Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Day 20: Solid cream. Frozen cream. Bad cream.

The wait from the projects we began yesterday was quite worth it, and even all the built-up anticipation couldn’t dampen my spirits when we continued and finished them. The first was cheesecake, which we had baked yesterday and cooled overnight.

The three styles of cheesecake which various teams assembled were mascarpone, sour cream, and basic. Mascarpone cheesecake is rich and exotically smooth, and it is superlatively creamy. If you want a cheesecake that you can put into a tuxedo and take with you to the opera or the floor level seats at the Westminster Dog Show, this is probably the one. The sour cream version is what I’ve experienced most often labeled as a “French cream cheesecake,” or some such nonsense, in many a dinner spot across the country. It’s the kind that’s slightly soft in texture, very creamy and dreamy, and a bit lighter in color. The basic, simple cheesecake is the one I’d refer to as “New York” – marginally sturdier that the others, with a straightforward but immensely pleasing flavor. Most of the New York cheesecake which you have consumed has been horribly overbaked, trust me. It would usually have an almost mealy appearance, and it is creamy in the same way that peanut butter is – thickly creamy and dry, requiring coffee or milk on the side. This is actually a good thing, however, because when you find a good basic cheesecake, which has not had all the moisture baked out of it, it is a real challenge to stop eating it. (Which I exhibited, thoroughly, to the entire class. Someone has to teach them these things.)

My partner and I had been assigned basic cheesecake. We mixed and baked them yesterday, and the first thing that I noticed, after they had been cooling for a good while, was that all four of ours lacked even a single crack. The old classic crack-prevention trick is probably the cool-it-in-the-oven method. Like many other methods which you’ll find hopping around from cookbook to cookbook, misinforming all of us, this is simply wrong. It fails to address the reason that there would be cracks in the first place, and it also does nothing to help prevent them. Avoiding cracks is a remarkably simple task. First, don’t overbake. Your cheesecake should still be slightly wobbly in the very center. If you wait until there is no jiggle anywhere, make sure you have something to dump on top, to hide the small ravines which will develop. Second, run a knife-tip around the top, along the side of the pan, to make sure the batter isn’t stuck to it. Things contract when they cool. (Gentlemen?) Even though it’s the Number One Selling Dessert in the United States of America, cheesecake has still not managed to outdo this cardinal law of physics. So, given that shrinkage will occur, which do you think will give way first? The still wobbly-center of a warm pool of molten cream cheese? Or the rolled-up, aluminized-steel rim of your baking pan? Release your cake. (Don’t worry, if it was meant to be, it will come back to you.) This style of cheesecake, having come out perfectly, gets to be my preferred variety, for its simplicity, its dynamite flavor, and its dense, velvet texture.

The second item we had begun is a frequent guest on my palate, and on all of America’s: Ice cream. Brief lesson: After you make a custard, if you let it rest for a while – say, overnight – the protein molecules gradually attach to some of the water molecules. Then, when you freeze this “aged” custard in an ice cream maker, there aren’t as many free-floating water molecules, so they can’t come together in big globs and form ice chunks as the temperature drops. Pretty neat stuff! This translates to the smoothest, creamiest ice cream you can imagine. Our first of two flavors was Coconut Rum. In the end, we had to change the name to Rum Coconut, because when it first hits your tongue, the alcohol – which was not cooked off – evaporates and carries the rum’s flavor to every corner of your mouth. Immediately afterward, this strong (but far from unpleasant) sensation is gently snuffed by a soft blanket of coconut. We were quite pleased with ourselves, a feeling which seemed to grow the more of it we ate, for whatever reason. The completion of our second flavor, and therefore my description of it, must wait until tomorrow.

After dealing with cheesecake and churning ice cream, we made one more item, a sauce of puréed pineapple, which we made and immediately set in storage (guess what we’re pouring that on tomorrow). We then received the results of our second quiz. I am in no way ashamed to say that I aced it.

That happy conclusion was clouded only by the task of cleaning out thirty-five untouched ramekins of would-be crème brûlée, which, sadly but somehow appropriately, fell to me.

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