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Triple-Layer Spumoni Cheesecake

Are you sitting down? Good.

This recipe was inspired by a carton of Dreyer’s Spumoni ice cream that was given to me (and promptly devoured) over a year ago. That chocolate/cherry/pistachio combination—it haunted me. Melodrama.

(Side note: That was my first experience with spumoni. And it wasn’t even authentic spumoni. Apparently I need to get out more.)

This cheesecake is the product of several months of dreaming and planning and putting off and dreaming some more. I’m proud to report that I finally buckled down, found an occasion, and put this thing together.

Sometimes the best-laid plans…can actually work. No kidding!

Expectations exceeded. Beyond exceeded.

Don’t let the idea of triple-layered cheesecake scare you off. It’s just cheesecake divided by three, with a few extra things thrown in. We’ve been over cheesecake basics before, and I’ve repeated them in the directions—which is why the directions might look long and intimidating. I’m just walking you through it all. I reallyreallyreally want this to turn out perfectly for you. You can do this!

You should also be aware that this cheesecake will take more time to prepare than a normal cheesecake, because each layer has to spend 30-45 minutes in the freezer before pouring the next layer over the top. Give yourself plenty of time to put this thing together. I promise it’s worth the wait!

Triple-Layer Spumoni Cheesecake

ingredients:

1-1/2 cups finely crushed graham cracker crumbs (about 9 graham crackers)

3 tablespoons sugar

6 tablespoons butter, melted

5 (8 oz.) packages of cream cheese, room temperature

1-1/2 cup sugar

5 eggs, room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla

3 tablespoons ground pistachios (unsalted)

1 tablespoon pistachio instant pudding mix

green food coloring, optional

1/2 teaspoon cherry extract

2 tablespoons chopped almonds

1/3 cup chopped maraschino cherries

pink food coloring, optional

5 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped

Directions:

Prepare the crust first. In a small mixing bowl, thoroughly mix graham cracker crumbs, sugar, and melted butter. Press the mixture firmly onto the bottom (and up the sides, if you want) of a greased 10-inch springform pan; set that aside while preparing the filling.

(Note: I used a 10 x 3-inch springform pan, and the cake batter baaarely fit. I may have had an aneurysm as I watched it bake and prayed that it wouldn’t overflow. A 12-inch pan would be much safer, but I really wanted a tall, dramatic cheesecake, with each layer nice and thick and visible. If you don’t incorporate too much air in the batter by overbeating after adding the eggs, you should be fine with a 10-inch pan. But just in case, it’s never a bad idea to place your springform pan on a baking sheet while it’s in the oven.)

Next, prepare the filling. In a large mixing bowl, beat cream cheese until smooth; add sugar and vanilla, and beat until completely incorporated and all lumps are gone, scraping the sides frequently. Add the eggs all at once and beat just until the eggs are incorporated, no more than about 10 seconds. (Over-beating at this stage can cause your cake to puff up too much, possibly overflow, and crack.)

Divide the batter evenly into three bowls.

In the first bowl, add the ground pistachios, instant pudding mix, and enough green food coloring to create a light green color. Fold gently until evenly mixed.

Pour the green batter into the springform pan. Place the pan in the freezer (make sure it’s sitting level) for 30-45 minutes, or until the batter has stiffened significantly.

In the second bowl, add the cherry extract, chopped almonds, chopped cherries, and pink food coloring. Fold gently until evenly mixed. Pour the batter slowly and gently over the green layer, being careful not to disturb the surface. Put the pan back in the freezer for another 30-45 minutes so the pink layer can stiffen.

While you’re waiting, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Partially melt the chopped chocolate in the microwave on LOW (or in a double boiler on the stove). Stir until completely melted. Set aside until the pink layer is ready.

In the third bowl, add the melted chocolate and fold gently until evenly mixed. Pour the chocolate batter gently over the pink layer, again being careful not to disturb the surface.

Place the springform pan on a baking pan and bake for 50-60 minutes, or until the edges are puffy and slightly browned, and the center no longer looks liquidy when the pan is gently tapped (checking it too early can cause your cheesecake to crack).

Remove the cheesecake from the oven and let it cool on a wire rack at room temperature for one hour. Do not release the springform pan yet. Cover and refrigerate for 8-10 hours or overnight. When you’re ready to serve, release the springform pan. To get clean slices that showcase each layer, slice the cheesecake with a warm knife, cleaning the knife thoroughly with warm water between each slice.

Onto 2013

I went through and counted my posts from 2012.

It didn’t take very long.

