Tuesday, February 17, 2009

a birthday cake for larry


not very pretty. but don't let that stop you. it's really good. and - and this is a good time to pull this one out - it's rustic.

less than six months into dating, 
larry and i stumbled into one of our first
relationship roadblocks: a birthday.
larry's to be precise.
i'm obsessive and i want everything to
be perfect and memorable and,
in sad reality,
i want it to be the best
birthday that anyone has ever had.
ever.

but for larry's birthday,
it was different.
because
the world
the media,
the restaurants
and the
card stores will not
let go of the fact that
cupid claimed rights
to the day
first.

that first year, he insisted
on treating the day
as a normal valentine's day.
it was decided that we would
celebrate
his birthday
the following weekend, but
that he would be planning the 14th
for me.
we went for crab cakes
and he gave me
flowers
and
a card
and it was nice
and delicious.

but it seemed so
wrong.

here it was,
his birthday and
we were surrounded
by kissing couples,
red and pink for miles
and hearts
dangling around us.

so the following year,
a decision was made
that conventional
valentine's day -
sap and all -
was a thing of the past
and instead,
future february 14ths
would be spent at home,
with special meals
and a promise
that behind our door,
it was just a birthday.

but, then, i had to pick
a menu.
it was intricate and i remember
something about taking
a vacation day on the 13th
to prepare
for the meal
and for the cake.

the cake. i had asked him
a month before about his
favorite cake.
a cheesecake, he said.
nothing more specific.

i set to work, scouring
the internet,
books, in which,
the main subject,
was cheesecake.
turning pages away from
the ones that were ordinary,
topped with
apple pie filling,
blueberries,
sliced strawberries,
chocolate shards or
caramel drizzles.
i clicked away from
endless recipes
that had plain
chocolate cookie crumb bottoms
or nothing in the middle
or those made with ricotta.
i transferred my
what-should-we-do-for-is-birthday?
obsession
to finding the perfect cake,
with no idea what i was looking for.

then, three weeks in
(and only a week from his birthday),
i found this recipe
and i knew i would be OK.
i loved that the crust was not
just vanilla wafers
or just chocolate,
that it was both,
with toasted hazelnuts
tossed into the mix.
i loved that it
reached up the sides,
and at the top,
the crumbs were
met with a tangy chocolate
glaze. and i loved that the
sweet filling
was simple,
but given a boost with
hazelnut liqueur
and chopped
chocolate.

on the 12th, it snowed.
heavily.
on the 13th,
i had to dig my
car out
to go shopping.
it was after 2 by the time
i was able to start the
the cake and by 3:30,
i was tired.

and i only had one step done.
it sounds good to have
three main crust components,
but they required:
figuring out how many
vanilla wafers it takes
to get to 1 1/2 cups
of vanilla wafer crumbs,
chopping a bunch of chocolate chips,
toasting, husking, cooling
and chopping hazelnuts,
making and baking
a crust
and cooling the
whole thing completely
before adding the filling.

i had chocolate smeared
on my face,
runaway hazelnuts
on the floor,
and crumbs everywhere.
when it was time to make
the filling, i realized,
i again had to chop
(by hand!) a cup of chocolate
chips. an hour later, when i
opened the oven and saw
a large jagged crack
down the center
of the cheesecake,
i cried.
later, when i tried to make
the glaze to smear on top
(and patch up the hole),
it seized in the bowl.
i melted and melted
until i had chocolate
that moved
and would
spread.

that night,
i crashed
the moment
i hit the bed.

on the 14th, i thought,
new day. birthday.
the cheesecake
was done. it was
chilling,
waiting
patiently for its
turn after the
artichoke appetizer,
seared scallops,
roasted asparagus
and
baked goat cheese mashed potatoes,
which we ate by the fire (three brown tea lights),
on a blanket,
on the floor,
of my tiny studio
apartment
that was not big enough for a
table.

and when the food was away,
i closed the door to
my teeny studio kitchen,
whipped some cream with a
splash of sweet vanilla extract
and a sprinkle of confectioners' sugar,
to dollop on top.
i placed a candle in the
not-so-pretty cake,
lit the end,
and proudly, carefully,
sheepishly, walked into the next
room and sang,
a very off-key happy birthday
to larry.

