Sunday, March 18, 2012

Pistachio, White Chocolate, and Raspberry Trifle

The idea for this trifle came about because yesterday was my brother-in-law Pat’s birthday, and so my nephew Leo (who I teach cooking classes to) and I wanted to make him a special birthday dessert. Pat LOVES pistachios, so I definitely wanted to incorporated them into his dessert somehow, and he’s also rather fond of raspberries. We could have done a pistachio cake with raspberry frosting, but that didn’t seem quite what we wanted. Plus, Leo sometimes has a hard time with focusing - we're working on that in class - so maybe the cake making/cooling part wasn’t such a good idea with him…
I eventually decided on this yummy trifle, after seeing a recipe somewhere for a biscotti with the same flavors. It sounded delicious to me! As it turns out, Chrissy and Pat were planning to take the boys to see a St. Patrick’s Day parade, so cooking class was limited to only 1 hour this time. Because of the time restraint, I made the cakes and pudding ahead of time and then Leo helped me assemble the masterpiece. (Of course, I always let Chef Leo take all of the credit, though!)
The recipe for the cake came from a blog post that sounded wonderful to me. The recipe was passed down through a couple of generations, so I figured it had to be good! I always love recipes that have stories… I had seen a few other recipes for pistachio cake, but some of the ingredients sounded a little strange or they didn’t get good reviews. I was also opposed to adding any more artificial coloring than necessary, so the two packages of pudding mix would definitely help alleviate that particular problem. This cake turned out so wonderfully moist and delicious, I couldn’t help eating the outside edges while I was cutting it into cubes for the trifle! I followed the instructions in the recipe, for the most part, when it came to the ingredients, but I wanted a thinner cake in the end so that I wouldn’t have to worry about cutting it in half and then into bite-size pieces. So, I made the recipe, adding some pistachio extract that I just happen to have, and separated the batter between two 9x13-inch cakes pans. Because I was baking such small cakes, I didn’t want them to brown too fast and adjusted the oven temperature accordingly.

The great thing about making trifles for special occasions is that they look like you put a lot of time and effort into making them. And, if you so desired, you really could do just that! However, they can also be made with help from prepackaged mixes, which works well if you’re short on time and/or if you have children helping you. Focusing on the task at hand can be a little difficult for young minds, when there are 500 other things going on in their brains… (During cooking class, I hear at least 10 different thoughts that are going through Leo’s mind during that time! Angry Birds was a common subject, as I’m the only one in the family with an iPhone which means I “need” to hear all of the relevant news, so I eventually had to ban that topic from cooking class time… Did you know that Angry Birds Space is coming out in the App Store on March 22nd?! No? I’ve been hearing about it for probably a month now!)

In the end, Chef Leo’s masterpiece turned out beautifully, tasted divine, and he received lots of praise and gratitude! He’s such a good little chef!! ;-)

Printable Recipe

Pistachio Cake:
1 box white cake mix
2 (3.4 oz.) pkg. pistachio instant pudding
5 large eggs
½ c. milk
½ c. water
½ c. oil
2 tsp. pistachio extract

3 (3.3 oz.) pkg. white chocolate instant pudding
6 c. milk
2 (6 oz.) pkg. fresh raspberries
½ c. shelled pistachios, gently rubbed to remove skins

For the cake: Preheat your oven to 300° and prepare two 9x13-inch cake pans with cooking spray on the bottoms and sides. In a large mixing bowl, combine the white cake mix and pistachio pudding mixes and stir with a spoon or fork until combined. Make a well in the dry mix and add all of the wet ingredients. With an electric mixer, combine all of the ingredients on low speed for 1 minute; increase the speed to medium and mix for 2 minutes. Divide the cake batter evenly between the two prepared pans, smoothing the batter until even, and place both pans in the preheated oven. Cook the cakes for approximately 35-40 minutes, or until the middle springs back when you touch it lightly, being sure to rotate the pans halfway through to ensure even baking. Allow the cakes to cool completely, and then cut them into 1-inch cubes.
While the cake is cooling, prepare the white chocolate pudding according to the package directions. Place in the refrigerator and allow it to sit while the cake finishes cooling.
To arrange the trifle, place a generous layer of the pistachio cake in the bottom of a trifle bowl, using as much or as little cake as you like. Follow the cake layer with a white chocolate pudding layer, then a generous layer of raspberries (be sure to save some to garnish the top of the trifle), and then a final layer of each of the cake and the pudding. Garnish the trifle with the reserved raspberries and shelled pistachios.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

S'mores Cheesecake

It’s a cheesecake challenge… Bring it on!!