I’ve been a little sad that this little blog has been so quiet since I had a baby (over a year (!) ago). Of course my children take priority over my blog, but still…a little sad. I’ve decided that 2013 will not be so quiet.

I thought of doing a “Best Of 2012″ post for this blog, but you could get the same effect, or better, by simply scrolling down my recent posts for fifteen seconds. That’s borderline lame.

Instead, I’m looking forward.

I’ve jumped on the “Word of the Year” bandwagon. I’ve put some thought into it, and here’s my pick:

Word of the year 2013

One short word, bursting with three syllables.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The world belongs to the energetic.”

I want that to be me.

I’ve already set some concrete goals for the coming year, but this word will lay over the top – something that will flavor every moment, even when I’m not working on any specific goal.

Do you choose a word for the year? What is it?

Christmas Sugar Cookies (and last-minute inspiration!)

I made you treats.

It’s me, your neighbor who doesn’t come around as much as she used to. I’m ringing your doorbell and standing on your front porch in a scarf, holding out a plate of Christmas cookies made just for you.

Merry Christmas!

What are your Christmas plans? Going anywhere? Staying home? Big dinner? Small cozy party?

I’m sure you’ve got your Christmas desserts all planned out, if not already done.

But just in case one of you readers out there is like me, and stays undecided until the last minute when, in a moment of dessert-panic, you throw together something which may or may not get the time and care it deserves from you… *sigh* …Please tell me I’m not the only one who does that.

I thought I’d offer a few ideas for some of my favorite quick Christmas treats. Depending on what you keep in stock in your pantry, most of these can be made with ingredients you should already have on hand.

1. Chocolate Crinkle Cookies

These are soft and cakey. People can’t seem to resist the chocolate flavor with the snowy, cracked tops. Plan a bit of extra time for these – the dough needs to chill for a bit before baking. But aside from that, these are ridiculously easy and simple to put together.

2. Chocolate Chip Cookies

Your basic chocolate chip cookie is still a staple. It’s still one of the fastest treats to disappear from the Christmas dessert table. You can’t go wrong!

3. Gingerbread and Eggnog Cupcakes

Do you have eggnog in your fridge right now? If not, we need to talk. Also, rum extract and nutmeg is what makes this frosting work. These are always a huge hit.

4. Hot Spiced Apple Cider

Not technically a dessert, but sometimes a hot, comforting drink is the perfect offering.

5. Browned Butter Blondies

Yes, this is the recipe that has been sitting comfortably at the top of my blog for the past who-knows-how-many months. No, these are not inherently Christmas-y. But they are amazing, and that works too. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve made these, and I fall in love all over again each time. Don’t skip the browning butter step. Use dark brown sugar if you have it. And don’t overbake, or they will dry out. When done right, these will be chewy and nutty and completely addicting.

Still coming up short? Take a look around the recipe index for more ideas. Ignore the ugly old photos from years (years!) ago.

Hope this Christmas is your merriest yet!

Butterscotch Blondies

The time has come.

I can’t not share this recipe with you. (Oof. Double negative.)

These outrageously yummy blondie bars are my way of saying thank you. Thank you for sticking with me. I’ve put this little blog on the back burner so I can focus on chasing my little boys around. But you’re here! And that means so much.

During the past few months, I have made these blondies exactly seven hundred times. And every time, I hoard them like a ravenous banshee. Do banshees hoard?

I want to make one thing clear: if the word butterscotch makes you think of the sickeningly sweet, artificial flavor butterscotch you find in candies, Jello pudding, baking chips, and ice cream topping, rest assured that that’s not what these taste like.

True butterscotch – the real deal – is the combination of browned butter and brown sugar. These bars are not overly sweet. They won’t make your teeth hurt just by looking at them. The deep, nutty flavor of browned butter is what really stands out.

Ah, browned butter. How do I love thee. . .

Bring these chewy little bars to a summer picnic. Sit back, and listen to the groans of pleasure come in.

You can make these without browning the butter, if you’re in a hurry or if you’re scared of browning butter. (Does it really scare you? I’ll do a tutorial on that soon, and link to it when it’s up.) But the depth of classic butterscotch flavor that you get from browned butter is what will make these bars really sing.

Also, no need for a mixer with these. Just a good old-fashioned mixing bowl and wooden spoon.

Butterscotch Blondies

adapted from Simply Recipes

ingredients:

2 cups packed brown sugar

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, cut into pieces

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

2 cups (not packed) all-purpose flour

½ cup white chocolate chips, optional

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Put the brown sugar in a large mixing bowl.

Melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat. Simmer, stirring constantly with a whisk. After several minutes, you’ll start to see brown specks floating around, and the butter will begin to darken quickly. There will be white foam floating on the top. Continue stirring and allow the butter to turn a deep brown under the foam, but don’t let it stay on the heat too long or it will burn.

Pour the browned butter carefully over the brown sugar. Stir them together with a wooden spoon, and allow to sit for 5 minutes to cool slightly.

Stir in the eggs and vanilla extract. Add the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Stir together just until incorporated. The batter will be very thick. Fold in the white chocolate chips if desired.

Pour into a greased 9×13” baking dish and spread evenly. Bake for 18-22 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Don’t overbake, or they will be crunchy instead of soft and chewy.

Allow to cool on a wire rack. Cut into squares and serve. Makes 24.

How to Assemble a Cake

Today I’m going to back up a bit. Let’s talk basics.

If seeing a tutorial on this topic makes you yawn . . . keep reading! You might learn a thing or two, or you might see something critical that I missed, and you can let us all know in the comments section. Either way, we win!

Knowing how to assemble a cake is one of the most fundamental aspects of decorating, but it’s something that a lot of would-be decorators overlook. You might have an enormous amount of decorating talent, but if your cake is lopsided (or falling over, or oozing filling out the sides), that’s the first thing people will see. Your cake should be the invisible canvas underneath your beautiful work of art.

I’ve got photos coming out my ears here. These were taken in a real, live kitchen. During a real, live, cake assembly. Hence the mess of cake paraphernalia in the background. {ahem}

Are you ready?

Step 1: Bake and cool your cake.

Most cake recipes and mixes give you two 8- or 9-inch rounds, so that’s what we’ll work with.

Yeah, my cake sank in the middle. It happens. (Pesky altitude adjustments. . .)

Two things to keep in mind: First, you need a cake recipe that gives you a fairly sturdy structure, to withstand stacking. Second, the cake has to cool completely. No cheating. Even a barely warm cake can cause your icing to melt.

Step 2: Line your serving plate with strips of wax paper.

This helps protect your plate so you don’t get frosting everywhere later on.

Step 3: Level your cake layers.

Lop off those domes.

I like this little tool, but you can use a large bread knife, too.

In some cases, I’ll torte the layers (which is a fancy way of saying I cut it in half horizontally). It’s a good idea, if you want your finished cake to be slightly taller, or have more layers, or if you want the filling-to-cake ratio to be higher. I’ve got some yummy homemade cherry filling, so I’m going to torte.

Step 4: Put your first cake layer on the wax paper, and pipe an icing border.

The piping border keeps the filling contained so it doesn’t ooze out the sides. Also, make sure the icing border isn’t more than about a half an inch high. Any taller than that, and you’re in danger of having an unstable cake.

See how the border is about a centimeter away from the edge of the cake? You don’t want the border right at the edge, otherwise the weight of the upper layers will push the border out the sides of the cake, and you’ll get a weird, uneven wavy surface instead of a nice, smooth surface.

Can I get picky here? For the bottom layer, it’s a good idea to put the “brown” side of the layer (the surface that touched the pan during baking) on the very bottom. That makes the bottom surface of the cake more smooth and stable after you cut individual slices. Okay? Moving on.

Step 5: Spoon the filling in.

Don’t let the filling rise higher than your border. That defeats the purpose of having a border.

Also, you can use plain old frosting instead of filling. Same principle applies.

Step 6: Place the next cake layer on top and repeat steps 4 and 5.

. . . and again for the next layer . . .

To get the best results, make sure that each layer lines up with the ones beneath it. It doesn’t have to be perfect-perfect, because the icing will even things out a bit. But it should be as close as you can get it.

Also, make sure that the top of each layer is level. Each time I put the next layer of cake on, I get down at eye level and spin it slowly on a turntable to check for any major high or low spots.

Step 7: Put the top layer on, and push a few toothpicks down inside.

This helps to stabilize the layers, especially if you’ll be transporting your cake.

Oh, and remember what I said earlier about the “brown” side of the cake being on the very bottom? Now you put the other “brown” side of the cake on the very top. This gives you a smooth surface to spread the frosting on. Otherwise, your cake might get torn apart when you go to frost it.

Step 8: Crumb coat!

This coat won’t be visible. The crumb coat basically “seals” in the crumbs so they don’t muddy up your frosting on the real coat.

Be aware of your icing consistency on the crumb coat. If it’s too thick, it’ll tear your cake apart. A slightly thinned-down (with milk) buttercream works really well.

Step 9: Put the cake in the fridge for 15 minutes to crust over, and then do the final coat.

Congratulations! You now have a nice, straight, beautiful cake. And last but not least . . .