we sat with our slices,
he, just happy,
me, marveling that in spite
of everything, the crust was
crisp and special, the filling,
ultra-creamy,
the topping a sweet,
but welcome contrast.
and, then, just when i started to
feel like, i did OK,
he had a nice valentine's day-free,
birthday to remember and
i could sleep well,
larry turned to me,
smiled
and said,
i can't believe you know
how to make
whipped cream.

larry's birthday cheesecake
soon, after larry got over his shock that i can make whipped cream, he told me it was the best cheesecake ever and asked if it could become his annual birthday cake. i knew that i would not survive even a second birthday following the instructions as written and played around with them slightly, trying to think it through from beginning to end, in a more logical fashion. if you have a food processor (or a mini one) the crust is a breeze. i also was fortunate enough to work at a magazine where i spent much of my time, writing and researching food tips, several of them pertaining to cheesecake and nuts. i think, after several years and several birthdays (sorry, lar), i finally have it down, using bittersweet chocolate now instead of semi-sweet and extra hazelnut liqueur. this past weekend, the process - with the exception of the fact that i couldn't find the bottom to my springform pan at first - was stress-free. you can certainly make this cake in one day...and broken down this way, it would be much easier than my first time, but i separated it into days. it seems more manageable this way. oh, and i plan to post soon with a lot of the tips.

3/4 cup hazelnuts
1 pkg. (11.5 oz.) bittersweet chocolate morsels, divided
45 vanilla wafers (approximately)
2 Tbs. plus 1 cup granulated sugar, divided
3 Tbs. unsalted butter
3 pkgs. (8 oz.) cream cheese, at room temperature
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1/4 cup plus 1 heaping tablespoon hazelnut liqueur, divided
1/4 cup sour cream

three days before
heat oven to 300˚F. place hazelnuts on rimmed baking sheet. toast, cool and remove husks from nuts.
store in airtight container.

two days before
heat oven to 300˚F. place 1 1/3 cups chocolate morsels in bowl of mini food processor. pulse several times or until small chunks form (see picture above). remove one-quarter chocolate and place in medium size bowl. place remaining three-quarters chocolate in airtight container. place vanilla wafers in bowl of mini food processor; process until finely ground. add to bowl with chocolate. place toasted and husked hazelnuts in bowl of food processor; add 2 Tbs. sugar. pulse 10 times, or just until chopped, making sure not to grind too finely (otherwise the hazelnuts can turn into nut butter). add hazelnut-sugar mixture to bowl. in separate small bowl, melt butter. stir melted butter into crumb-chocolate mixture until coated. place springform pan with a removable bottom on baking sheet. press crumb mixture into bottom and up sides of pan, using bottom of cup to even out crust. bake 15 minutes. place on cooling rack and cool completely. cover tightly with foil.

one day before
heat oven to 350˚F. in bowl of electric mixer, beat cream cheese on medium speed until fluffy; gradually add remaining 1 cup granulated sugar. add eggs, one at a time. add hazelnut liqueur; mix just until combined. stir in reserved chopped chocolate chips. pour into crust. place springform pan on baking sheet. bake 50 minutes to 1 hour, or until set on the edges and slightly jiggly in the middle. turn off oven. using sharp knife, run knife around edge, between crust and pan. place cake (still in pan) back in oven. using wooden spoon, prop open door and let cool 1 hour. remove pan from oven and place on cooling rack. let cool completely. wrap tightly and store in fridge.

two hours before
in bowl, combine remaining hazelnut liqueur and remaining chocolate chips. heat 45 seconds, stirring once, or until melted. stir 1 tbs. sour cream into chocolate mixture until completely combined. stir in remaining sour cream. using an offset spatula, spread chocolate over top of cooled cheesecake. cover and chill until ready to serve.

2 comments:

Col said...

There's certainly something very special about "real" whipped cream :)

brooke herman said...

true, true. that's why i felt so terrible this year when i realized i had forgotten to buy cream and he had to eat the cake as is.