Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Imitation is the Highest Form of Flattery

Hello loyal readers! I return semi-triumphantly with a tale of adventure, challenge, foes, and moderate defeat. I am technically blogging out of order right now because I had another big, exciting baking project about a month ago but this one is fresh in my mind and more fun so I’m writing about it first. Get over it. Today’s challenge: Salted Caramel Cheesecake with Salted Caramel Ice Cream and Pop Rocks.

Allow me to give you some background. There’s a delightful restaurant by my new house called Market Place which specializes in farm-to-table type food. It has some truly excellent food (I’m talking NYC quality here) and the chef will even be competing on Iron Chef in July. However, I’m not here to tell you about the food. I’m here to tell you about the dessert. My first time there, they had a salted caramel cheesecake and I love cheesecake. I’m usually not an overly huge fan of salted caramel ice cream (too sweet) but I was so intrigued by the Pop Rocks. I haven’t had Pop Rocks since the 6th grade and I bet you haven’t either! Who would think to put it in a dessert??? A genius, that’s who. Because let me tell you, taking a single bite of the cheesecake, the ice cream, and the Pop Rocks was AMAZING. You have to let the Pop Rocks pop in your mouth while the ice cream is melting in your mouth and the flavor was just perfection. I know I’m waxing poetic about this dessert but I’m not even exaggerating when I say that I have had dreams about this cheesecake. I once went to the restaurant just to sit at the bar and get dessert.

Now the tragedy, dear readers. Zak and I went to dinner there a few weeks ago and they completely changed the menu for seasonal reasons and they REPLACED my cheesecake with some sort of awful Black Cherry Cheesecake. Ok, well, I don’t actually know if the new cheesecake is awful because I didn’t try it but Zak and I were heartbroken. Betrayed. Confused. Obviously there is only one response to this tragedy: I must recreate the world’s most awesome dessert. That’s a sane person’s response, right?

Let’s pause for a moment to consider the scope of this project. Not only do I have to make cheesecake, but I also have to MAKE ice cream and obtain Pop Rocks. I’m completely nuts. AND I LOVE IT! (Also, be aware, this is a long blog post because of the many steps.)

Let the baking commence! First step was to find some Pop Rocks on Amazon. I should note that these are special unflavored, culinary Pop Rocks. Because such a thing exists. I actually found them though and ordered them and they arrived swiftly. Easy first step, right? Hahaha oh just wait and you will see. Next step: make ice cream. I found a recipe online that seemed moderately difficult but I suppose if ice cream making were easy, everyone would do it, right? I also pulled a recipe for the cheesecake before heading to my friendly neighborhood Big Y.

Fun fact: I do not get cell reception in my new friendly neighborhood Big Y. So when I’m standing in the dairy aisle trying to figure out if there is any difference between heavy cream and heavy whipping cream, I have no options. I read the labels, compared the ingredients, the nutrition facts, the prices and came to the conclusion that they look identical. However the recipes took the time to specify the difference so maybe there is a difference? Damn my smartphone not working for me! Since I am a slave to the recipes, I bought both and paid about 30 cents more. I also had to buy caramel syrup (that you would normally put in coffee) and flaked sea salt (fortunately, I was provided with a brand name and could find it easily). Armed with my ingredients, I headed home to begin.

Now, to make salted caramel ice cream, one must first make caramel. I’ve never made caramel. Websites, my sister, and the recipe informed me that it’s really hard and easy to screw up. So, I was rightfully nervous about this. But I was ready! I was dressed in a sweatshirt in 90 degree heat because I was warned that it will spatter a lot and I don’t want it to burn me and I had everything prepared to move as quickly as possible. First step, melt sugar in a pan. That went pretty well. It got all bubbly and melty and turned the right color without getting burny. Seems easy so far! And it smells good! Next step, add heavy cream and stir until caramel is fully dissolved. Adding the heavy cream was the spatter part. But you know what? I actually used the correct pan for once! I used one with high sides so there was a large amount of sizzle and bubbling and spattering but very little that left the pan. Win! Oh wait, except for those two drops that spattered onto my newly refinished hardwood floors. Crap! A quick Google search suggested chipping the hardened caramel off with a metal spatula. That…worked! Success! The stirring part confused me a bit because I wasn’t sure how to tell when the caramel dissolved. I was stirring with a spatula so I figured once I didn’t feel any grainy parts, I was done. Visually, I couldn’t see any difference. But I’m pretty sure I did that step correctly! At this point I’m all, caramel, you have been defeated! Next step, put it in a bowl, add sea salt flakes and vanilla extract and stir. Cool to room temperature. That seemed to go fine too but the vanilla extract suspiciously bubbled and hissed when I added it. I figured “Ok, caramel is still hot, I guess I just burned off the alcohol?” More on that later.

While it was cooling, I got started on my custard for the ice cream base. Who remembers the last time I made custard?  I do and I was really bad at it! But I trudge on, hoping this time will be better. I start heating up my milk and other ingredients while I beat my eggs a bit (but not too much). I think I did a good job this time tempering the eggs and then stirring them in without ending up with an omelet. Progress? I’m still not sure if I let it thicken enough though. It said until it coated the back of a wooden spoon. It seemed like it did but I’m not entirely sure. Thicken! Thicken, you fool! Oh well. Next step, add the caramel to the custard. Now, I know I was supposed to cool the caramel to room temperature but ya know what? At room temperature, caramel is hard. So mixing it in did not really work. This was a problem. I was maybe able to mix in about three quarters of what I was supposed to (with some cursing and some vigorous whisking). I made some progress when I put the bowl over a double boiler but some of the chunks just had to go. Side note: hardened caramel is annoying to clean. Just sayin. Finally I threw the bowl over an ice bath to let my mixture chill.

