Jul 23, 2014

Ramos Fizz Cheesecake- Light, Fluffy, Delicious!

Light, delicate, healthy cheesecake from Puritan Therapy
Ramos Fizz Cheesecake. Light, fluffy, and delicious!
There are very few foods that I am obsessive about.  I shrug at the Chicago vs. New York pizza debates, I stay neutral on Kansas City vs North Carolina for barbecue, and I think lots of places have great hot dogs.  One of the few things that I am adamant about is cheesecake.  When I was a kid, my sister and I weren't allowed to have sugar.  Part of the thinking at the time was that prohibiting sugar in a kid's diet would prevent diabetes later in life.  In actuality it tends to just promote secretive binging, but that's another story.  Thus, to have a low sugar option for a birthday cake, we would get cheesecake.  It was light and fluffy and we would usually have it with some fresh fruit and a little homemade whipped cream.

The first time I had a cheesecake that was not the one my mom made was when I was in college.  I don't remember where it was, but I do remember being excited for cheesecake.  What I got was a super dense brick on a crumbly graham cracker crust. This was more like eating a cold, over-sweetened paste than what I was expecting.  Even worse, everyone else seemed to think that it was great!  I later learned about New York style cheesecake, and that what I had was actually a good version of it.  I just can't approve.  In my opinion, cheesecake should be light and fluffy.  It should almost be like eating a cheesy cloud.

So, if you are the type of person who prefers their cheesecake more akin to a brick, I may think you're wrong, but I won't judge.  But if this is the case, this is not the recipe that you would want.  The cocktail will still be good, but it will not be your style of cheesecake.

Ramos Gin Fizz

Puritan Therapy- Ramos Fizz Cheesecake
The handle of the spoon is a straw!
As I've mentioned before, I have great respect for a good bartender, especially for their palate.  Which is why I will use my bartender friends as taste testers and flavor advisers whenever I can.  The first time I ever had a Ramos fizz was around the same time that I started really experimenting with chocolates.  I had brought a variety of things to work for a potluck, and then brought all the extras to the bar with me after work.  When Will asked me what I wanted to drink, I handed him a s'more chocolate (small piece of graham cracker with a toasted marshmallow on it dipped in milk chocolate) and told him to make me something to go with that.  He ate it, thought for a moment, and then spent the next 10 minutes crafting this absolutely beautiful drink.  When he put it down, he said that he was playing off of the ideas of milk and cookies.  When I tried it, I was amazed.  It was light, fizzy, creamy, with citrus and a touch of orange.  And it came in a tall glass with a straw spoon, kind of like what you'd get with a slurpee, but fancy and metal.

I have since learned that this is one of those drinks where:
  1. Never order it on a busy night.  It takes a long time and a lot of effort to make.  This can be fine, as long as you understand this and will tip accordingly.
  2. Once you do order it, and the bartender puts it down, multiple people will all ooh and ah, and then they will all want one because it's pretty.  This is the nail in the coffin for the bartender cursing your name under their breath.
Considering that I was just talking about cheesecake, skipping to a cocktail may seem like a nonsequitor.  but look at the recipe, and think about the ingredients for a moment.

    Ramos Gin Fizz

    2 ounces gin (I recommend a french gin that is more subtle and floral than one that has a strong juniper flavor)
    1 ounce heavy cream
    1 egg white
    1/2 ounce lemon juice
    1/2 ounce lime juice
    2 teaspoons superfine sugar
    2 to 3 drops orange flower water
    Soda water
    optional: Orange peel for garnish
Combine gin, cream, the white of the egg, lemon juice, lime juice, sugar, and ice in a cocktail shaker.  Shake for 1 minute, or until the mixture starts to foam (as a note, this is a long time to shake a cocktail, and the minute timer is a minimum).  Strain into a highball glass, and top off with soda water.  The oil from the orange peel adds an extra little pop of orange.

So where is the connection with cheesecake?  The Ramos fizz has dairy, eggs, sugar, and flavorings.  A cheesecake is made with dairy, eggs, sugar, cornstarch, and flavorings.  When I considered the way to make this cocktail into a form of candy, the parallel seemed obvious.


There are several things I love about this recipe.  To be honest, it's actually a very healthy cheesecake.  It's high in protein, and low in sugar, and all of the perishable ingredients can be pre-measured for you.  In the US, a standard block of cream cheese is 8 ounces.  A small container of cottage cheese is 2 cups.  I never need to worry about using up that little extra bit of, well, anything.   With the idea of low sugar, and high protein, some people (including me on occasion) want to take it a step further and get the trifecta of low fat as well, by using low or nonfat cream cheese and cottage cheese.  IF you choose to make a basic cheesecake instead of the Ramos Fizz cheesecake, substitute away.  The end result will be a firmer cake, but still definitely tasty.  If you are making the Ramos Fizz cake, I recommend against it, and this is why.

