A Cheesecake for the Ages

Cheesecake as we know it, dense and indulgent, each velvety forkful a marvel of modern baking, has only been around for about a century. That might sound impressive, but when you consider studies finding the concept has been around since at least 2,000 BCE, it’s not even a flash in the pan. Many food historians date the earliest appearance of the treat back to ancient Roman times, with both a sweet and savory version served at the first Olympic games, but the Greeks may in fact take the gold on this one. Molds have been unearthed by anthropologists on the island of Samos dating well in advance of this event, although no one has the recipes or selfies to prove it. Regardless, it wasn’t until the late 1800’s when cream cheese was invented in America that we came to know the  classic dessert as a smooth, sweet, decadent custard gently set atop a cookie crust. What makes for the best cheesecake, however, is still up for debate.

I have no illusions of being able to settle this score once and for all, much like brokering world peace in a day, but I can extend this olive branch that might appeal to the masses: Chocolate and vanilla, harmoniously swirled together yet distinctive and essential as individuals. Thick and properly decadent, but not cloying or heavy. Gently sweetened, satisfying as a single slice with no further accompaniment, and wholly appropriate for any sort of occasion. Not to read too much into this latest evolution of the edible art form, but this may just be history in the making here.

Marbled Chocolate Chip Cheesecake

Chocolate Cookie Crust:

1 3/4 Cups Finely Ground Chocolate Wafer Cookie Crumbs
7 Tablespoons Vegan Butter or Coconut Oil, Melted

Cheesecake Filling:

1 12-Ounce Package Extra-Firm Silken Tofu
3 8-Ounce Packages Vegan Cream Cheese
2/3 Cup Granulated Sugar
1 Tablespoon Arrowroot Powder
2 Teaspoons Vanilla Extract
1 Teaspoon Rice Vinegar
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
2/3 Cup Bitter-Sweet Chocolate Chips
3 – 4 Tablespoons Chocolate Syrup

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease a 9-inch round springform pan.

Place the cookie crumbs into a medium bowl and pour the melted butter or coconut oil on top, stirring to combine. Using your hands, press the mixture firmly into the bottom of your prepared pan. Set aside.

For the filling, drain the tofu of any excess water and blend it in your food processor or blender until smooth. Add in the cream cheese and blend thoroughly. Scrape down the sides and blend again, ensuring that no lumps remain. Incorporate the sugar, vanilla, vinegar, and salt. Scrape down the sides once more, checking for any concentrated pockets of spice. Blend until the mixture is homogeneous.

Fold in the chocolate chips and pour the whole mixture over your graham cracker crust. Drizzle the chocolate syrup on top and use a thin spatula or knife to swirl it artistically. Tap the whole pan on the counter lightly, to level off the filling and eliminate any air bubbles.

Bake for approximately 80 – 90 minutes, until the sides begin to pull away from the pan and the center still appears to be rather wobbly when tapped. Trust me; it will become firmer in time!

Let cool completely before moving it into the refrigerator (Make sure you have a good quality refrigerator that chills effectively), where I suggest you let it chill for at least 12 to 24 hours before serving. This will allow the flavors to fully develop and intensify.

Makes 12 to 14 Servings

Printable Recipe

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Sometimes, You Feel Like a Nut…

And sometimes, you feel like a peanut. A peanut butter cookie, to be more specific. Announcements of new national food “holidays” seem to be getting a bit out of control lately, but this one, National Peanut Butter Cookie Day, gets an easy thumbs up from me. Such a classic treat yet so terribly underappreciated, I’m glad this snack time staple is finally getting a moment in the spotlight. Chewy, crunchy, crispy, creamy, chocolatey, salty, spicy, or even savory, there’s no possible way to go wrong when concocting your own. As a peanut butter lover, I have a considerable cache of recipe options myself.

In a rare doubleheader recipe post, I’ve offered contrasting approaches to the same nutty morsel: a buttery, chocolate-flecked shortbread and thick, bakery-style crosshatched beauties

Way back in 2009, I devised a way to get the maximum peanut flavor out of a minimum of ingredients and effort. Thus, the easiest cookie ever was born! You probably have all of the components in your pantry right now, just waiting to join forces and create instant sweet tooth gratification. 1-2-3 Peanut Butter Cookies are a fool-proof option for both the baker and the eater.