Now you may be asking, how does that mixture turn into ice cream? Well, I just bust out my handy dandy ice cream maker…oh wait, I totally don’t have one of those. Seems rather problematic, doesn’t it? But here’s my thinking: ice cream was around before electricity so there must be a way to do it! I actually did find a method online that effectively directs one to alternate freezing and blending every 30-45 minutes for a few hours. Seems good enough to me! So I froze and I blended (with my fancy new stick blender!) and I froze and I blended and I froze and I went out to a bar. Whoops. Several hours and several drinks later, I returned home to give it a final stir before falling into bed. I didn’t even taste it because I was waiting for the full flavor profile of the ice cream, cheesecake, and Pop Rocks.

Onwards and upwards to cheesecake making! I’ve made some delightful cheesecakes in my day. I’ve learned some lessons such as, don’t buy the pre-crumbled graham crackers. Seems I’m still a few lessons short of successful though. First off, now I have a food processor to crush my graham crackers! Did I use it? No way! I wasn’t about to clean that thing just to crush graham crackers. Nonsense. I stuck them in a Ziploc bag and smashed them with a rolling pin. No seriously, I kept slamming the rolling pin into them. It was very sophisticated. But effective! I prepped the crust and baked it according to the directions. Well, maybe not 100% according to the directions. The recipe specified wrapping the bottom and outsides of the springform pan with tin foil to prevent leakage. I have never done that and deemed it nonsense. So I didn’t do it. Poor choices, people. It didn’t seem to matter when I baked the crust but something was definitely leaking when I baked the cheesecake. I had a puddle of what I presume was butter (but really could’ve been anything, I guess) on the bottom of my oven. Methinks a self-cleaning cycle will be in order. So sure, the ONE time I don’t obey the recipe, it turns out I should have. I also should have defied the recipe in other respects because I am a more knowledgeable baker than I give myself credit for.

The filling for the cheesecake went pretty smoothly. Here’s a question though. If you have to add ½ cup of heavy whipping cream and ¼ cup of caramel syrup and you add both to the same measuring cup so the total is ¾ cup, is that an accurate thing to do? The two liquids have different viscosities so I’m wondering if adding one to the other affects the volume of the second thing you’re adding? This is an interesting scientific question to me. I think I’ll need to ask a chemist or something. Mommy, do you have an answer???

Anywho, the mixture was easy aside from the scientific quandary but the baking left something to be desired. Namely, I forgot to put in a pan of water below the cheesecake so it wouldn’t crack. I had a nagging feeling that I should but I couldn’t remember if that was for cheesecakes or not and I was too tired to look it up so I didn’t do it. So my cheesecake cracked. Which was sad. Also, it needed some extra cooking time because it was way too wibbly wobbly all over by the time it was supposed to be done. That’s ok, I needed the extra 10 minutes to finish watching Heathers (which I had never seen). That is some dark comedy. I had no idea what I was getting into.

Fast forward to two days later for the actual assembly of the epic dessert.  I open up the Pop Rocks to complete my culinary concoction and to my surprise, most of the Pop Rocks had melted into a single, unbreakable ball in the center. I tried to break them up a bit but really just ended up making a mess. There were enough loose Pop Rocks to include in about three servings of dessert but they were otherwise useless. Shout out to Amazon customer service though. After reporting the issue, they refunded my purchase and instructed me to order a new one with free one-day shipping. Quick resolution, no muss, no fuss. Good job, Amazon. Anyway, here’s some photos of the components (I really need to stop taking photos with my phone) and the finally completed dessert:

It’s a work of art, right? Just beautiful. I’m impressed with myself. And now the taste test! Well, hmm. That’s…interesting. And not really in the good way. The ice cream tastes weird. The cheesecake is delicious and the crust came out nicely and the Pop Rocks are awesome with the cheesecake but the ice cream is…not right. It has an almost bitter, burny, coffee-like flavor. Which doesn’t make any sense considering the ingredients. Except, oh wait, remember what I said about the vanilla extract? Yup, I bet that was it! Something went seriously wrong there. Of course, I was supposed to add it while the mixture was still hot so I have no idea how I would have avoided that. So the ice cream, while edible, was not very good and was discarded. The cheesecake, however, is delightful. I’ll chalk this one up to a semi-success and I’ll definitely take a second stab at salted caramel ice cream in the future. Does that count as baking though? It never technically gets baked but it’s complex enough that I will call it baking so that I can blog about it in the future. Seems I’m not quite an Iron Chef yet. But I will admit, I did like the challenge!

A Disney Moment: Atlantis: The Lost Empire

Rage. Welcome to the Dark Times Disney films: Round Two. If you recall, round 1 was the strange compilation movies that were made during WWII. These may in fact be worse. So once again we have a rating system out of 5 movies but lest you get confused, none of these movies are good. I resent Disney for making these films because making them meant that I had to watch them for this project. Ok, I’ll try to let the rage subside to actually review this movie.

This movie is Black Cauldron bad. I believe this is one of those that resulted in yelling at the TV during viewing. The main character is so na├»ve you want to smack him in the face, the animation is downright haphazard, and the whole plot feels like a gigantic ripoff of Ferngully and Pocahontas. I can’t help but think that Avatar took some cues from this movie because a lot of the tones and coloring choices are very similar. I can’t even talk about this movie without getting enraged. This was a definitive 5/5. The one thing I can be grateful for is that this was my first viewing of this movie and it will also be my last.