*Science Warning*
It is a matter of acid.  If you remember pH from high school chemistry class, there is a range from acid to base.  Cakes (flour or flourless) need an acidic batter to set up or they will end up just being a pudding.  The more acidic the cake, the faster it will set up (but the drier it will be).  If you use low or non fat cheese in your cheesecake, you are making the batter more acidic.  Thus, if you decide that the cake seems too mushy, this is an easy way to adjust it to your liking.  The Ramos Fizz cheesecake is actively adding more acid and drying agents.  Lemon juice, lime juice, and gin all have a drying effect on the cake.  If you make that even more acidic, by removing more of the fat, the result will be an almost chewy cheesecake, which is not what we want at all.
*Science End*

A quick word about equipment. For a long time, equipment tended to be the barrier for me trying to make this.  My mom always used the blender, the hand mixer, and a springform pan.  These days I will usually still use a springform pan, but instead of using multiple appliances, I will just use two attachments on my stick blender.  It takes up less space, and there's less to wash at the end.  Other than that, the only potential challenge is cleanly separating eggs to create a foam.

Ramos Fizz Cheesecake

    6-8 large eggs
    8 ounces cream cheese at room temperature
    2 cups cottage cheese
    1/2 cup sugar
    3 Tbsp cornstarch

    1 tsp gin
    1/2 tsp lime juice
    1/2 tsp lemon juice
    1/4 tsp orange flower water

  1. Preaheat oven to 300 degrees F.  
  2. Separate enough eggs to make 1/2 cup of egg yolks.  
  3. Combine the egg yolks and cottage cheese, blending until smooth.  
  4. Add the cream cheese, corn starch, and sugar.  Continue to blend until smooth.  
  5. Mix in the flavorings.  
  6. Whip the egg whites to stiff peaks.
  7. Fold the egg whites into the yolk mixture gently.
  8. Pour the batter into an ungreased springform pan, and bake in the center of the oven for 1 hour.  When one hour has passed, turn off the oven without opening the oven door and allow to cool in the oven for 1 hour.
  9. Allow to cool to room temperature, and then chill in the refrigerator.
Tips and Recommendations
  • Use a 3 bowl method of separating the eggs.  One for the egg whites, one for the yolks, and one for the egg that you are currently separating.  That way, if a yolk breaks, you only lose one egg, instead of the whole batch.
  • For easier separating, use eggs that are as fresh as possible.  As eggs age, the whites get thicker, and the yolk gets more delicate.  The most recent time I made cheesecake I used some of my farm fresh eggs, and was amazed at how easy it was to separate them.
  • All of the leavening in this recipe comes from the foam created by the egg whites.  That is the most important step.  If you overwhip the egg whites, the foam will collapse, and you will have a puddle in the bottom of the bowl.  This will affect the texture of your final cake.  Beat the egg whites just until the point of stiff peaks.  This means that, if you remove the beater from the egg whites and turn it upside down, the egg foam will stay pointy.
  • Ensure that the bowl that you use for the egg whites is completely clean of fat.  Even if there is a tiny residual drop of dish soap, the egg whites will not create a foam.
  • If using 4 smaller pans instead of a 10 inch pan, cooking time is reduced to 15 minutes, and then the cakes can rest in the oven for 30 minutes.  I have not found an ideal cooking time for cupcake sized cheesecakes at this point.
  • For a basic flavor for cheesecake, you can use 1 tsp vanilla extract and 1 tsp almond extract instead of the Ramos Fizz flavorings
  • If you do not have a springform pan: It is still possible to have a successful cake with a normal 10 inch round cake pan.  However, as the cake pan needs to be ungreased, line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper (the cake needs to be able to cling to the sides of the pan to help rise).  When taking the cake out of the pan, insert a knife at the edge of the cake and run it all around the edge to separate it from the wall of the pan, and then gently turn out onto a plate.  It's trickier, but can still work. Just remember that it is a very delicate cake, and while it would still taste the same when broken, it would still be sad.

Final Analysis

Financial Outlay: The ingredients aren't very expensive.  It is even possible to make this without special equipment, although I personally would not choose to foam egg whites by hand.  It is much easier with a springform pan, but I've made it work in the past without one.  It is just trickier.

