Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Mixing It Up, or, The Cheesecake Post

When I was growing up, there were two kinds of cake my mom made for nearly every celebration – a delicious, super-rich chocolate cake, and an equally delicious rum cake, both of which came from newspaper recipes, and involved a box of cake mix.  These were the first two things I learned to bake and they were, for a long time, other than from-the-bag chocolate chip cookies or from-the-box brownies (and also my sister’s favorite butterscotch chip oatmeal cookies) the only things I ever really baked.  But then, back in November, a friend of mine had a birthday party, and since I discovered a while ago that bringing home-made food to a party is a damn good gift, I offered to bake something, asking what flavors in particular he liked.  He told me he was a sucker for chocolate and mint, which sounded easy enough to deal with, and I went on a search for a mint brownie recipe, a search that would, in some totally unexpected ways, lead to a whole new hobby and part of my life.

My former roommate was a big foodie, and through her, I learned the joy of websites like FoodPornDaily and FoodGawker.  FoodGawker, in particular, is a fabulous site for finding inspiration for delicious-looking recipes (and also for the occasional cooking-related giveaway!), and, having been browsing it recently for dinner ideas, I turned to it in this my hour of need, looking for mint brownie recipes.  I was flooded with recipes, as it turns out this is a fairly common idea, but was immediately struck by a recipe for Mint Julep Brownies – with bourbon right in the batter!  As my friend and I share a love of the occasional tipple, this was the idea that struck my fancy.  I made the brownies (including a mint-flavored icing of my own – just canned icing and mint extract – to complement the party’s theme of Black and White) and delivered them to the party, to great applause.  Earlier the same day, I made lavender-lemon muffins for another friend’s Lord of the Rings-themed birthday party (yes, people who go to grad school to study literature are Cooler Than You), which also garnered appreciation.  I suddenly realized that I loved searching for fun recipes, I loved baking, and I really loved people’s “yummy” faces when they ate my baked goods.  A month later, I made peppermint chocolate cookies for the department holiday parties and while they were similarly appreciated, one friend, thinking of the Mint Julep brownies, joked that there was “something missing.”  Obligingly, I made a batch of Bourbon ButterscotchBars for the first social gathering in January, returning to the boozy-baked good idea, and a (delicious) monster was born.

I quickly became known in the department as the baker, especially the cooks-with-alcohol baker, and I loved it.  I made pies, cookies, cakes, mostly out of The Boozy Baker, but some off the web.  I started joking that, should the whole academia thing not pan out for me, I’d become a baker instead.  And I still love that idea, but especially the sentiment behind it; I don’t honestly think I won’t ride out my Ivory Tower journey all the way to its (hopefully not bitter) end – I love it more than I can say, and it’s what gets me up every morning – but there’s something so relaxing in the measuring out of cups of flour and teaspoons of vanilla, something so tasty about licking the spoon (!), and especially something so heart-warming about the faces of my friends when they’ve taken a bite of something material that I have put in the labor and energy to make for them, that makes me happy in an entirely different and fabulous way.  I love being the Department Baker.

This past week, though, I did something I’d never done before – played with a recipe.  About a month ago, I made a Southern Comfort red velvet cake for a friend’s birthday – I mentioned it in my last post on “freetarianism.”  A week or so later, I was discussing the cake with another friend, who’d expressed her fondness for Southern Comfort.  “I bet a SoCo cheesecake would be amazing!” she said, and since she had a birthday coming up, “I’ll make it for you!” I told her.  So I went home and Googled “Southern Comfort cheesecake recipe.”  But nothing came up.  Other SoCo cake recipes came up.  Other cheesecake recipes came up.  But nothing exactly matching what I’d promised my friend.  Unwilling to back down from the promise I’d made, I realized I was faced with something relatively momentous: not only was I going to make my first ever cheesecake, but, for the first time, I was going to have to alter a recipe.

For baking, unlike most other cooking, making alterations to the recipe can be dangerous if you don’t really know what you’re doing.  Ratios of flours to sugar to liquids have to be exactly right or the flavor and texture is all wrong.  Experimenting with alcohol in baking is even more risky, since its chemistry can so easily upset the careful balance of the recipe.  So there was a lot riding on this.  I spent a good portion of an evening online, looking up cheesecake recipes with some sort of alcohol in them, hoping to find something where it would be easy to substitute the SoCo, trying to keep my alterations as safe as possible.  I found a recipe for a lemon rum cheesecake and decided it would work best, with lime zest instead of lemon (and, of course, SoCo instead of rum).  The day before the party, I went out, got my stupidly expensive spring-form pan at Williams Sonoma, my big blocks of cream cheese at Vons, and did it, the whole while feeling more than slightly apprehensive – would it taste good?  Would the SoCo be noticeable?  Would it be the right cheesecake texture?

It may not have been the prettiest cheesecake, as you can see below (in way of an explanation for my somewhat unusual outfit, the party was pirate-themed) – it’s a little bit cracked, and slightly sunken-in in the middle.  But I tasted it, and was pleased, and – my favorite part – everyone else LOVED it.

So – lesson learned?  Mixing it up can have wonderful results.  I’ve always been a somewhat cautious person – shy to try new things, meet new people, branch out of the familiar.  The past eight or so months have really been amazing at helping me break out of this stifling habit.  I’ve learned to love taking classes where I only understand, on average, about 70% of the discussion; I’ve come to enjoy meeting all sorts of different people; I’ve taken up new activities and hobbies, and all of it has brought me such joy.  I hate to be so corny as to use my cheesecake as a metaphor, but there it is: Mixing it up (in the kitchen or in life) may very well be the best thing I’ve learned how to do in my first year as a graduate student.  I’ve got another month left, so there may be another huge epiphany on its way, but for now, I’m putting my money on this.  And also, as usual, thinking about my next baking project…

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