Step 10: Remove the wax paper and decorate your cake up pretty.

(Aaand . . . give yourself enough time for photography, so you don’t have to settle for bad lighting and a pathetic setup. That’s always a good idea.)

What hints or tricks do you use when assembling your cakes?

inkPageant Logo Sugar Cookies

This past weekend, I fixed my hair (and put on makeup), handed the kids over to a babysitter, and attended LTUE, a local sci-fi/fantasy writing convention.

Is it a complete surprise that I love to write? Maybe not.

Is it a complete surprise that I’ve got a geek streak? Maybe not.

My husband, being a web designer and developer, as well as a writer himself (and entirely outclassing me in geekiness), recently created a website for writers.

InkPageant.com is a collection of blog posts about writing and publishing. Most of the posts contain writing/publishing advice, but you can also find book reviews, interviews, essays, and news from the writing community — all contributed by writer-bloggers.

Think Tastespotting. Same model, different community.

We spent most of the convention sitting at our table in the vendors’ room, telling all of the authors we met about inkPageant, and encouraging them to take a look. Oh, and we handed out free cookies.

You didn’t think I could pass up an opportunity to decorate sugar cookies, did you?

See that empty basket up there? That’s where the cookies used to be. Success. (3000 points if you understand the reference on my husband’s shirt.)

I recently fell in love with a new recipe that makes thicker, softer sugar cookies that spread less. Go ahead and make fun of me for being the last one on earth to find Sugarbelle. Her incredibly gorgeous and detailed cookies alone would have been enough to keep me coming back. But the amazing cookie recipe she provides completely seals the deal.

 

My Latest Cupcake

As much as I would love to share some sort of Christmas goodie with you today, I’m bursting with excitement to show off my recently-completed project.

It has taken almost every ounce of energy I have.

I’ve lost sleep over it.

I gained a few *coughcough* pounds because of it.

I spent months working on it –

(Nine, to be precise.)

And now it’s done.

Or rather, he’s done.

And he’s absolutely perfect. I can’t really take any credit there, but that doesn’t stop me from being a terribly proud momma.

We couldn’t be happier. Or sleepier.

Stay tuned for Christmas goodies coming up. This mother of three is going down for a nap.

 

 

“Pride and Prejudice” Book Cake

It’s been a while since I’ve done any really hard-core cake decorating. And with a new little bean coming in less than 8 weeks (yikes) it could be several months before I tackle another project like this. But let’s not rule out the possibility that I could lose my mind and take on something ridiculous a week before delivery. It wouldn’t be the first time.

My sister-in-law has read Pride and Prejudice probably 40 times. Rounded to the nearest 40. This is serious, folks. Time for a book cake.

Happy birthday, Ruth! Here’s to many more. Rides through Pride and Prejudice, that is.

Oh, and don’t let me forget to post the recipe for the carrot cake that I buried under all that fondant.

Berry Banana Bread

I’m all finished with school. My husband is all finished with school.

Neither of my kids are old enough to even go to school.

I see the whole world around me starting school – attending, sending off to, or teaching at.

I know I should sit back and enjoy this twiddling-thumbs feeling while it lasts, because I hear that the world kind of explodes once your kids are school-age. But when it’s early fall and everybody’s got their new pencils and notebooks, and energy is high . . . I can’t help wanting to play along, because there’s something so exciting and festive about it all. And heaven knows I love festive.

So. This banana bread is my little after-school snack for you. Or you could make it a lunchbox goodie. Don’t forget to obey your teacher. Play nice with the other kids. Do your homework. Share your treats.

If this recipe looks familiar, that’s because this is actually my favorite banana bread recipe in the universe dot com, changed up a bit for variety. It’s perfectly moist and soft, and it’s sweet without being sickening. Did I mention I’m in love?

Berry Banana Bread

adapted from The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion

2 large eggs, room temperature

1 cup brown sugar

1/3 cup vegetable oil

1-1/4 cup mashed banana (2-3 very ripe bananas)

1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

3/4 teaspoon almond extract

2-2/3 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1-1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1 cup yogurt – strawberry (or other berry) flavored

1/2 – 3/4 cup fresh or frozen raspberries, blueberries, and/or blackberries, in smallish pieces

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a medium-sized bowl, beat together the eggs, sugar, and oil. Blend in the mashed banana, vanilla, and almond extract. Stir in the cinnamon and nutmeg. Whisk together.

In a small mixing bowl, sift the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Add to the banana mixture. Mix gently but thoroughly, then fold in the yogurt, just until combined. Fold in the berries.