Time: For a full sized cheesecake, it will be in the oven for 2 hours.  So it does take longer than a normal "floured" cake.  The prep, however, doesn't take much more time than making a cake out of a box.  It's not a last minute cake, but it's also a cheesecake, so there is no time spent frosting it either.

Quality: The quality is amazing.  Of course, I may be biased.  People will be amazed if you tell them there is only 1/2 cup of sugar in the entire cake.  The quote from a bartender friend of mine after I gave her a mini cheesecake was "Wow, it's like you make pot brownies, but with cocktails!"  As a note, with only a teaspoon of gin in an entire 10 inch cake, there is no way for anyone to get drunk off the cake.

Fun: I find a certain satisfaction in properly dealing with the egg whites.  From getting the eggs separated without breaking yolks, to the brief moment of fear (every single time) that the egg whites won't foam, to getting the whites whipped to just the right consistency.  Then, of course, is the best part.  Eating a cheesecake that doesn't make you feel like you ate a brick, plus is less than half the calories of a Cheesecake Factory cheesecake.

May 20, 2014

Cultured Butter: Better Butter with Bacteria

Puritan Therapy: Better Your Butter with Bacteria

Can we talk about butter for a moment?  No, not margarine. Margarine is a sad attempt at butter, which may be fine for certain applications (or for the lactose intolerant), but it is still always lacking.  There is a certain richness and depth in good butter that I have never seen in any margarine.  While these days the science seems to indicate that margarine is slightly healthier, it is nowhere near enough to convince me to switch from the things that I use butter for. Why?  Because when I choose to use butter, the flavor of that butter is usually the reason.  Croissants, brioche, mashed potatoes.  It's all about the flavor, not just the fat.  I never realized the importance of good butter (or the variation between butters) until I started making croissants.  It was shocking how much of a difference there was between the basic cheap butter and the European Plugra butter.  With Plugra, "the flavor and aroma of cultured butter are added with lactic starter distillate, a natural flavoring derived from cultured milk", and there is a much higher fat content than normal American butter.

So Plugra is not actually cultured butter, but it has some of the indications of such. But what makes butter "cultured"?  My 12 year old sense of humor makes me want to make some reference to taking it to the opera, but actually, it all has to do with bacteria.  Before churning it into butter, the cream is given mesophilic culture, which is comprised of good bacteria.  Given time, the bacteria will eat the lactose in the milk, reproduce, eat more lactose, etc.  This makes the cream more acidic, which produces a tang and gives a different and more complex flavor, but it also creates an environment so that bad bacteria can't get a foothold.  If you left warmed cream out on a counter for several hours without adding any additional bacteria, it would be a race between the good and the bad, and it would not be a good idea to drink it afterwards.  But since we've fixed the race, the good bacteria has a huge advantage.  It's a similar process to that of making yogurt or cheese. Once the cream has been cultured, which can take anywhere from six to twenty four hours, depending on who you ask, it is ready to be churned into butter.

Churning butter.  That phrase may conjure images of an old timey bucket with a stick coming out of it, or, in my case, my second grade classroom.  We were broken up into pairs, and given a sealed mason jar of cream to shake.  Either way, it's the same general idea.  Agitate the cream until it magically turns into butter.  If you've never done this by hand, it is a lot of work.  To a six year old, it felt like an eternity.  Not to mention it led to really tired arms.  But as we all know, food processes are not magic, they are science!  So what is the science behind churning butter?

To understand how churning works, we have to take a closer look at cream.  Cream is basically fat and protein (along with vitamins, minerals, antibodies, etc.) suspended in water.  The fat is contained in a coat of protein, so it's nice and balanced.  As the milk ages, this protein coat will start wearing away, allowing the fats to clump together.  If you leave a container of milk out long enough, it will sour, fall out of suspension, and you can actually see these 3 distinct layers.  The protein and other elements, being heavier than water, will sink to the bottom.  The fats will float on the surface, and the "water" level will be in the middle. The smell of this rotten milk is amazingly bad, so I don't recommend it.  Conveniently there is an easier (and tastier) way to get the fat to clump together, i.e. form butter.  By agitating the cream, these little bubbles of fat coated in protein will start bumping together.  As they bump together, the protein coat starts chipping away, so that the fat globules are exposed.  Once that happens, the fat will start coming together faster than popular kids in high school.  Thus, you are left with all the fat in one clump (butter), and everything else (butter milk).