If you’re in the mood for a dessert with a bit of bonus protein and fiber, look no further than these Gluten-Free Peanut Butter Cookies (but PLEASE do look beyond those dreadful old photos.) Red lentils add an unexpected nutrition boost without detracting from the peanut buttery goodness.

What’s your favorite type of peanut butter cookie? Do you have a secret formula, or trusted source? How are you celebrating today?

Crumby, Not Crummy

I love coffee cake, but I take issue with the false promises it makes right from the start. It strikes me as disingenuous to lure in the under-caffeinated with such a title, only to deliver a cinnamon-infused experience. I’ve heard the old argument that it’s simply suggesting how well it pairs with a cup of Joe, but that sounds like a poor excuse for deceptive branding, like “juice” that’s never seen a fruit in its short squeezed life. Coffee cake was an evolution, not an invention, derived from many other styles of baked confections in the early days of sugar cravings all across Europe, which can partially explain the indistinct, ambiguous definition of the form.

Some coffee cakes had fruits, others nuts, some were fashioned as loaves while others rose into towering rings and bundts; the one common factor that united them was the uncanny ability to eat them during a coffee break. Bearing out that logic, there would be some fresh hell to pay if we started calling all types of cookies “snack biscuits.” Can you imagine the anger and confusion that would result from the hangry sweet-toothed eaters receiving dry wafers when they were expecting rich, decadent brownies? That’s not a world I want to live in, quite frankly.

Steering clear of the controversy all together, I much prefer a more accurate headline. for my coffee complement: Crumb cake or struesel cake are equally appropriate. No one can deny that coarse, buttery topping, no matter the flavor nor format, for lack or abundance of additional mix-ins. The issue is far from black and white, contrary to this unconventional expression of the concept.

Inspired by the jar of black tahini remaining in my fridge after a fortuitous visit to the Living Tree Community Foods offices, this particular coffee-free spin on the classic fully embraces and celebrates the very best part of its namesake. Living up to its moniker, unlike so many cakes of yore, the struesel topping is thick, bold and unmistakable.

While we’re disrupting the usual routine anyway, why should cinnamon have all the crumb fun? A touch of cardamom and a hint of lemon complement the nutty notes of sesame throughout, subtle yet unmistakable nuances against the tender crumb.

A strong cup of spiced Turkish coffee would certainly be a welcome accompaniment, but as we’ve established, far from mandatory for maximum enjoyment. Whether you serve your slices with tea, lemonade, or nothing else at all, they will always make good on the promise of a delicious sweet treat.

Black and White Sesame Streusel Cake

Black Sesame Streusel:

1/2 Cup Black Sesame Tahini
2 Tablespoons Vegan Butter, Melted
1/2 Cup Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
1/2 Cup All-Purpose Flour
1/4 Cup Black Sesame Seeds
1/4 Teaspoon Salt

White Sesame Cake:

1/2 Cup Raw Sesame Tahini
1/4 Cup Vegan Butter, at Room Temperature
3/4 Cup Granulated Sugar
1/4 Cup Plain Vegan Yogurt
2 Cups All Purpose Flour
1 Teaspoon Baking Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Baking Soda
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Cardamom
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Cinnamon
1 Cup Plain Non-Dairy Milk
1 Tablespoon Lemon Juice
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease a square 8 x 8-inch baking pan; set aside.

Begin by preparing the streusel topping. In a large bowl, stir together the black tahini, melted vegan butter, and brown sugar until smooth. Add in the flour, sesame seeds, and salt, mixing with a fork to create coarse, chunky crumbs. Set in the refrigerator to chill while focusing on the cake batter next.

Place the raw tahini, vegan butter, sugar, and yogurt into the bowl of your stand mixer and thoroughly cream everything together using the paddle attachment. Pause to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed, making sure that all the ingredients are incorporated into a homogeneous blend before proceeding.

Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cardamom, and cinnamon together into a separate bowl, whisking to combine. In a small pitcher, stir the non-dairy milk, lemon juice, and vanilla together as well. Add about half of the dry goods into the stand mixer, blending until mostly incorporated. Introduce half of the liquids, continuing to mix at a low speed. Repeat the procedure until both are smoothly blended in. Be careful not to over-beat the batter though; a few errant lumps are perfectly fine.

Smooth the batter into your prepared baking dish. Break up the crumbs with a fork and sprinkle them evenly all over. It may seem like a lot, but you want full coverage here, so don’t hold back.