Pour the batter into a well-greased 9×5-inch loaf pan. Bake the bread for about 55-60 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. If the bread begins to brown too quickly, tent it with foil after 45 minutes in the oven.

When the bread tests done, remove it from the oven and place on a cooling rack; after 15 minutes, remove the bread from its pan and place back on the rack to finish cooling. Slice when it has cooled completely. Store at room temperature in a bread bag or airtight container for up to 4-5 days.

Chocolate Chip Cookies

Why yes, I already have a chocolate chip cookie recipe on this blog. It’s good of you to remember.

That recipe isn’t too bad, but it’s buried in the darkest corner of the archives, and if you were to poke around a bit, you’d see that it’s the oldest post on the site – back before I figured out how to use my camera or say anything intelligent. Those archives are a scary place.

That, and I’ve come up with a new chocolate chip cookie recipe.

Softer. Thicker. Chewier. Tastier. Time for an update.

I have this lifelong friend (hi Megan!). Lifelong, as in, we’ve been friends since before either of us could walk. And Megan happens to be a culinary school graduate. She recently gave me a copy of one of her baking textbooks, and I promptly geeked out and pored over the cookie chapter, to figure out how to get my chocolate chip cookie dream to actually translate into real life.

Note: This isn’t a cookbook so much as a technical training textbook for pastry chefs. The recipes (excuse me, formulas) are all in weight instead of volume. And it can get . . . complex in places.

So while I can’t recommend it to the casual home baker, I will say that it’s a great resource for learning about the science and chemistry behind baking, as well as proper mixing and baking technique. This book is chock full of brainiac information. Chock full.

So. I went all brainiac. I compared the book’s chocolate chip cookie recipe with my go-to-recipe. I made notes. I pulled out the kitchen scale. I looked at volume/weight conversions and altitude conversions. And then I grabbed a pencil and spit out a recipe that I figured, by all calculations, would yield a perfectly soft, chewy cookie.

AND IT DID.

I’ve done all the science and math for you, and tested the recipe several times (*cough cough*). So all you have to do is go and try these out for yourself.

BUT! Before you dig in!

Notice, I’ve included the weight measurements for the flour and sugar, because I want those of you with a kitchen scale to use it for those ingredients. One cup of flour packed into the measuring cup will produce a much different cookie than one cup of fluffed-up flour.

If you don’t have a kitchen scale, measure your flour by fluffing and loosening it up with a scoop or spoon, gently sprinkling the fluffed-up flour into the measuring cup, and then leveling the top with the flat edge of a knife. Light and fluffy. This method will yield roughly 4.5 ounces per cup, which is just what you want.

Also, keep in mind I’m a high-altitude girl. Remember when I talked about altitude in this troubleshooting post? If you’re at sea-level or fairly low altitude, you may want to increase the baking soda to about 3/4 teaspoon (but remember that too much leavening will make your cookies spread more), and set your oven to 375 degrees. Try it out. If your cookies spread too much, increase the flour by a few tablespoons the next time around.

Also, pull these out of the oven before they go brown. A slight amount of light brown around some of the edges is enough. You don’t want them totally underbaked, but remember that brown = crispy.

I know, I’m totally micromanaging. But I really want to make these cookies turn out well for you guys. You deserve perfect cookies.

Chocolate Chip Cookies

Ingredients:

1/2 cup butter, room temperature (no microwave)

1/4 cup vegetable shortening

118 cup (9 oz.) firmly packed brown sugar OR 118 cup (9 oz.) white sugar + 1 Tablespoon molasses

2 eggs, room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon coconut extract

1 teaspoon salt

2¾ cups (13 oz.) flour, not packed

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1½ cups high-quality chocolate chips

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. (For high altitude, preheat to 385 degrees.)

In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter, shortening, and sugar together. If you’re using white sugar and molasses, add the molasses after the sugar has been creamed with the fats. Beat well, until the mixture is light and fluffy.

Add the eggs, vanilla, coconut extract, and salt. Stir together until completely blended, but don’t overbeat.

In a smaller bowl, combine the flour and baking soda. Add this to the wet mixture, and stir gently just until incorporated. Gently fold in the chocolate chips.

Drop in 1½ inch balls onto a parchment-lined or mat-lined baking sheet, using a cookie scoop or large spoon. Bake for 8-9 minutes, or until some of the edges just start to go light brown. (If you have slightly larger cookies, increase the baking time a little, but watch them like a hawk.)

Remove from the oven and allow the cookies to sit on the baking sheet for about 2 minutes before removing them to a cooling rack. Allow them to cool completely before storing or packaging. Cookies stored in an airtight container will be even softer the next day, and will last about a week at room temperature.