While I may be guilty of owning several unusual tools (like my drop spindle), I do not, in fact, own a butter churn.  I also remember the pain of trying to shake that mason jar, so that method was out.  I do, however, have a stand mixer, which is very good at agitation.  All the instructions I read about churning butter in a stand mixer said that the transformation from cream to butter happens suddenly, and to use the bowl shields, plastic wrap, or anything else to guard against the buttermilk splashing all over the place.  Unfortunately, I am also occasionally guilty of not being very bright.  I assumed that if kept my stand mixer going at its lowest speed, then it shouldn't be a problem, because I'd be able to hear the beginnings of sloshing and turn it off.  This is not the case.  The transition between a thick whipped cream and butter/buttermilk happens very suddenly, and there is a large amount of splashing once it does.  I may have had to do a fair amount of cleaning of  my floor, wall, counter, etc.  Don't be me.  The second time I made cultured butter, not only did I use the shields, but also plastic wrapped any open spaces.  I can occasionally be taught.

After the butter comes together, all that is left to do is to rinse out any spare buttermilk to help keep the butter from going rancid using very cold water, shape it into a ball (easy if you are rinsing it in cheesecloth), and add salt if desired.  Store the butter in the fridge tightly wrapped.  With all the effort you went into making this amazing thing, it would be exceptionally sad for the butter to pick up "refrigerator smell".  Also, don't forget to save your buttermilk, you can use it to make fried chicken, biscuits, or all sorts of other things.

One last note about salting or not salting butter.  Unless there is a recipe that specifically calls for salted butter (like these salted butter caramels from David Lebovitz), always use unsalted.  Not only does it give you more control over the amount of salt, the salted butter will produce a sort of sour taste in the final product.  Just like with many things, you can always add more, but you can't take any out.  Unless the plan for the cultured butter is for use on toast or bread, I recommend just leaving out the salt.

What to do with the finished cultured butter?  I'm going to test out mine by baking croissants.

Final Analysis

Financial Outlay: Cultured butter requires two basic ingredients, cream, and mesophilic culture.  The cost of cream can vary depending on where you live.  I got my culture for $5.00 from Standing Stone Farms, which is enough for over a dozen batches of cultured butter (or a variety of other types of cheese!).  So the cost is definitely higher than your run of the mill butter, but if you're comparing to something like Plugra, it becomes much more economical.  Especially if you are also using the buttermilk produced.

Time: The active processing time, if you're not churning the butter using a mason jar, is less than an hour.  However, the time required to culture the cream is at least six hours. Definitely not a last minute project, but not overly intensive either.

Quality: The result of this is a good, fresh, high quality butter.  I did not taste test directly next to Plugra, but I would put it up there at least on the same level.  The results after using it for baking were amazing.  Spreading it on a good fresh crusty bread could be phenomenal as well.  Even considering this makes me want to go make more just to use as a spread on things.

Fun: Most of the process of culturing butter is waiting (as the warming and the churning take up a very small amount of time to do).  Choosing to not use the shields on a stand mixer could provide a sort of Jack-in-the-Box sword of Damocles excitement to your afternoon, followed by lots of cleaning.  But in this case it is much better to consume the finished product than make it. It's not "un-fun", but it is no wild and crazy time either.

Apr 22, 2014

Baking for Child's Play

I have finally almost recovered from PAX East. While a three day convention of gamer geeks is always one level of exhausting, this year I decided to take an extra step to get involved with the Cookie Brigade.  The cookie brigade is a group of, essentially, guerrilla fundraisers for Child's Play. Child's Play is a charity that provides toys, games, and books to children's wards in hospitals.  Essentially it's gamers coming together to fight the stereotype that video games are a force of evil, and do an awful lot of good in the process.  Child's Play also just happened to be founded by the same guys who run PAX. I know it's somewhat circuitous, but it makes sense in the end, right?

Volunteers will bake an insane number of cookies, candies, and other types of baked goods.  Some people will bake thousands of cookies for this three day weekend, and there's even an achievement of the dozen dozen dozen. Yup, that is 1,728 cookies baked by one person, for one three day weekend. Then, other volunteers (and sometimes some of the same ones) will give out all of these treats for free, while being exceptionally grateful for all the donations to child's play that we receive.  Every cent goes directly to the charity.

I actually took a couple of days off of work before PAX just to have more time to bake. There were some oatmeal raisin cookies, chocolate chip cookies, rice krispy squares, raspberry meringue kisses, and some other bake sale-esque standards, but I thought I would share some of the lesser known things that I made:

Kirby Marshmallows

If you ever played video games in the 90's, you will probably recognize Kirby.  The marshmallow to the left is somewhat simplistic, but hey, so is the design of the character.

