Pumpkin Cheesecake and the End of Autumn

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Thanksgiving is over and done (long done if you celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving in mid-October), but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy some photos of a pumpkin cheesecake. I’ve made this twice, and it’s seriously the best. And I bought bourbon! (Just for this recipe, I promise.) It’s not a difficult recipe either, though it does come in three steps: crust, filling, top. Funnily enough, the last time I made it was in Estonia, where it was equally hard to find things like pumpkin and graham crackers. Never fear. It’ll turn out well no matter what. Even if you, like me, have to substitute butternut squash for pumpkin, maple syrup for most of the sugar, and “health cookies” for the graham crackers. On the plus side, unlike a traditional cheesecake, it won’t matter a bit if the top cracks. That’s what the sour cream topping is for.

Thanksgiving 013My camera battery has been sadly languishing at my mum’s, so I’m indebted to my friend Stasya for taking all these nice photos. I was pretty haphazard about this, throwing in handfuls of this, pinches of that, so I don’t have anything close to a recipe for you. Find it over at Smitten Kitchen instead. I’d only suggest that you double the crust. There’s never enough.

Moscow is now a snowy winterland, with its scary iced-over sidewalks and bouts of freezing rain. But the boulevards especially look so nice. This one from Old Moscow, of the Chisti Prudi Boulevard (right near my flat) captures the feeling quite nicely. Happy winter, friends!

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Blackcurrant Bakewell Squares

I leave for my holidays tomorrow and, in honour of a short jaunt to France, I made a crêpe cake. It involved making crêpe after tedious crêpe, sandwiching them together with a cream cheese filling and topping it off with a butterscotch sauce. It was reasonably tasty, but most of the photos make it look like a blob. Not very appealing. I decided to make something new instead, something which would photograph better and would use up the blackcurrants I had lying around. I checked Food Network, Epicurious and all my standard American favourites, but I couldn’t get anything beyond blah recipes involving crème de cassis. I guess I’d never thought much about blackcurrants before either, but then I was lucky enough to get a pound or so from my colleague, who picked them while at her dacha last summer. This subsequently made me think of jam and, after doing some research, I learned of the bakewell tart, apparently quite the classic in England (as are all things berry–just check out some of these). I can only make rectangular-shaped things, given that I have one baking pan, but this seemed the perfect recipe to herald in the arrival of summer berries and nice weather.

This was my first foray into jam-making, and it proved really, really easy. If you have some fruit on hand, especially a high pectin one like blackcurrants, hop to it and make this super-easy jam. It was so easy, in fact, that I am far too lazy to retype the instructions; they’re easily available over here on BBC’s website.

Bakewell Squares (adapted from a Waitrose recipe)

The most popular version of this is actually the bakewell tart, which I’m sure would have been lovely had I had the right equipment. Failing that, it worked nicely in my standard glass baking dish. It’s a pretty easy recipe, despite the many steps, and it works with jams of all sorts. You certainly don’t have to make the jam. I must say that I was too lazy to go out and buy additional ingredients, so my topping was a little on the slight side. I essentially just halved the recipe. I’ve given listings for both what I did and for the original, thicker topping. I think I’ll go for more next time.

Pastry:

  • 200g plain flour
  • 2tbsp sugar
  • 100g unsalted butter, chilled and cubed
  • 2 large beaten egg yolks

Frangipane Topping:

  • 100g softened unsalted buter (I ran out and used 50g instead)
  • 3 large eggs, beaten (2 eggs for me)
  • 125g cane sugar (70g–you get the idea)
  • pinch of vanilla sugar or 1/2 tsp almond extract
  • 150g ground almonds (I used about 80g of both almonds and walnuts, as those were what I had on hand)
  • Sugar, to dust on top
  • Around 3/4 cup jam for the middle (I’ll bet strawberry would be particularly delicious against the almonds)

Make the pastry by combining the flour, sugar and salt. Rub in the cold butter with your fingers or a pastry cutter until it resembles fine bread crumbs. Then add in half the beaten egg yolks, mixing until you have a soft, slightly dry pastry. Now you can roll out your dough to fit your tart/baking pan, but I was honestly much too lazy for this. Just press it into the pan with your fingers and put the tray into the fridge for a half-hour. Preheat your oven to 190°C. When your 30 minutes is up, prick the dough all over, then put it in the oven for 15 minutes or until it’s golden brown. Take it out and let it cool a bit, then spread your jam over the top. Lower the oven temperature to 180°C

Now get started on the filling: beat together the soft butter and sugar, then slowly add the eggs a little at a time. Be careful not to let the mixture curdle; ensuring that all the ingredients are at room temperature will help a lot. Add the almond/vanilla extract, then fold in the ground almonds. Spoon the mixture over the jam and level it out with the back of the spoon. Place it back in the oven for 30-35 minutes, or until the top is golden and slightly firm to the touch. Take it out, let it cool slightly, then sprinkle with cane or icing sugar. Eat up.