Last night, I had a girls’ night with some of the girls I bowl with on Monday nights, and I was challenged to a cheesecake competition. This has been a standing challenge, as the girl who brought it on has been saying for months that we need to do this so that we can decide, once and for all, who the master of all cheesecake awesomeness is! In all honesty, Nikki had offended me the very first time I ever made cheesecake for them, for the bowling Christmas party, by saying that it tasted like store-bought. I was highly offended, and so when she first mentioned a cheesecake challenge, I knew I was going to have to bring my A-game! Store-bought?! Cheesecake?! When I can make a perfectly delicious one all by myself?! Yeah, this was WAR!!
I’ve gotten to know Nikki much better since then, and she is becoming a very dear friend to me, so there are no hard feelings between us anymore. But, we do taunt each other about our cheesecake-making skills on a regular basis!
When we decided to do a girls’ night, right away Nikki was excited – we could finally have our cheesecake challenge! So, for a couple of weeks now, I’ve been thinking really hard about which cheesecake I would be doing. Since this was all about cheesecake awesomeness, it had to be something good! I still didn’t know what I was going to make until the week of the girls’ night, but had been thinking about a white chocolate raspberry one (one of my personal favorites). I was actually at the grocery store to pick up all of my ingredients when I happened upon the baking isle – Go figure! – and passed an entire section of marshmallows. That’s when the idea came to me… How about a S’mores Cheesecake?! I sent a text message to a couple of my friends, asking them which one they would rather have, and both of them said “S’mores!” Good!! Because that’s what I really wanted anyways, now that I had gotten the idea in my head! This was gonna GOOOOOOOD…
I’ve made my fair share of cheesecakes, since that was our primary dessert at Fetaz, but we didn’t usually do a lot of chocolate ones. We swirled a lot of fruit purees into them, made toppings for them, but we didn’t do chocolate very often. I did make a Black Forest Cheesecake for my birthday last year, but I had thought it was too dense and rich for what I wanted now so decided to melt the chocolate with heavy cream, as you would for ganache, and add that to the batter. But, I was a little worried that doing this would dilute the chocolate flavor too much, so I searched the internet for chocolate cheesecakes and saw that a lot of people also added cocoa powder to their chocolate cheesecake recipes when doing this. Following my basic cheesecake recipe, I added the chocolate mix-ins and continued with the recipe like normal. (Fair warning: This is still a very rich, and VERY chocolatey, cheesecake! If you want less chocolate flavor, simply reduce or take out the cocoa powder.) While checking out what other people had to say about the chocolate cheesecakes, I came across something interesting, though, that I thought I should pass on to you, my readers… I’ve never had a problem with this happening, but if you mix the batter too much after adding the eggs, it can incorporate too much air into the batter and you could have problems with air bubbles. So, it’s best to add the eggs at the very end and only stir until they are just mixed in. Too much air in the batter can also create a soufflé effect with your cheesecake, causing it to rise and then fall, leaving behind cracks in the top of your beautiful cheesecake. So, I did alter my original recipe to reflect this bit of information…
When it came to the crust, of course, I would be doing the traditional graham cracker crust. Since it was to be resembling the campfire treat, though, I wanted it to be a little more substantial, so I actually did measure out the ingredients for it this time. I also wanted it to be a little bit crunchy, so blind-baked it for just a little bit before adding the batter. If your springform pan leaks, as a lot of them do, I read a really great tip for keeping your crust dry that actually does work! Instead of wrapping layers of foil around your cheesecake pan, which doesn’t always work, use the plastic liners they make for Crock Pots around the outside of your pan. Simply open up the bake and fold down the sides, put the pan of cheesecake into the bag, and fold down the sides some more until the bag is flush with the side of the pan as much as possible. That’s definitely so much easier, and much less messy!
Now, when it came to the topping, I needed something marshmallowy… I tend to think that cheesecakes are rather classy, so I didn’t want to just throw a bunch of marshmallows on top of the thing and call it good. Besides, this was a challenge, so I had to do better than blah pre-made marshmallows! Then I remembered the S’mores Cupcakes I make, and thought how perfectly that marshmallow topping would work on my cheesecake. And, besides, it gave me another reason to use my Crème Brûlée torch! For the garnish, I couldn’t find the little dipping style graham crackers that I’ve purchased in the past, but I did find some other ones that sufficed, in the form of Spongebob Snacking Grahams… So I turned the Spongebob sides of the grahams to the inside and made miniature s’mores to garnish my cheesecake slices! Who can resist tiny-sized s’mores?! Ummm… Nobody!!

