Saturday, October 21, 2006

Maple Cheesecake Experiment

I went to dinner last night with my friends from work, and as we had one vegetarian among us, we chose the one restaurant in our town that has a decent number of vegetarian offerings. It's called Livingoods. I find the menu a bit uneven (some items are excellent, some just ok) and some entrees are too pricey ($18), but it's about the best thing we have here in culinarily desolate Plattsburgh! I quite enjoyed my appetizer--crispy, spicy Thai spring rolls with a sweet chili dipping sauce. I also sampled an excellent pizza with tomatoes, goat cheese, mushrooms, and chunks of roasted garlic. And the best thing we shared was balsamic-marinated portabello mushrooms with some sort of crab and walnut stuffing. Fabulous! My entree was something called a Fiesta Wrap, a fairly uninspired chicken, corn and black bean-type sandwich, but it did come with some yummy, freshly-made sweet potato fries.

But the best thing of all was dessert. Now, I don't usually order dessert in restaurants because I think my bill is already too high and/or because I always vainly think that I can make better sweets myself (for a fraction of the price)! But Livingoods does make their own desserts in-house, and I had sampled a very good Jack Daniels chocolate pecan pie there previously. So when I heard the magical words "maple walnut cheesecake," I was all in! It was really tasty, and afterwards, I asked if the chef would mind sharing the recipe. Well, can you believe the arrogance? He would not share! I know, I know. It's his prerogative, of course, but I hate it when people aren't generous with what they have. All of my best recipes came from other people, great cooks who were kind enough to share with others who had the same passion, and I am trying to pay that kindness forward with this blog. And really, who besides me and a handful of others in this tiny city is actually going to bother to make a cheesecake from scratch anyway? It's not like I have a restaurant, so I'm not going to sell this product and steal their business! Geez! It's just silly, especially when you consider that famous chefs in nationally-rated restaurants frequently share recipes when asked. In fact, a few years ago, I was lucky enough to dine at the restaurant at The Mill at Simon Pearce, a Fodor's Choice Award winner for 2006. And when I contacted the chef a few days afterward to compliment him on the meal, he e-mailed me all of the recipes that he used! Isn't that amazing? I love it when people are giving of themselves and their talents like that.

Anyway, this episode just annoyed me and made me think, I don't need your stinking recipe! I'll make my own and make it BETTER! Truthfully, the texture of their cheesecake was a little off, like it may have been a tad underbaked? And though I liked the idea of a short crust base, theirs was really too sweet. So I made my first attempt at creating a very maple-ly cheesecake with a maple-walnut shortbread crust. If I were a different sort of person, or if company was coming over, I might top this with some cooked spiced apples. But seeing as I just made this for me, I prefer to let the maple-ly goodness shine on its own! It turned out very well, I think. The texture of the cheesecake was just right, and the crust wasn't so hard that you couldn't get your fork through it like some cookie crusts. And I think the level of maple flavor was spot-on. So my experiment was a success (even though I had to bake it over at my neighbor's house again!), and now I am happy to share the recipe with all of you. Harumph!

Maple Vanilla Bean Cheesecake with Maple-Walnut Cookie Crust

1/2 cup butter, softened
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup maple sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 1/2 cups flour
1 cup walnuts, toasted and roughly chopped

Cheesecake Filling:
1 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup heavy cream
4 8-ounce packages cream cheese, softened
4 tablespoons maple sugar
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped (or 1 tablespoon vanilla extract)
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 eggs

In a stand mixer, cream the softened butter and both sugars. Add salt and cinnamon. Mix again. Add the flour and mix just enough to combine. Add in the walnut pieces and mix briefly once again. Spread the soft dough into the bottom of a large cheesecake pan with a removable bottom. Chill in the refrigerator for at least 15 minutes or so while you preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake the crust for about 20 minutes or until it is a pale golden color. Let cool from hot to warmish or even room temperature.

While the crust is baking, boil the maple syrup for about three minutes then remove from heat. Add the heavy cream to the hot, reduced syrup and whisk together. Chill until at least room temperature.

Beat the two pounds of cream cheese until very smooth. Mix in the maple sugar, vanilla seeds (or extract), and salt. Add in the maple cream and mix well. Then add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each. Pour the cheesecake filling over the cooled crust and rap the pan a bit to pop any little bubbles that may have formed. Bake at 350 degrees for about an hour or until the center of the cheesecake is no longer so wobbly as to appear liquid. Cool in the pan to room temperature, and then chill thoroughly for six to eight hours or overnight. Serve with a drizzle of maple syrup, some sweetened vanilla whipped cream, and a sprinkling of chopped, toasted walnuts.

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