Cucina Valentina

Cucina Valentina

Friday, September 30, 2016

Pumpkin Shallot Cheescake

Shallots in a cheesecake?  Really?  Yes, this is not a typo.  

It all transpired several years ago when a dear friend with an awesome dessert blog was approached by the California Onion Board and asked to create a dessert containing onions.  "What?", we all scoffed - until we tasted it.  Amazing.  When my husband got bit by a rattlesnake, she arrived at our door, cheesecake in hand,and he forgot all about the searing pain in his finger. (A crazy story for another time).


My dear friend has since moved away, and it's fallen on me to create my own version of this sweet and slightly savory delight every fall, because everyone who has ever tasted it has become addicted.  The moment the air cools, the hints start dropping like leaves.

Just forget about counting calories on the day you make this cake and use the real deal ingredients; full fat cream cheese and sour cream, heavy whipping cream and of course, real maple syrup.  I just used the last of mine in this cheesecake and I almost want to cry.

 Last summer we did a family trip to Maine (another blog to come) and on the way home, as we passed through New Hampshire, I pretty much cleaned out this little roadside market of all the Grade B maple syrup they had.  Why, you ask?  Grade B, which is considerably darker, richer and more maple-y, is extremely hard to find in California, and I am a bonafide hoarding hog.  If I find something I love, I will buy three of them.  Shhhh, that's our secret.

Anyway, as we attempted to board the plane for home, I was stopped in my tracks by a  uniformed agent who wanted to inspect my overweight bag.  Oh, Holy Hell - the look on my husband's face!  Now we are going to miss our flight because I am smuggling gallons of maple syrup out of New England.  He was beyond annoyed.  Thankfully our agent had a sense of humor, and once she saw what was causing the extra pounds, she actually let us go and didn't charge me the overweight fee.

In any case, always try to find Grade B maple syrup if you can.  In this recipe, it makes all the difference.

Pumpkin and maple are a match made in Heaven.  The maple, as well as the caramelized shallots, elevate this standard pumpkin cheesecake recipe to a new level.

When I was growing up there were two kinds of food, savory dishes and sweets.  The world we live in has changed along with our palettes, and today's generation appreciates the complexity of fusion foods that combine seemingly opposing flavor profiles to create something amazing and utterly memorable.

Baking a cheesecake in a water bath is not for the feint of heart.  I definitely enlist the aid of my husband's muscle when it comes to pouring a full pot of boiling water into the roasting pan - without pulling out the rack or disturbing the cake.

I made the mistake of starting this project at 6 pm.  Not wise.  I was up until 1:30 before I could tuck it into the fridge and call it a night.  Definitely give yourself plenty of time to make this baby.  Between assembling all the ingredients, baking for almost 2 hours then sitting for 1 and cooling for 1, we are talking about a 5 hour ordeal.  Please don't let that discourage you though.  The end result is well worth the time and effort.

Allowing the cheesecake to sit in the oven one full hour after you turn off the heat will ensure the cake does not crack.  It truly works.


The spiderweb addition is solely because I love Halloween.  It is, hands down, my favorite night of the year.    


When it comes to making the spiderweb, I'll warn you now that it is extremely difficult to squeeze that tube of black icing gel and make a perfect spiral.  Be prepared and don't panic when it inevitably looks a little wobbly.

When you drag your butter knife through the spiral, creating the web effect, it camouflages any imperfections.


 I'm serious when I tell you I LOVE Halloween.  As a child of 5 or 6 years old, I would don my costume multiple times during the month of October and my Dad would escort me around the neighborhood.  All the neighbors knew me well.  "Here she comes again.", they would laugh, as I practiced my Trick or Treating technique and collected early spoils.

To this day, by the last week of August, I am digging through my Halloween boxes and setting out pumpkins.  The neighbors probably think I'm nuts, but that's fine.

The biggest fan of this particular cheesecake turned 18 last night, so we careully transported it the few blocks to his house and had an early Halloween/Birthday celebration.  Like us, his is a family of Halloween fanatics.  The house was decorated to the hilt.  I was beside myself.  What a great way to usher in October!



Pumpkin Shallot Cheesecake

12 T butter - melted
2 1/2 C graham cracker crumbs
2 3/4 C sugar
2 pounds cream cheese - room temp
1/4 C sour cream
1 15 oz can pumpkin
6 large eggs - room temp - lightly beaten
1 T vanilla
2 1/2 t cinnamon
1 t ground ginger
1/4 t ground cloves
4 medium shallots chopped
3 T butter
1/4 C maple syrup + 1 T

1 C whipped cream sweetened with 1 T maple syrup and 1 t vanilla

Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 325.

