Monday, April 27, 2009

The Salty and the Sweet, or Tabula Rasa

Welcome to the inaugural post of Baking Without Fear. In this blog, I'll be documenting my journey to challenge myself as a home baker, as well as showcasing tasty things I like to bake and eat. Really--that's why I bake. Because, even as a kid who didn't like to eat very much, I can always find an appetite for sweets. I may have survived my childhood because, despite barely swallowing a mouthful of chicken, I could eat fifteen Chips Ahoy cookies. Sweets just make me happy. So I make them for myself, my husband, Z., and anyone else who happens to be the beneficiary of my baking munificence.

It's odd that many people I know seem to find the prospect of baking from scratch to be daunting, terrifying or too much trouble to attempt themselves. Granted, there are recipes for extremely complicated, multi-step recipes that are tackled by pastry students at elite French baking academies. But, honestly, how often do you find yourself sitting around, watching an episode of
America's Next Top Model, and you think, "I could really go for a gâteau St. Honoré." What you want is a damn brownie or cookie or even a slice of pie. And, honestly, it's not that difficult and doesn't take very long to make any of those things yourself. Really. I'm serious.

Why bother? Because you can control everything: the quality of the ingredients, where your delicious baked treat was prepared, how you want it to taste. Frosting, or no frosting. Nuts, or to hell with nuts. It's up to you. And wouldn't it be nice to reclaim something from either the soulless commercial ovens or pretentious coffee houses where you usually obtain your cookies? We complain a lot about the homogenization of our current culture, the sense of ennui and disaffectedness to which we're all subject. You want a sense of identity? Turn on your oven. Buy some butter. Crack a few eggs. The results don't have to be pretty. We're not food stylists. We make delicious things that friends eat, and it makes them, and us, happy.

So bake. Bake and reclaim yourself.

In addition to having my own challenge list (tacked onto my fridge), I'm also a member of the Daring Bakers. This month's Daring Baker Challenge was hosted by She provided us with the option to get as creative as we'd like with Abbey's Infamous Cheesecake. With that kind of ultimate freedom comes a sense of blank-eyed terror. So many options! What do I choose?

Ultimately, I went back to one of my favorite flavors: sea salt caramel. Something about the unctuous caramel, almost cloyingly sweet, with that salty kick right in the gustatorial 'nads just appeals to me. Maybe because I fancy myself a combination of the salty and sweet, as well.

I knew that just swirling caramel into the cheesecake wasn't quite enough to make it special. So I went the extra step and made the crust from brown sugar icebox cookies. And then, for a little bit of garnish, I tried my hand at honeycomb candy. (For the uninitiated, honeycomb candy is basically what's in the center of a Violet Crumble or Crunchie bar.)

Because I like miniature things, I baked the cheesecake in a muffin tin. The result being that I had twenty four salted caramel cheesecakes staring at me, daring me and Z. to eat them all. So I made some deliveries around town, and the response far and wide was one of delight. I had actually made the caramel a little
too salty, but when it was combined with the brown sugar buttery sweetness of the crust and the smooth, mild cheesecake, a wonderful synthesis arose. And isn't that what baking is all about--transformation?

Welcome to Baking Without Fear.

The original recipe for
Abbey's Infamous Cheesecake:

2 cups / 180 g graham cracker crumbs
1 stick / 4 oz butter, melted
2 tbsp. / 24 g sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract

3 sticks of cream cheese, 8 oz each (total of 24 oz) room temperature
1 cup / 210 g sugar
3 large eggs
1 cup / 8 oz heavy cream
1 tbsp. lemon juice
1 tbsp. vanilla extract (or the innards of a vanilla bean)
1 tbsp liqueur, optional, but choose what will work well with your cheesecake

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (Gas Mark 4 = 180C = Moderate heat). Begin to boil a large pot of water for the water bath.

2. Mix together the crust ingredients and press into your preferred pan. You can press the crust just into the bottom, or up the sides of the pan too - baker's choice. Set crust aside.

3. Combine cream cheese and sugar in the bowl of a stand-mixer (or in a large bowl if using a hand-mixer) and cream together until smooth. Add eggs, one at a time, fully incorporating each before adding the next. Make sure to scrape down the bowl in between each egg. Add heavy cream, vanilla, lemon juice, and alcohol and blend until smooth and creamy.

4. Pour batter into prepared crust and tap the pan on the counter a few times to bring all air bubbles to the surface. Place pan into a larger pan and pour boiling water into the larger pan until halfway up the side of the cheesecake pan. If cheesecake pan is not airtight, cover bottom securely with foil before adding water.

5. Bake 45 to 55 minutes, until it is almost done - this can be hard to judge, but you're looking for the cake to hold together, but still have a lot of jiggle to it in the center. You don't want it to be completely firm at this stage. Close the oven door, turn the heat off, and let rest in the cooling oven for one hour. This lets the cake finish cooking and cool down gently enough so that it won't crack on the top. After one hour, remove cheesecake from oven and lift carefully out of water bath. Let it finish cooling on the counter, and then cover and put in the fridge to chill. Once fully chilled, it is ready to serve.

Pan note: The creator of this recipe used to use a springform pan, but no matter how well she wrapped the thing in tin foil, water would always seep in and make the crust soggy. Now she uses one of those 1-use foil "casserole" shaped pans from the grocery store. They're 8 or 9 inches wide and really deep, and best of all, water-tight. When it comes time to serve, just cut the foil away.

Prep notes: While the actual making of this cheesecake is a minimal time commitment, it does need to bake for almost an hour, cool in the oven for an hour, and chill overnight before it is served. Please plan accordingly!

If you would like the recipes for the brown sugar cookies, salted caramel or honeycomb candy, please leave a comment, and I'll be happy to provide!


  1. Gosh, that looks so good! caramelly goodness! Well done

  2. Mmm, your cheesecake looks amazing!! I love the caramel =D.

  3. I'm in love with your salted caramel marble, so much so, that I'm drooling as I keep looking at that second photo. Amazing job! YUM!