Saturday, July 30, 2011

National Cheesecake Day

I had no idea.  There is actually a day, today, July 30, to honor cheesecake.  This is truly my favorite dessert.  Unfortunately, the calorie count in cheesecake makes it one I only make for special occasions and one I try to stay away from on a regular basis. 

According to the email I received from this morning, cheesecake was served by the Greeks to Olympic athletes in 776 B.C.   I can only imagine what that tasted like.

Cheesecake has not always been my favorite dessert.  When I was growing up, my grandfather would bring home cheesecake from a Polish bakery in Hamtramck, where he worked.  That style of cheesecake tends to be dry.  Most recipes for Polish cheesecake call for cottage cheese.  That explains a lot.

On the other side of my family, the Italian side, we never had cheesecake.  But a few years ago I made a recipe from Giada deLaurentis.  Made with ricotta cheese, it is exquisite.  Oh, and some cream cheese was also there.

I guess everyone is most familiar with New York Style Cheesecake.  Cream cheese, eggs, whipping cream.  Decadent.  Delicious.  And of course, fattening. 

I had a pastry class where the Chef was making cheesecake.  One of the students was a real pain in the you-know-what.  What can you substitute for butter?  Do you really need to use real eggs?  I wondered 'why she was in a pastry class?'  Anyway, she asked the Chef if there was a way to make the cheesecake with less calories.  He told her to eat half a slice!

A few years ago I decided to enter the Pillsbury Bake-Off contest.  To do so, you are given a list of ingredients to choose from and must use a certain number of them.  I came up with a recipe for an apricot almond cheese tart (below).  Of course, you have to try this recipe a few times before you get it right and someone has to eat all that cheese.   Pity.

Since that time, I have come across another easier recipe that does not have eggs in it and does not have to be baked except for the crust.  It is a great 'go to' recipe in a pinch.  That recipe also follows.

So, in honor of National Cheesecake Day, go bake a cheesecake.  Or at least go someplace and have a slice.  Probably a safer alternative.

Apricot almond cream cheese tart 

1 cup Whole Almonds  
1 Pillsbury® Create ‘n BakeTM Refrigerated Sugar Cookie Dough 16.5-oz. roll
2 8-ounce packages Philadelphia Cream Cheese, room temperature
6 Tbsp Granulated Sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp almond extract
zest from one lemon
2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
14 ounces Smucker‘s® Apricot Preserves
1/3 cup Blanched Slivered Almonds  

Preheat oven to 375. 

Lightly grease (non-stick spray) an 11-inch tart pan with removable bottom.  Place on cookie sheet. 

Place whole almonds in food processor and chop till fine but not ground.  Add to cookie dough in bowl and mix by hand until nuts are incorporated.  Do not overwork dough.  Pat into flat round, wrap in plastic and chill until ready to roll.  When ready, place dough between two sheets of plastic wrap and roll to fit 11-inch tart pan (13 inch circle).  Carefully place dough in pan and fit around edges.  Trim top edge.  

Butter or spray a piece of parchment to fit pan and place buttered side down over dough.  Weight with pie weights or beans.  Bake for 20 minutes, remove parchment and weights and continue baking until golden, 5-10 minutes.  Remove from oven and cool.  Reduce over temperature to 350. 

In a mixing bowl, beat cream cheese with sugar until creamy.  Add eggs, one at a time, mixing to incorporate.  Add almond extract, lemon zest and lemon juice.  Mix.  Pour into crust. 

Warm apricot preserves just till spreadable.  Pour randomly over cream cheese mixture. Use quantity you desire, not entire jar.  Sprinkle with slivered almonds. 

Bake at 350 for 25-30 minutes until just set.  Center will be slightly wobbly and almonds will be slightly toasted.  Cool completely and refrigerate before serving.   

When ready to serve, remove outer ring of pan and cut tart into slim wedges.  Serves 16.

Italian Cheese Tart 
2 cups A/P flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg yolk
1 stick unsalted butter (4 ounces)
1 T cold water 
8 ounces cream cheese
8 ounces mascarpone
1/3 cup honey
1 tsp vanilla or almond extract
8 ounces fig preserves
1/2 cup sliced almonds
1.  Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
2.   Combine flour, sugar, butter and egg yolk in a bowl.  Add water and knead ingredients until they form a cohesive dough.  (Alternatively, I used sugar cookie dough from the refrigerated section of the market and follow the instructions for the dough in the apricot almod tart recipe above.)
3.  Coat bottom of 9-inch tart pan with cooking spray.  Press dough evenly over bottom and up sides of tart pan.
4.  Bake tart for 15 - 20 minutes or until light brown.  Cool to room temperature. 
5.  Combine cream cheese, mascarpone, honey and extract in bowl and beat with mixer until creamy.
6.  Spread cheese mixture evenly over prepared shell and chill for at least one hour.
7.  Spread fig preserves over cheese layer and sprinkle evenly with sliced almonds.  Slice and serve. 
I made this in an oblong tart pan and used only half the cheese amounts.  Then I cut them into small bar size cookies. 

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