Monday, May 25, 2015

Pausing for Cheesecake

Cheesecake got me back in the kitchen. Sadly, I haven’t spent much time there lately other than to dash in for quick meals before rushing to the next task. But with Shavuot arriving, I had to take some time out to bake cheesecake. After all, it’s cheesecake!

Shavuot is a Jewish holiday that marks the day Moses received the Torah at Mount Sinai. Festive dairy dishes are traditionally served, which may be due to Shavuot falling in spring when sheep, goats and cows are producing an abundance of milk. Luscious treats such as cheese blintzes and cheesecake are happily eaten to celebrate. Our community in Seattle even hosts a cheesecake bake-off each year. I’d love to do that here in the Methow Valley some year!

I just got some new little spring form pans in at the store – so cute! – which inspired me to try making baby cheesecakes using a terrific recipe for New York style cheesecake that I’ve tweaked and baked countless times over the years. I prefer its classic, simple flavor, adorned only with a few berries.  Let me tell you, this one is dense and rich and creamy.

While the crust is usually made with graham crackers, any cookie crumbs can be used. Shortbread, ginger snaps or vanilla wafers made wonderful crusts, too. For these mini cheesecakes, I decided on chocolate wafers.

When making cheesecake, you really need to plan ahead. It’s important that all the ingredients are room temperature so that they blend together easily. Once baked, cheesecake must chill for at least six hours or preferably overnight. It’s a marvelous dessert to make ahead, especially since it will keep for a few days in the fridge. Something else I learned more recently is that you get the smoothest texture possible when the filling is whizzed in a food processor rather than using a mixer. I definitely recommend this method.

Being back in the kitchen baking was quite restorative and a welcome respite. Those tasks I mentioned earlier? More transition. We have decided it’s time to move our life here completely, which means packing up 20 years in Seattle and moving it to a house here in the valley. This house is over 100 years old and we are painting, pulling carpet, hanging drywall, ripping out cabinets and getting to know it inch by inch, making it our home. It’s by the river and the soothing sound of water rushing by is already familiar.

And there’s yet one more very big transition … Isaac graduates from high school next week! Which means 20 years of full time parenting is winding down. There are no words for all the emotions I’m feeling. I’m a proud mama with much to celebrate.

So I guess that’s all the big news. And I didn’t even mention them until the end of this post. I guess I’m still coming to terms. It’s been a whirlwind, many weeks counting down towards Isaac’s graduation, the end of an era, a new beginning, a new house. But I’m happy.

Cheesecakes with Chocolate Crust
Makes 6 – 4 ½ inch spring form pans or 1 – 9 inch spring form

1 ½ cups finely ground chocolate wafer crumbs
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
5 - 8 ounce packages cream cheese, room temperature
1 ½ cups sugar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Juice of ¼ lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla
5 eggs, room temperature
2 egg yolks, room temperature

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Place the spring form pans on a rimmed baking sheet. In a medium sized bowl, stir together the chocolate wafer crumbs and butter until well mixed. Divide the crust mixture evenly between the pans and gently smooth onto the bottoms. Set aside.

Place the cream cheese, sugar, flour, lemon juice and vanilla in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until it begins to come together (the bowl will be very full). Add 3 eggs and pulse a few times. Add the remaining 2 eggs and egg yolks and pulse. Scrape the sides and bottom carefully with a spatula. At this point, turn the food processor on and blend until the batter is very smooth.

Divide the batter evenly between the 6 pans and smooth the tops. Place the baking sheet in the oven and bake for 40-45 minutes, until just set. Remove the baking sheet from the oven and let the cheesecakes cool.

Once cool, cover each one and pop into the fridge to chill for at least 6 hours. They will keep for up to one week. Serve with fresh berries.

If baking in a 9 inch spring form, increase the baking time to 1 hour.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Winter Salad with Cumin Vinaigrette

And just like that, it is February. Winter is slipping by and when I’m not in the store I’m enjoying every snowy moment I can outside. I do think it may be my favorite season in the Methow Valley. But then I’ve said the same about spring, summer and fall.

With the snow and skiing comes some richly satisfying meals of long simmered stews and roasts. At the same time, I do start craving fresh, lighter flavors around about now, which fortunately coincides nicely with the abundance of citrus that pops up in the markets.

We are kicking off a new year in our Tasting Jerusalem group and cooking with cumin (Beth shares some terrific background on the history of cumin here). I tend to use cumin with meat, but with all the Cara Cara and blood oranges, limes and Meyer lemons piling up on my kitchen counter I couldn’t help but wonder how cumin pairs with citrus. I was optimistic as cumin is so versatile.

Not much to it here: I started mixing up a simple vinaigrette and, rather than my usual lemon, I squeezed a lime. I added a generous scoop of cumin along with olive oil and salt and gave the jar a good shake.