The girls’ night was great fun, and, in the end, it really didn’t matter who the real winner of the competition was (ME!!) because there was more than plenty of great food to be eaten and much fun to be had!

Printable Recipe

Chocolate Cheesecake:
2 oz. semi-sweet baking chocolate, coarsely chopped
¼ c. heavy whipping cream
3 (8 oz.) pkg. cream cheese, at room temperature
1 c. white sugar
⅓ c. unsweetened cocoa powder
⅛ c. homemade vanilla extract, or 2 tsp. store-bought vanilla extract
4 eggs, at room temperature

2 c. graham cracker crumbs
6 Tbsp. butter, melted

Marshmallow Topping:
8 large egg whites
2 c. white sugar
½ tsp. cream of tartar
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract, optional

Hershey’s Milk Chocolate bars, broken into individual pieces, for garnish (optional)
Bite-size graham cracker pieces, for garnish (optional)
Additional graham cracker crumbs, for garnish (optional)

For the cheesecake batter: In a small saucepan, combine the baking chocolate and the heavy cream and heat over low heat, stirring constantly, until the chocolate is melted and smooth; remove from the heat and set aside to cool slightly.
In the mixing bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine and cream cheese, sugar, and cocoa powder and mix on medium-low/medium speed until thoroughly combined and no lumps remain. Scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl, then add the vanilla extract and the chocolate mixture and beat on low/medium-low until well blended and no streaks remain. Finally, add the eggs, one at a time, and beat on low speed until just blended, scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl if needed. Cover the bowl and allow the batter to sit in the refrigerator overnight.
To make the cheesecake: Preheat oven to 350°. In a medium bowl, mix together the graham cracker crumbs and melted butter until thoroughly combined. Lightly press the mixture onto the bottom and partway up the sides of a 9-inch springform pan. Bake for 10 minutes, then allow the crust to cool; Reduce the oven temperature to 325°.
Pour the cheesecake batter over the crust and place the filled springform pan into a large cake pan or roasting pan, filling the outside pan halfway with water. Place the pan into the preheated oven and bake until the cheesecake is almost set, approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes. Remove the cheesecake from the oven and let it continue to sit in the water bath for about a half hour; remove the springform pan from the water bath and place it in the refrigerator to finish cooling.
For the marshmallow topping: When the cheesecake is completely cooled, place the egg whites, sugar, and cream of tartar in the heatproof bowl of an electric mixer. Set over a saucepan with simmering water and whisk constantly until the sugar is dissolved and the whites are warm to the touch, 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer the bowl to the electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, and beat, starting on low speed, gradually increasing to high, until stiff, glossy peaks form, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the vanilla, and mix until combined. Transfer the frosting to a large pastry bag fitted with a large plain round or French tip (I like the Wilton large star tip - #2110). Pipe the frosting in a spiral motion onto the top of the cheesecake, reserving a little extra to pipe around the outside edges and make miniature s’mores, if you’re doing that. Using a kitchen torch, lightly brown the marshmallow topping all around the cheesecake. Pipe some of the remaining topping around the outsides of the cheesecake and sprinkle with extra graham cracker crumbs.
Slice the cheesecake into the desired number of pieces (I think 12 is a nice number) and serve each piece garnished with a piece of Hershey’s candy and bite-size graham cracker pieces. Store any leftover cheesecake, covered well, in the refrigerator.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Crock Pot White Chicken Chili

