This is a midnight cake.
I made this late one night, after a day of trying and failing to make treacle tart. Days when baking fails you are always disappointing–not just because a recipe didn’t turn out the way you wanted it to, but because at the end of the day you’re left without dessert. And that just won’t do.
Today, we do science.
That’s my catch-all term for recipes I can’t quite explain. This one involves no baking, and just has one ingredient: maple syrup. A pinch of salt is optional, as is a quarter-teaspoon of vegetable oil, but only maple syrup is necessary to make this science happen. By boiling the syrup on the stove until it reaches a very exact temperature (235 degrees Fahrenheit), setting it in an ice bath until it reaches another exact temperature (100 degrees Fahrenheit), and stirring it for twenty minutes or until it reaches an approximate consistency (peanut buttery?), we create maple butter. This is not to be confused with the other maple butter, which is maple syrup whipped into butter. There is no science in that.
I am a crumble convert.
I’m used to making double-crusted pies, which involve a warm fruit filling sandwiched between two buttery crusts. Crust is my favorite part of pie, so it just makes sense.
But streusel topping is my favorite part of fruit crumbles and crisps. (Not to be confused with buckles, grunts, slumps, and other fruit desserts that sound unattractive.)
Pecan pie feels like the epitome of Thanksgiving. Not that it’s the epitome of my Thanksgivings, as I’ve only ever had it on Thanksgiving once–last year, in fact–but there’s something about it that seems so quintessentially Thanksgiving. The pecans, molasses, brown sugar, and vanilla all bring rich, warm flavors to the pie–flavors that, when combined with the eggs, butter and corn syrup, result in a dark, nutty pie, the perfect indulgence to cap off an evening of overeating.
Cheesecake can be such a production. Springform pan, two pounds of cream cheese, water bath, accompanying toppings and/or sauces. If you want to make a tall, impressive cheesecake that serves sixteen, that’s great (and please invite me over). But I only ever want to make a simple cheesecake–something my two-person household is capable of finishing in a reasonable amount of time. Cheesecake is my favorite dessert and I won’t go through a rigmarole every time I want to make it. So I reject the idea that cheesecake must be baked in a springform pan.
There are a lot of delicious cheesecake recipes, and this one certainly isn’t remarkable compared to many of those. This isn’t the cheesecake you make when you want to feed a crowd or impress people with presentation. But if you want cheesecake and nothing more, this is an excellent recipe to use. It’s simple and straightforward, and I’ve made it so often that I have the recipe memorized. This is baked in a nine-inch pie tin and serves (“serves”) eight in manageable, pie-sized wedges. It’s smooth and creamy like all cheesecake should be, and the tablespoon of vanilla ensures that there’s plenty of flavor to complement the cream cheese tang.
There’s nothing like squeezing dozens of key limes to make you extremely acquainted with your open wounds. It’s like a roll call for injuries. You’re suddenly very much aware of what you thought was just a small scratch, and any and all paper cuts take the chance to remind you that they still exist. And key limes are tiny, so you’ve got a long way to go. Let’s get started.
I suggest going the Ina Garten route for this one.
You know, the whole meme about her preference for quality ingredients, that if you can’t get it flown in on a private jet fueled by children’s tears, “storebought is fine”?
In this case, storebought, run-of-the-mill olive oil was fine. The cake ended up tasting delicious. But maybe, had I gone with some olive oil I didn’t get from Trader Joe’s at the bargain price of $6.99 for a liter, I might have been able to taste the subtle notes of olive oil. I could taste it in the batter–in fact, I felt like I was eating a dessert salad dressing and feared I’d added too much–but like alcohol it seemed to have baked out during its time in the oven, leaving me with a moist, lemony cake. I like to think the quality of olive oil used was the reason I couldn’t taste it in the cake–I admittedly have a fairly unrefined palate, but I do remember standing at an olive oil booth at a farmer’s market one Saturday, dipping cubes of bread into shallow dishes of olive oil and actually being able to taste the differences, some smooth, some peppery, all distinct from one another. I bought a bottle of olive oil that day, though I’ve since used it all (I’d go back for more but I have a standing appointment with my pillow on Saturday mornings. And afternoons).
I don’t decorate.
Part of it relates to my utter lack of artistic ability, and part of it stems from my philosophy that food is there to taste good, not look pretty. Many people are capable of doing both, but I’d rather focus on the thing I can actually do. What really perplexes me is when presentation seems to take precedence over taste, which I imagine is how fondant came into being.
But if I’m baking something for someone else, I feel a need to at least try. In this case, I got a little ambitious.
I am not from the South. As a result, the only cornbread I’ve had is closer to cake than actual, southern cornbread. Actually, I’ve had southern cornbread; I just try to push the memories of bitter, crumbly cornbread out of my mind because it’s not the cornbread I know and love.
I’ve tried a few recipes, and I’ve found I most like those that call for equal amounts of flour and cornmeal. And, of course, the ones that call for lots of sugar. My bag of cornmeal tried to convince me that 1 tablespoon of sugar would be sufficient. Even more insultingly, it added in parentheses that the tablespoon of sugar was “optional.” How dare you, Bob’s Red Mill. Sugar is never optional. I laughed in Bob’s face as I added a heaping half-cup of sugar to the batter. Shauna 1, Bob 0.
It took me a while to find this recipe–which is kind of sad, considering it came out when I was five years old. But since the age of seven when I first began baking these cookies, I always used the Nestle Tollhouse recipe. It never occurred to me to try another until the New York Times article came out in 2008. Reading such a detailed breakdown of the chocolate chip cookie was an eye-opener. I tried its suggestion of refrigerating the dough for 36 hours, but I don’t have the patience for that. The article did, however, teach me to (a) sprinkle sea salt over the cookies before baking, and (b) switch to a better quality chocolate chip going forward (Ghirardelli’s 60% cacao bittersweet chocolate chips has been my go-to chocolate chip ever since). The recipe was good, but what I really wanted was a chewy chocolate chip cookie–and so began a five-year process of trying out different chocolate chip cookie recipes.