I then set about combining all the flavors and textures I am craving: crunchy romaine, soft avocado, sharp red onion, sweet oranges and puckery Meyer lemons. A drizzle of the cumin vinaigrette and voila! We started eating our wintery salad.

My optimism paid off. Cumin’s distinctive, warm, earthy flavor really came through and balanced the bright, citrusy flavors of the salad beautifully. It was a deeply satisfying salad that seemed to bridge the gap between the snowy winter outside and the piles of citrus inside. What a special time of year.

Winter Salad with Cumin Vinaigrette

These are the ingredients I used to create a salad with some punchy flavors and textures – feel free to use any citrus or other produce that is in season. I think some pomegranate arils would be delicious, too.

Romaine or other crunchy lettuce, roughly chopped
Baby greens such as spinach or kale
Red onion, finely chopped
Avocado, diced
Meyer lemon, finely chopped (including peel)
Cara Cara oranges, peeled and thinly sliced
Blood oranges, peeled and thinly sliced
Cumin Vinaigrette (recipe follows)

Assemble your greens and remaining ingredients on a platter or individual plates. Drizzle with cumin vinaigrette and serve.

Cumin Vinaigrette
Makes ½ cup

1/3 cup freshly squeezed lime juice (roughly 2 large limes)
½ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ cup olive oil
½ teaspoon kosher salt

Combine all ingredients in a small jar with a cover and shake until well mixed. The dressing can be kept in the refrigerator for a week.

This recipe has been shared on the 28 Days of Salad Project which you can check out here.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Mushroom and Cherry Beef Stew

With the arrival of a new year, I have been reflecting a lot. I am coming up on the first anniversary of owning the store, soon it will be two years since we moved to the Valley and 2015 has always hovered in the distant future as the year my youngest, Isaac, graduates from high school. And now it’s 2015. Whew! These past couple of years have been a journey and we are still in the midst of it. I’m excited to see what discoveries this year will bring.

For now, though, I want to share a winter stew with you. This is one I’ve been making for years and I can’t believe I haven’t shared it yet. While it’s fun to try new recipes, having a repertoire of tried and true staples is important. It’s comforting to create a familiar dish, to slip into the quiet rhythm of cooking and relax. This gives me time to ponder the recurring theme of “how did I get to this stage of parenting so quickly?” while I cube beef and slice onions.

This beef stew is a little different than more traditional stews with potatoes and carrots. Chunks of beef are simmered in red wine and beef broth along with earthy mushrooms, tart dried cherries, cinnamon and allspice. As the stew cooks, the cozy scent of warm, fragrant spices fills the kitchen.

Recently I learned about making beef bone broth and what a revelation! Instead of cooking the bones for an hour or two as I had done in the past, the bones are first roasted and then simmered for twelve to eighteen hours, yielding the richest, most nutrient-dense broth possible. After chilling the broth, I skim the fat and save it for cooking and then freeze the broth in jars. If you have access to homemade bone broth, please use it in this stew.

After cooking for a few hours, the beef is meltingly tender and it’s hard to stop taking little tastes. Like most stews, the flavor improves as it sits and is even better if you prepare it a day ahead (making it a terrific dish for guests). I find that cooking and eating a familiar dish like this one grounds me and is a constant during this time of transition. I’m happy to settle in with a savory bowl and just be.

Mushroom and Cherry Beef Stew
Serves 6-8
Adapted from Simply Classic by Kay Baxter and Lucy Bauer Footlik

3 pounds boneless beef chuck, cut into 1 inch cubes
3 tablespoons rice flour (can also use all-purpose flour)
1 ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon allspice
¾ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons vegetable oil or beef fat
2 medium onions, cut in half and thinly sliced
4 ounces dried tart cherries
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 cup dry red wine
1 cup good quality beef broth
1 pound mushrooms, quartered

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Combine the flour, salt, allspice, cinnamon and pepper in a large bowl and stir to combine. Add the beef cubes and gently toss to coat them. Add a tablespoon of fat or oil to a Dutch oven and heat it over medium-high heat. Add a 1/3 of the beef and brown it on all sides (about 5 minutes). Remove it to a large bowl and repeat with the remaining meat in two batches, adding a tablespoon of oil each time.

Reduce the heat, add the remaining oil, onions and cherries. Cook until the onions are soft and beginning to brown. Stir often and mix in the sugar, vinegar, wine, broth and mushrooms. Return the beef to the Dutch oven and mix everything together. Cover the Dutch oven and bake for 2 ½ hours, until the beef is very tender. Remove the lid and bake for 15 minutes to thicken the stew a little. If it seems a bit dry you can add a bit of broth or red wine, but I haven’t had this happen. Using a wooden spoon, gently mash some of the beef chunks against the side of the pan and stir in. Taste for salt and set aside to cool. If serving that day, you can reheat the stew covered in the oven or over low heat on the stove top. Or, cover and refrigerate it until ready to serve. Reheat it (covered) in a low oven or on low heat on the stove top.