For the first time ever on my blog, I’m posting a recipe for the Crock Pot! It’s kind of surprising, really, because I love all of my slow cookers (Yes, there’s more than one… There are four, to be exact!) and use them fairly regularly. I really used them a lot when I was working full-time and also going to school full-time, because I just never had any time to cook a real meal otherwise and didn’t want to live off of drive-thru food. I would do things like adding frozen chicken breasts and then covering them with chicken broth/stock and cream of chicken soup. Then, I would make some egg noodles or the microwavable rice to go along with it and steam some vegetables really quick. This is how I got by (and retained some semblance of my sanity) for months at a time…
I still use my slow cookers on a regular basis, but not nearly as much as I did at that time. My favorite of all of them is the Crock Pot Smart Pot that I got around Christmastime one year, for only $15! It’s the one I use for soups and stews because it’s so big and can hold pretty much whatever I put in it. (This exact recipe fit in it perfectly, with room to spare even…) And the best thing about slow cookers is that you can put everything for your meal in them, turn them on and leave them on, and don’t have to worry about your house burning down while you’re gone! You can even prepare all of the stuff for your meal the night before, put it in the crock part of the device and stick it in the refrigerator, then put the filled crock right into the heating base the next morning before running out the door. How great is that?!
I came across this recipe for Southwest White Chili a long time ago, via the little recipe cards you find in grocery stores. This particular one was from the McCormick brand, and the picture looked good, so figured it was worth a shot! In all fairness, I did start out following the recipe, kinda, but then realized it needed a little bit of extra work. I tasted the chili after it had been cooking for a few hours and found it to be bland, even though I had added an entire extra can of the green chilies they called for in their recipe. As if that alone wasn’t enough to deter me from ever spending the obscene amount of money on the tiny little can of “chilies” again in the future, the fact that there were unidentifiable objects in my soup as a result of using them sealed the deal. Little orange pieces, which I can only logically identify as carrots? Why are those in my chilies?! And woody pieces of …something that I’m hoping were stems? And big leafy pieces of …something else? What the heck is that from?! From now on, I’ll be substituting a Poblano pepper for every can of diced green chilies a recipe calls for, because then I’ll know what’s in my food! Nobody should ever have to guess what weird things might be in their food when the label doesn’t state anything about carrots and leafy greens… ;-)
Back to the bland, though!
It may be because I rinse and drain all of my beans before adding them (rinsing and draining canned beans reduces the sodium content by approximately 40%), since I’m trying to eat healthier and am ultra aware of sodium contents which can be detrimental to dieting, but I would really prefer to have flavor from other sources than a bunch of added salt. Yes, I could just buy the dry beans and soak them and all of that stuff, but I don’t always think that far ahead - a lot of times, I don’t know what I’m going to make for dinner until that morning or even early afternoon! Needless to say, canned beans are quite convenient. Sadly, not all of the canned beans come in a reduced sodium or no salt added version, though, so the rinsing and draining is as close as I’m going to get without actually soaking my own beans.
The original recipe for this was really more like a soup than a chili, in my opinion… Of course, kidney beans don’t really break down a whole lot, so it’s not like the breaking down of the beans could help thicken the soup. And there wasn’t really much of anything else in there to make it thicker, unless I made a flour thickener and added that, which I didn’t want to do because I’m trying to keep my carb intake within a certain range. So, back to the store I went! While there, I picked up some navy beans, which are smaller, softer, and break down more easily, and some Poblano peppers to help spice things up a bit. At home, I quickly diced up the peppers and added them to the Crock Pot, along with the navy beans, and let it simmer for a little while again. After a couple hours, the beans were starting to break down and thicken my chili, but now it was a little too thick! So, a little more stock went in and the Poblanos definitely added just the right amount of kick. After some slight modifications, I finally have a delicious chicken chili recipe! Perfect for the snowy days we had been having here in northern Wisconsin, where we’ve otherwise been having a very mild winter this year…

Printable Recipe

1 Tbsp. olive oil
½ c. chopped onion
3 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into small cubes
4 c. unsalted chicken stock
1-2 Poblano peppers, diced
2 (15.5 oz.) cans cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
2 (16 oz.) can navy beans, rinsed and drained
2 tsp. garlic powder
3 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. dried oregano leaves, crushed
1 tsp. dried cilantro leaves, crushed
¼ tsp. cayenne pepper
Fresh cilantro, for garnish
Shredded Pepperjack cheese, for garnish

Heat the oil in a large stockpot over medium heat; add the onion and cook 2 minutes. Add the chicken to the stockpot and cook, stirring often, until the chicken is mostly cooked through. Transfer the onions and chicken to a 5-quart Crock Pot; stir in the diced peppers, all of the beans, and the spices. Cover and let cook in the Crock Pot 4-6 hours on high or 8-10 hours on low. To serve, garnish with fresh cilantro leaves and shredded Pepperjack cheese, if desired.