Bake for 55 to 60 minutes, until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool completely in pan before slicing and serving.

Makes 9 – 12 Servings

Printable Recipe

A Flurry of Inspiration

Winter is in full force, or at least, so I’m told. Forecasts filled with snow and ice threaten large swaths of the US, while records show that this year’s Superbowl was the coldest on record, crushing previous predictions with an icy flourish. Temperatures ranking just above negative numbers boggle my mind; a sensation so unthinkable, so impossible, it’s almost painful to imagine. That’s because beautiful California remains a shining beacon of eternal summer, setting records pushing the mercury up in the opposite direction. Basking in the sunshine on a brilliant 75-degree day, I have to remind myself that this is still February. Somehow, this is still winter.

Although that does make it less appealing to crank up the oven, those longer days of bright natural light inspire an endless stream of photo shoots, and with them, new recipes galore. In homage to the flurries still blanketing the rest of the northern hemisphere with frozen white fluff, my mind went to memories of clean, pure, white snow, freshly fallen and immaculate. So delicate were those perfectly formed crystals, which I examined closely on gloved hands as they landed, that they seemed as if they were formed individually by some master craftsman in the sky.

These particular snowflakes are cut from the same cloth, but as a handmade treat, still retain personalities all their own. Celebrating simplicity, they’re merely the best vanilla cookie you’ve ever tasted. Boldly infused with powder from the whole bean, they’re not shy about shouting this warm, classic flavor from the rooftops- Or wherever else they may settle. Mochiko is the secret to keeping each bite soft and tender, while remaining firm enough to resist spreading in the oven. Do not confuse this with regular rice flour, as the texture is very different.

Whether your snow day involves making snowmen or spending an unseasonably sweltering afternoon in the kitchen, may the end results always be as sweet!

Ultimate Vanilla Bean Cut-Out Sugar Cookies

1 Cup Vegan Butter
1 1/4 Cups Granulated Sugar
2 3/4 Cups All-Purpose Flour
1 Cup Mochiko
1/4 Cup Arrowroot Powder
1 1/2 Teaspoons Vanilla Bean Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Teaspoon Baking Powder
1/3 Cup Plain Non-Dairy Milk

Use your stand mixer to thoroughly cream the butter and sugar together. In a separate bowl, sift the flour, mochiko, arrowroot, vanilla powder, salt, and baking powder, stirring well to combine. Add about half of these dry ingredients into the mixing bowl, processing it until fully incorporated. Pour in the non-dairy milk along with the remaining flour mixture. Continue to mix until it forms into a smooth, homogeneous dough. Form the dough into two balls, flatten them out a bit, wrap separately in plastic and chill for at least one hour before proceeding.

After the dough has had time to rest in the refrigerator, start heating your oven to 350 degrees.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out the first ball of dough to about 1/8th of an inch in thickness. Use your favorite cookie cutters to shape the cookies, and place them on baking sheets lined with silpats or parchment paper. Brush any excess flour off the cookies, but don’t go crazy if it still has a light coating; most of it will bake in seamlessly.

Bake for about 8 – 14 minutes, depending on the size of your cookies, until no longer shiny and the edges are firm. Don’t wait for them to brown because they will become overcooked and dry by the time they cool.

Cool completely on a wire rack before storing in an airtight container at room temperature.

Yield is variable, depending on size of cookie cutter

Printable Recipe

Love is in the Air, and in the Kitchen

Now that the salty, savory extravaganza of Super Bowl Sunday is out of the way, Valentine’s Day looms large on the horizon as our next big food affair. Though terminally single, I’ve come to enjoy the event as an opportunity to show friends and family that I care, inevitably in the form of something edible. Though my best suggestions do skew heavy on the chocolate, there are still many lovely, lighter options to cleanse your palate. While you still have time to plan, take a peek at some of my favorites that have hit the blog in years past.

Whoever said that you can’t win friends with salad never sat down to a plateful of lovingly carved heart-shaped strawberries atop tender artichoke hearts, crisp endive, and buttery spears of hearts of palm. Yes indeed, my Heart-Felt Endive Salad is all that and more, living up to the name in more than one way.

This Roasted Red Pepper Soup is quite the blast from the past, so pardon the terrible photo! Though the recipe itself is nothing earth-shattering, the technique of swirling tiny sour cream hearts can be applied to any smooth, pureed soup you care to serve. A little extra effort goes a long way, so you can effortlessly score some extra brownie points by taking a minute to go all out on the garnishes.

