Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Teeter Totter

We’re having some weird weather here. One day it’s sunny and not too bad. The next morning I wake up and skip blithely out to my car only to find a thin layer of frost that needs to be scraped off. Normally I manage this task with a good jolt of windshield washer fluid and the wipers, but the washer fluid reservoir hasn’t been filled in weeks (Dear), so that’s not an option right now. (And never mind that if it’s cold enough this strategy backfires and I end up with more iciness on my windshield than had been there initially.) Instead I end up scrambling through the car looking for the ice scraper, tossing aside Happy Meal toys, old magazines, and bungee cords, all the time cursing under my breath as the minutes tick away the little bit of buffer I had left myself so that my drive to the ferry wasn’t a 10 minute exercise in muscle-clenching anxiety over missing the boat.

I’m kind of reminded of the winter weather in the Laura Ingalls Wilder book The Long Winter. They kept thinking that sooner or later winter would have to give up, that with March would come Spring. And then March came and there was still more snow, and their food was running low and they contemplated slaughtering their farm animals for food. OK, so maybe we’re not getting three day blizzards, nor are we thinking about eating our livestock (not that we have any livestock, you understand), but I just said I was kind of reminded of that, not that our situations were identical. March is not bringing with it the glorious rebirth that we’re all assured is the very essence of Springtime.

So what to do? I think an Action Item List is in order:

1) Stop whining about weather; it is clearly futile, as weather is not attending to said complaints
2) Resign self to wearing sweaters and/or winter coats for another couple of weeks
3) Allow three extra minutes each morning for possible ice scraper search and/or ice scraping
4) Commence campaign to get washer reservoir refilled (Dear)
5) Make Salted Caramel Cheesecakes with Graham Crackers

Ah, you weren’t expecting number 5? Well it seems as good a choice as any. Cheesecake is without season, no? On the one hand cheesecake can be light and fluffy and airy and cool and bathed with fresh strawberries with juice that are positively natational, just the thing for a warm summer day. On the other hand it can be dense and thick and rich and possibly studded with morsels of chocolate or candy bar or some other decadent add in, perfect for a cold winter night.

Well we’re not having hot summer weather, nor are we experiencing cold winter nights. So I need something in the middle. These are actually more of a cream cheese custard; they’re cooked in a water bath (as are many cheesecakes) but they have no crust. They’re just the filling poured into a ramekin and cooked, then they’re topped with sticky sweet caramel that’s enhanced with sea salt (everyone who’s sick of the combination of salt and caramel being featured in recipes as though it had never been thought of before, please stand up. Now, everyone who loves caramel with salt anyway, regardless of how many times recipes act like they’ve just invented the most perfect combination EVAR, please sit down. Right, that’s what I thought).

So having seen this recipe, and feeling it was perfect for this stupid weather, I also decided that it needed something with it, some cookie or cracker. I made chocolate graham crackers one time with Hershey’s Special Dark Cocoa that I remember as being a smashing success (my husband remembers them as less of a success, since 4 small children + 1 large batch of dark chocolate cookies = lots of chocolate mess everywhere). Since there’s no crust in these, why not serve the crust on the side? I clapped my hands with glee over the cleverness of this idea (work with me here; remember what I’m up against weather-wise and take pity on me).

I found these graham crackers and figured I had me a winner.

Indeed, I did. The cheesecakes turned out the consistency of a dense foam, which doesn’t sound very delectable, but is the perfect consistency for cheesecake. The salted caramel was the perfect zingy foil to the creamy, slightly tangy cheesecake filling, and had a nice subtle crunch from the sea salt scattered over it. The graham crackers were every so faintly touched with honey.

One nice thing I discovered about this recipe. It says you can make the various components up to a day ahead and keep them in the refrigerator. Baloney. Make them up to four or five days ahead. Seriously, I made six ramekins of this stuff, plus the topping and the crackers, and only two of us eat desserts like these in our house (most of the inhabitants lean more to the chocolate chip cookie side of the fence). Thus, we had dessert for three nights, and they kept perfectly nicely for four or five days (since my conscience and my thighs really don’t permit consumption of this sort of thing for three days running).

So make yourself some cheesecake, keep it around, and let it cheer you through the last dreary days of Winter. Or use it to celebrate the first glorious days of Spring. Either way, you deserve a treat.

Salted Caramel Cheesecakes
from Food + Wine magazine
makes 6 ramekins + sauce

For the Cheesecake
1 8oz package cream cheese, at room temperature
½ cup sugar
3 large eggs, at room temperature
½ cup sour cream

For the Caramel
6 tablespoons light corn syrup
½ cup + 2 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup heavy cream
Fleur de sel

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. In the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the cream cheese with the sugar on medium speed until smooth. Beat in the eggs, 1 at a time until well combined, then add sour cream, mixing to combine. Spoon the batter into six 5-ounce ramekins or custard cups.

Set the ramekins in a roasting pan in the center of the preheated oven. Pour around the ramekins enough hot water to come halfway up the sides of the cups. Bake for 10 minutes, until edges are set, but center is still very jiggly. Turn of oven and leave cheesecakes in for 1 hour. Transfer ramekins to a rack and allow to cool completely. Once cool, refrigerate until serving.

To make the caramel, combine the corn syrup and sugar in a heavy medium sauce pan. Cook over moderately high heat without stirring until a deep amber caramel forms (you can swirl the pan a bit to get the two to combine, but be careful not to get it too far up the sides of the pan). Watch closely—it goes from amber to charcoal in the blink of an eye. And there is nothing at all luscious about burnt caramel, I assure you. Off the heat, carefully stir in the butter with a long handled spoon. The mixture may spit, so watch your hands. Stir in the cream in a steady stream. Again, there may be some bubbling. Don’t be alarmed if the mixture doesn’t seem to cohere instantly; just keep stirring and it will all come together. It may seem thinner than caramel should—it will thicken on standing.. Transfer to a heatproof container and allow to cool. Stir in ¾ of a teaspoon of fleur de sel.

To serve: Pour about 1 ½ tablespoons of caramel over each cheesecake. The caramel should be pourable; if necessary, warm in a microwave at 10 second intervals. Sprinkle each with fleur de sel just before serving. Garnish each with a rectangle of graham cracker, if desired.

N.B. The original recipe called for topping the cheesecakes with the caramel, then refrigerating them for at least 3 hours, and serving them with the salt. Since I wasn’t serving them all at once, I chose to keep the caramel and the cheesecake separate until I was ready to serve them. If you’re having them for a dinner party, you could prep them completely up to the salt, then serve. If you’re going to eat them over several days, you might want to hold off on the caramel, as I did.

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