly halfway up the sides of a 10” springform pan. Set crust aside (in the freezer if you can).

Combine cream cheese, sugar, and coconut cream and beat together at low speed until smooth. Add eggs, one at a time, fully incorporating each one before adding the next. Be sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl in between each addition, this helps prevent lumps within the mixture. Set cheesecake filling aside.

Peel mangoes, and cut flesh away from the pit; puree in a food processor until smooth. Measure (roughly) 1¼ cups of the puree into a small bowl and add to it 1 egg yolk and ½ cup sugar; whisk together until fully incorporated.

Pour cheesecake batter into prepared crust. Dollop large spoonfuls of the mango puree over the surface of the cheesecake. To swirl: carefully dip the bowl of the spoon in and out of the cheesecake, pushing the mango puree slightly into the batter. Next, place the spoon, tip first, down into the batter, and swirl back and forth in circles. All the while, take care not to scrape the crust up into the cheesecake.

Bake for 55-65 minutes. It should still be rather wobbly, but not evidently liquid in the center, and it should not be firm at this point. Turn the oven heat off and allow the cheesecake to rest in the oven for another hour. After removing from the oven, allow the cheesecake to cool completely before refrigerating. Serve chilled.


Daring Bakers' Challenge: Lasagne of Emilia Romagna

Here I am, with yet another Daring Bakers' challenge, overdue. Not out of idleness or neglect, no, this time it was the oven. (I swear.) And while I managed to bake a cake without one, this challenge was one project I couldn't tackle in its absence.

The March 2009 challenge was hosted by Mary of Beans and Caviar, Melinda of Melbourne Larder and Enza of Io Da Grande. They have chosen Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper as the challenge.

Fresh pasta is something that I love, but don't make...ever. I don't have a pasta machine, and while I am inclined to change that, I must admit there are quite a few other limited-use gadgets that I would prefer to find within the spatial limitations of my own kitchen. In other words, I was very happy to take on the challenge of making fresh pasta, completely by hand.

Yes, I know, I say that as if such a thing is a wondrous accomplishment, as though I have discovered the newest source of renewable energy or solved one of those mathematical equations that stumped everyone but the young, disgruntled janitor in that movie that everyone seems to love. And while it might be the everyday for some, and surely was for many more in the past, it is quite a feat for someone (me) who has adapted quite well to these times of convenience. I'll say it again, I made fresh pasta completely by hand. Now I'm just bragging.

Have I even told you how much I love this lasagne, specifically? Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna is over-the-top rich meets down-to-earth comfort. Imagine sheets of fresh spinach pasta layered between bechamel (a creamy white sauce) and a hearty meat ragu, finished with a browned and bubbly crust of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Try this once and you, too will understand.

This time around, I decided to put a twist on an old favorite. (Sure, this may have been the first time I've made this dish, but not the first time I've eaten it.) I went all vegetarian. I know, I know I talked all about meat sauce, and the meat sauce is part of what makes it in some ways, but this one turned out pretty darn alright if I may say. Still hearty, still decadent, and maybe even a little better for you. Believe you me, I'm no vegetarian, but taking a break from meat every now and again isn't such a bad thing.

But enough of that. Make this. Eat this. Love this. You will.

Thanks to Mary of Beans and Caviar, Melinda of Melbourne Larder and Enza of Io Da Grande, for testing the Daring Bakers' boundaries and getting me to make fresh pasta. (Please check out their blogs for the recipe for this challenge.)

Vegetable Ragu

1 yellow onion, finely diced
2 medium carrots, finely diced
1 bulb fennel, finely diced
2 celery ribs, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
4 cups vegetable broth, low sodium (or homemade)
29 oz can petit diced tomatoes
Flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Heat a large heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Add olive oil, onions, carrots, fennel and sauté, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are caramelized and begin to soften. Add celery and garlic and continue to cook until aromatic.

Add broth and reduce heat to just above a simmer. Add tomatoes and keep just at a simmer. Stirring occasionally, cook until the sauce is very thick or has reached the desired consistency.

Season with salt and pepper to taste and stir in the chopped parsley. Serve over polenta or with tender, homemade pasta.