Brush a 10" springform pan with butter.  Reserving 3 T for the shallots, mix the rest of the melted butter with the graham cracker crumbs, 1/4 C sugar and a pinch of salt in a bowl.  Press crumb mixture into the bottom and up sides of pan, packing it in tight and even.  Bake 15 - 20 minuted until golden brown.  Cool on a rack then wrap the the outside of the springform pan with heavy duty foil and place in deep roasting pan.  Bring a medium pot of water to a boil

While the crust is cooling, saute shallots in 3 T butter and a pinch of salt over medium heat until opaque.  Add 1/4 C maple syrup, lower heat and cook until thick and syrupy.  Turn off heat and let cool.  Spread caramelized shallots evenly over bottom of crust.

Beat cream cheese in mixer until smooth.  Add 2 1/2 C sugar and beat until light and fluffy.  Beat in sour cream, pumpkin, eggs, vanilla, 1 t salt and the spices.  Beat until just combined and pour into crust.

Place the roasting pan in the over (without pulling the rack out) and gently pour boiling water until it comes halfway up the pan.  Back 1 hour 45 minutes then turn oven off, open the briefly to let some heat out, then close door and leave in oven 1 more hour.  Carefully remove from oven and cool on a rack.  Run a butter knife around edges, cover and refrigerate at least 8 hours.

Whip cream with maple syrup and vanilla.  Spread on top of cheesecake.

To make spiderweb, draw a spiral from outside in with black cake decorator's writing gel.  Don't worry if it's not perfect.  When you drag the edge of a butter knife though it from the center out to form the web, it will fix any imperfections.  Add a plastic spider and done!


Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Improvised Mini Lasagna

 So once again, it's a weeknight and I'm scrambling to concoct something out of nothing.  

I am the type of person who likes to put everything to good use.  I cant stand waste, and the following recipe pretty much cleaned out my fridge and freezer of mozzarella prosciutto pinwheel appetizers leftover from last weekend, extra cooked noodles from my last lasagna that I'd tossed in a baggie and froze, and the season's last burst basil of from my garden, which is wonderful.  

Friday is my shopping day, and there is no doubt I will need the room!  

With the addition of a few items I always have on hand, I was able to put together this small, improvised white lasagna.  

The actual full-size version of my white lasagna (recipe to come in the future) takes substantially longer to make and has a multitude more ingredients, but I have no problem going basic and using jarred sauces in a pinch.  The three major brands out there are fantastic.

If there is no fresh basil available, baby spinach or kale is a great substitute.  Normally I would chop it along with some parsley and mix it into the ricotta, but if you are short on time, scattering it works fine.

Now, adding the pinwheels because I did not have any shredded mozzarella was a total improvisation, but it worked great, and the inclusion of prosciutto gave the finished lasagna a great, salty kick.

My beautiful Aunt Theresa, who turned 96 this spring, gave me a tip I always use when ricotta is involved.  Sugar is her secret.  It just does something that elevates plain ricotta in any application, ravioli, manicotti, stuffed shells, squash blossoms, lasagna...  I am not a fan of white refined anything, so I always use either brown sugar or honey.

Sun-dried tomatoes on top was a deviation from my normal routine, that worked.  Their inherent sweetness help cut the richness of the cheeses. 

Got this tip recently online and am happy to say, placing cilantro and parsley in a small pot filled halfway with water really works.  This bunch is going on two weeks!  

Just wash and let dry, trim stem ends and stand upright in pot.  Place a plastic bag over the top.  (With regard to the plastic bag, I have no idea why, but if it works, don't fix it!)

The end result was, albeit miniature, a rich, delicious spin on traditional white lasagna that took a fraction of the time and was every bit as satisfying.

Improvised Mini Lasagna

15 oz Ricotta Cheese
2 eggs
3/4 C Parmesan (plus more for top)
1 t Honey
1 T Lemon Zest
1/4 t Nutmeg
Salt and White Pepper to taste
1 lb Mozzarella Prosciutto Pinwheels
Sun-dried Tomatoes - chopped
Fresh Basil and Parsley 
6 Lasagne Noodles
15 oz jar Alfredo Sauce

Preheat over to 350.
In bowl, combine first seven ingredients until smooth.  Pour some Alfredo in the bottom of a 7 x 5 casserole dish then top with two lasagne noodles.  Spread ricotta mixture on noodles.  Scatter a handful of fresh basil on ricotta and top with pinwheels.  Pour a little more Alfredo over pinwheels then top with two more lasagne noodles and start again.  Finish with last two noodles and pour the rest of the Alfredo on top, covering all exposed noodles.  Top with Parmesan, sun-dried tomatoes, fresh chopped parsley and bake 45 minutes or until it is starting to bubble and brown.  Let rest a good 20 minutes so it can firm up.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Fruit, Fromage - and Wine, of course...