Unsliced Original


Homemade Snickers Bars

I wish that I could claim this recipe as my own, but it’s entirely Dorie Greenspan’s. I once made a Snickers muffin (courtesy of Nigella), but this is the first time I have attempted to do anything more complicated, Snickers-wise, than chopping. This particular recipe involves a shortbread base, a layer of dulce de leche, candied nuts, a layer of chocolate, and more nuts. It’s not difficult, but it’s definitely involved. It seems to be just the ticket for a Russian winter that lingers on and on. No one will see you in a bathing suit–at this rate–for years! Actually, if you cut these up very small it ends up being less revolting-Cheesecake-Factory-concoction and more of a sweet nibble; Snickers for grown-ups who’ve progressed beyond the Easy-Bake stage into a milieu of more sophisticated things.

We celebrated Women’s Day (said to be the biggest holiday after the new year) on the 8th here in Russia, which means that women such as myself received congratulatory chocolates from their students/colleagues/partners. Not knowing what to do with such a giant box of filled truffles, I melted them in my favourite alchemical project–sweets-making. Candies abound in Russia, as they seem to everywhere, but there’s something very satisfying and you’ve-earned-it about making your own.

Homemade Snickers Bars (adapted from Culinary Concoctions by Peabody, which was adapted from a recipe by Dorie Greenspan)

The Crust:

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 2 tbsp powdered sugar (which I didn’t have. It worked fine without.)
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, cold, cut into cubes
  • 1 large egg yolk, lightly beaten

The Filling:

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 3 tbsp water
  • 1 1/2 cups salted peanuts (I used a combination of peanuts, cashews and hazelnuts, which seemed to work well.)
  • 1 1/2 cups dulce de leche

The Topping:

  • 8 oz chocolate (you can use massacred filled truffles, as I did)
  • 3 tbsp butter

Preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F) and butter an 8-inch square baking dish. Feel free to use another similar-sized tin. Your sweets will be beautiful no matter what. Place the dish on a baking tray.

First, the crust: Whisk together the flour, sugar and salt, then cut in the cold butter until the mixture is in even crumbs. Add the egg yolk and mix lightly until everything is uniform.

Turn the dough out into your prepared pan and press it down firmly. Prick it all over with a fork and then put it in the oven for 15-20 minutes or until slightly golden around the edges. Transfer to a rack and let it cool.

Prepare the filling by heating the sugar and water in a pan over medium heat and cook it until the sugar dissolves. Keeping the heat high, keep cooking the mixture until it just starts to colour. Add the nuts and keep stirring until everything just caramelizes (2-4 minutes). Immediately remove the pan from the heat and turn over the nuts onto a baking sheet. Spread the mixture as thinly as possible and let cool. When it is cool enough to handle, break the mixture apart into smaller pieces. Divide them in half, with one half for the filling and one half for the topping.

Spread the shortbread base with dulce de leche, then sprinkle half the nut mixture on top. Now time to make the topping: melt the chocolate over low heat until it’s all melted. Remove it from the heat, then mix in the butter. Smooth the chocolate over the dulce de leche, then sprinkle over the rest of the nuts. Pop it in the fridge or freezer until it’s time to slice and serve. Note that your Snickers will melt pretty quickly once brought to room temperature. Get ’em while they’re hot (or, erm, not).

Makes around 12 bite-sized squares


Dulce de Leche

Lately I’ve been very into the idea of Argentina, though I’m not entirely sure why; I’ve never been there, and I can’t say I’ve ever met more than one or two Argentines. Maybe it has to do with the fact that I started learning Spanish last year and imagined where I’d be able to practice the language. Or maybe it’s the fact that several of my friends have talked about their experiences working and traveling in Buenos Aires (my friend Louise was there this summer and took some great photos). Or maybe it’s that I’ve watched some Argentine films recently and have been inspired. And then there’s the food; I’m dreaming of medialunas (those sweet croissants), some nice milky coffee and maybe some maté. And as you must have gathered, I’m all about the sweets, something that Latin America supplies in scores.

That brings us to the point: Dulce de Leche. I talked about it a bit already when I mentioned the Freggo ice cream shop here in London, but it definitely deserves a post all its own. It’s sweetened condensed milk, already a gift from God, transformed and turned into a smooth, shiny caramel. I started off making it the old-fashioned way by boiling it in the can, but then I got freaked out that the can was going to explode in my face and I was going to die (an embarrassing death if there ever was one). So instead I opened the can, poured it into a pan and caramelized it for an hour in the oven, David Leibovitz-style. Next time I think I’ll compromise and pierce some holes in the can and simmer it in some water for a few hours.  I’ll let you make up your own mind how to cook yours; WikiHow has lots of ideas. (Note: A few days later I tried the method whereby you pierce some holes in the can–it didn’t work for me; four hours in a pot of simmering water and all I was left with was warm condensed milk).

Once you’re done making your Dulce de Leche, you can do anything you like with it. I ate mine on ice cream, toast and spread on cookies. You can go traditional and make Argentine alfajores, or you can take a note from Brazil with these faux brigadeiros. I forgot to take photos, but I passed them around to friends and they were quickly eaten up.