Moving on to the main event, Blushing Beet Pierogi are a more subtle way of showing that you care. In hindsight, I wish I had cut these little potato and pasta pouches into the shape of hearts to reinforce the theme, but you can learn from my mistake! Do it up right and really wow your loved ones!

Starting with something light for dessert, fluffy and refreshing Frozen Strawberry-Balsamic Souffles are ideal for those with a penchant for fruity treats. Each ramekin presents a bright, bold contrast between sweet and sour, hitting all the high notes with nary a boring spoonful from start to finish.

When words fail, say it with cake. Show your heart with a stunning slice of Hidden Heart Wild Blueberry Cake. For a truly impressive unveiling, bring the whole cake to the table and cut it right in front of your beloved. Sure, it’s a bit more intricate than your average pound cake, but the extra effort will be worthwhile for the lasting impression those sweet shapes will leave.

Okay, you’ve waited long enough; steel yourself for the chocolate onslaught. Let’s start simply with Cherry Hot Chocolate Spoons. Don’t lock yourself into just one flavor destination though; consider this a guideline for further exploration. Try adding in a touch of orange zest, or using freeze-dried strawberries instead of cherries. Take out the fruit altogether and stir in some peppermint extract and crushed candy canes for an extra breath-freshening bonus (hint hint!)

Flourless Chocolate Cake is a classic, and though predictable, it never gets old. Dark, rich, and decadent, this version is for chocoholics only. The real danger is that it’s so easy to whip up, you may not be able to contain your love to just one special occasion for indulgence. Try it once, and it could easily become an everyday affair.

Keep your cool with another frozen treat: Pomegranate Ice Cream Pops. This quick fix novelty is simply blended and thrown into silicone molds, no churning necessary. Leave out the lollipop stick to make frosty chocolate-covered truffles, or throw that creamy pomegranate base into any popsicle mold you might have on hand. As long as you don’t omit that crisp chocolate shell, you can’t go too far wrong.

Of course, if all else fails, just bake a pan of brownies and call it a day. No one would be mad at that.

Choc-A-Lot

Valentine’s Day might as well be called Chocolate Day. At least, that’s the primary significance it holds in my life. Through relationships both good and bad but primarily experienced as a single lady, the date has held little real significance in my life, other than as an opportunity to indulge my inner chocoholic.

Debate the merits of this consumer-driven “holiday” all you want, but as long as I can sink my teeth into some dark, decadent truffles, that’s the next best thing to true love, if you ask me. Thankfully, indulgent options abound for the discerning palate, transcending the boundaries between plant-based and mainstream artisan products. If you’re inclined to lose your temper or have a meltdown over the DIY approach, there are endless options available for purchase, guaranteed to steal your heart.

Emphasizing quality ingredients hasn’t necessarily correlated to healthier products nor whole foods in the past, but the newest wave of master chocolatiers seem to be just as concerned with nutrition as they are with flavor. Though it may sound like a concept incongruous to truly luxurious chocolate experiences, Nicobella will be the first to prove that misconception wrong. Crafting their confections with coconut oil and sourcing flavor infusions from whole fruits, herbs, and spices rather than extracts, each morsel sings with a bold, clean taste. Some combinations can be a bit unconventional, such as the sunflower butter banana, but you won’t find a single bad bite in any assortment. Snappy dark chocolate gives way to creamy soft centers for each distinctive truffle, all softening to liquid cocoa bliss on the tongue. You can’t help but become instantly smitten.

Finding a true edible gem right under my nose, I was stunned to discover Coracao for the first time at my local farmers market. Sweetened with coconut sugar and bolstered by superfoods like maca and lucuma, these are treats with benefits that could still rival the finest of gourmet selections. Salted caramel sparkles with the crunch of flaky salt, striking a perfect balance between sweet and savory, hitting all the pleasurable high notes of this classic combination right on target. The most famous confection, however, is the Berkeley Bar, and for good reason. A layered composition of nutty caramel and a soft, malty nougat, all enrobed in their dark bittersweet chocolate, it’s truly something special.

Valentine’s Day makes for a convenient excuse to splurge a bit when it comes to dessert, but these incredible chocolates shouldn’t be saved just for special occasions. Treat yourself well, and often, with quality cacao.