In my perfect world, I'd wake up and spend hours in the kitchen leisurely creating something I hope will turn out spectacular.  (Doesn't always happen that way, but I do have a great time trying) 

Friends are generally taken aback when they learn that Thanksgiving and Christmas are my favorite days of the year for the very reason that  I wake up knowing I have all day to make a multi-course feast, and it just, simply, makes me happy.  

Sadly, my hectic weekday life doesn't always afford the time necessary to attempt culinary masterpieces night after night.  When life gets too busy, I have no problem throwing down a simple cheese and fruit platter and calling it dinner.  

Ah, cheese.  Did I mention how much I love cheese?  Imagine my delight when, thanks to a dear friend, I lucked into a Restaurant Depot membership.  

If you are reading this blog, I know you love food as much as I do, and I highly recommend you do whatever it takes to check this place out.  You wont regret it!

Card in hand, I ventured into the sprawling restaurant supply warehouse - aka Disneyland for foodies - and literally stood there, mouth agape, in awe of my surroundings.  

Restaurant Depot spans aisle after aisle, packed with the most dazzling array of pastas, rice, sauces, seasonings and exotic delicacies.  Farm fresh produce in every variety imaginable.  So you have to buy a 20 pound bag of oranges, or an entire crate of cilantro?  Who doesn't want that?  Aside from my husband, that is, who has a hard time navigating our fridge as it is...

I won't even go into the gadgets, utensils and appliances, but suffice to say, the sight of waist-high stainless immersion blenders, Hobart ice makers and gleaming industrial refrigerators with glass doors gave me the chills!

Donning one of the many quilted coats hanging on a rack by the massive refrigerator doors, I ventured into a 15,000 square foot ice box to check out the meats, seafood, poultry, dairy and, low and behold, came face to face with the cheese display.  And not just ordinary cheese.  No sliced American here.  We are talking specialty cheeses from around the world.  I was in Heaven.

There were wheels of nutty, aged Dutch Gouda the size of an economy car's spare tire and bricks of buttery Havarti riddled with maple bacon.  Buckets of New York Ricotta, five pound bags of shaved Parmigiano Reggiano and ground Pecorino Romano, apricot infused sharp white cheese from the English countryside and logs of cranberry covered creamy white bliss from goats that roam the rolling green hills of Napa Valley.

Needless to say, I spent way more money than I should have, and later found that cheese, when sealed air tight in plastic, freezes magnificently and thaws quickly, just perfect for a busy weeknight dinner.  

So maybe my cheese platter is not exactly simple, but add some seasonal fruit, cracked black pepper Triscuits, assorted charcuterie and I am good to go!

 Did I forget to mention the wine?  I believe a fall shipment of Dark Star is headed my way any moment now. 

Oh happy day!

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Irish Coffee - Inspired by the Buena Vista Cafe, Russian Hill, San Francisco

Though we are currently suffering through a Southern California Indian Summer, with temps topping 100 degrees today, there's evidence in the air that autumn is looming.  

The way the morning sun angles through the Cottonwood leaves as they rustle in the dry, Santa Ana wind, makes me want to cozy up to a warm Irish coffee on this lazy Sunday morning and imagine the cold days ahead...

 A dark Italian roast is my favorite, sweetened with Turbinado sugar and topped with freshly whipped vanilla cream.

A Splash of Jameson adds a kick of indulgence.  It IS the weekend, after all.

Yet another scorcher cant stop me from lighting a fall candle and dreaming of the change of seasons.

Irish Coffee 

6 cups dark roast coffee
1 Cup Heavy Whipping Cream
4 T Brown Sugar 
Jameson Whiskey

While coffee is brewing, whip cream with two tablespoons brown sugar and two teaspoons vanilla extract. 

Place one tablespoon brown sugar in the bottom of each cup.  Fill halfway with coffee and stir to dissolve sugar.  Add a generous splash of Jameson and more coffee, making sure to leave room for whipped cream on top.