Friday, February 20, 2009

why i cool my cakes like this (and other ways to make cheesecake-baking less stressful)

yes, in the end, 
my first go 
at the 
was a success. 
but in the years that followed, i
worked hard 
to make sure that
i wouldn't collapse 
of anxiety, 
at the mere sight of
my springform pan.
here are my

1) husking the hazelnuts
if you've ever tried to get the skin off of the hazelnuts, chances are, you never wanted to do it again. i did. but, then i learned to jump start the process by spritzing the whole nuts with a very small amount of water, before toasting them. once they come out of the oven, cover immediately with a small clean kitchen towel and let sit until cool enough to handle. then, wrap a bunch in the kitchen towel and rub back and forth between the palms of your hands. next, just pluck the cleaned nuts from the towel, dump the skins and start over. the water and towel both help to slightly steam and loosen the skins, making them much easier to remove.

2) knowing when to say when
the above method makes husking hazelnuts a million times easier. that being said, sometimes, some of the skin is never going to budge. don't spend all night fighting it - especially when used for things like crusts and crumbles - it will be fine. just move onto the next nut. you can't save them all.

3) chopping nuts in the food processor
a lot of recipes instruct to chop nuts by hand rather than tossing them into a food processor for one simple reason: under the blade, they can go from chopped to butter in the blink of an eye. the best way to prevent this is to toss some granulated sugar in with the nuts before pulsing. the sugar creates friction that makes it just that much harder for the oily little devils to completely break down. luckily, the crust in this birthday recipe called for 2 Tbs. sugar; i saved a step by combining them, above.

4) preventing the cracks ahead of time
cheesecakes are notorious for cracking. stop cracks in their tracks, by providing a mock water bath for the cake. instead of fussing with tightly wrapping the pan with foil and crossing your fingers that the water you've set your confection in, doesn't seep into the crust, simply fill a 9 x 13 pan with hot water. just before baking, set it on the lower rack in the oven; place the cheesecake on the center rack above it. the moisture from the water will still waft up and help prevent rifts in the cream cheese-based filling, even without direct submersion.

5) preventing and fixing the cracks after baking
once the cheesecake is finished baking (it will appear set around the edges, but still be slightly jiggly in the center), immediately pull it from the oven. run a very sharp knife around the edge to separate the cake and the edge of the pan. this prevents after-the-fact-cracking that can occur as the cheesecake cools. often this happens because, the cake shrinks slightly toward the center, but the edges are stuck to the pan and unable to contract with it. enter: round cracks. twice, my cheesecake has cracked in a circle, i've separated it anyway and come back an hour later to a completely closed up cake. it really works. 

6) easy cool-down
dramatic temperature changes - going from a smoking hot oven to a cool kitchen can be rather traumatic for a delicate (yet hardy) baked good. help the cheesecake make an easier adjustment by placing the pan (after completing number 4), back in the now off oven. use a wooden spoon to prop the door open and let it rest for 1 hour. then, transfer the pan to a cooling rack and let it cool completely.

7) final cooling
a lot of people have great, sturdy and well-elevated cooling racks. i don't. it's a shame, those racks, help the cakes cool faster and because air can circulate around them better, they cool upward as well,  preventing crusts and bottoms from becoming soggy. but, i refuse to let a so-so rack sabotage all the above work. so, i recreate the scenario by propping it up on overturned glasses (top picture). works like a charm.

8) adding liquid to melted chocolate
chocolate, even in its simplest-don't-have-to-temper-form, is finicky. a drop of water is enough to harden a melted batch. so, can you imagine trying to add a tablespoon of liqueur for the topping? not fun. instead, melt the chocolate (either in small increments in the microwave or the double boiler) with the liqueur, making sure to stir often. much easier. also, when it's time to add the sour cream, stir in a tablespoon first (instead of the whole quarter cup) and make sure to incorporate thoroughly before adding the rest. 

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