Marshmallows are fairly easy to make, in the realm of candy, and I've found that there are two different types.  Those that contain egg whites, and those that don't.  It isn't a question of being vegetarian, as they still contain gelatin.  So unless you choose to use a purely plant based gelatin, they will not and cannot be vegan.

Other than the egg whites, the recipe is basically the same.  Sugar, corn syrup, water, gelatin, vanilla, and then a "marshmallow mix" of powdered sugar and corn starch.  If you have tried any of my gummy candy, the basic ingredients aren't that different. 

Alton Brown has a reasonably good marshmallow recipe that does not contain egg whites.  I've tried the recipe, and it's not bad.  I don't, however, think that the result creates quite as light and fluffy an end product as what I could get in a store.  So as much as they look cool, and I could impress people by saying that I've made marshmallows, or go ahead and make all sorts of interesting flavors, they don't make it all the way to "oh my god" good.

If I want to get to that level, I have to turn to David Lebovitz. His is my go to recipe. Instead of weighing out my gelatin (as it's between 2-3 envelopes of standard gelatin), I will usually just use the 3 whole packets. I've done it both ways, and there is enough flexibility in the execution that they turn out great.  If I'm feeling lazy, or if I don't have an immediate use for the egg yolks, I will just use meringue powder/dried egg whites. 

Now the question, why egg whites?  If you've ever made a meringue or an angel food cake, you can probably guess.  Thinking about food science, what is an egg white and what does it do? If you said that it is a source of protein, and adds structure to whatever it is in, you get a gold star.  When baking, protein creates the scaffolding to provide form and structure.  This is the reason why bread (which uses a high protein flour) is chewier and can support larger air bubbles than a cake, which uses a low protein flour.  Another way to consider it is to think of bubble wrap.  Bubble wrap is a strong structure that will trap air inside.  In this case, the egg whites (along with the gelatin) is the 'plastic' from the bubble wrap that will hold the air.  If the plastic is weak, the bubbles will break, and the air escapes, leading to a dense, flat marshmallow.  If the plastic is too strong, however, there would be a lot of air, but it would be way too chewy.  Because of the huge amount of air that are in store bought marshmallows, I want to be able to maximize the air inside.  The egg whites help me do that. 

Because I wanted Kirby his traditional pink, I added a few drops of red food coloring until the mixture was the right color, and poured it out to set in cake pans.  Once the marshmallows set, a cookie cutter and some cake decorating gel brought his cheerful face to life.

Chichi Dango Mochi

Tri-Colored Chichi dango mochi
This is a type of rice cake that I came to learn about from people who grew up in Hawaii.  It not only has a coconut flavor to it, but also happens to be both gluten free and vegan, just by accident.  While friends of mine consider anything that's not at least 2-3 color mochi substandard (as it is traditional in Hawaii to do 2 or 3 colors) it is equally as tasty if it is just plain white.  The recipe I use is a blend of a few other recipes I've found, so I will put it here.  But virtually any chichi dango recipe will be pretty much the same.

1 Box (1 lb.) of  Mochiko 
1 12 ounce can of Coconut Milk
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 cups water
1 teaspoon vanilla
Kinako (optional)
Food coloring (optional)
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. In a bowl, combine the Mochiko, sugar, and baking powder.
  3. In another bowl, combine the coconut milk, water, and vanilla.
  4. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and mix until combined, making sure to scrape the bottom of the bowl.
  5. If making single colored mochi, pour into a greased 9x11 inch pan, cover tightly with tinfoil, and bake for 60 minutes, or until the top appears fully set.  Let it cool fully in the pan.  Slice into small squares (1-2 inches) and eat.  If desired, roll pieces in Kinako before eating or storing.

    If making tri-colored mochi, separate batter into 3 equal parts.  Add food coloring to achieve desired colors.  Grease a 9x11 cake pan, and pour the first part in the bottom.  Cover tightly with tinfoil, and bake for 10 minutes, or until the cake has set (there are no puddles on the top).  Pour the second color on top, re-cover with aluminum foil, and return to the oven for 20 minutes, or until the layer has set.  Finally, add the third layer, cover with aluminum foil, and bake for an additional 30 minutes, or until the final layer has set.  Let it cool fully in the pan.  Slice into small squares, roll in kinako if desired, and eat.  

Peanut Butter Fudge

I previously did a post on my peanut butter cookie fudge here, but even the basic peanut butter fudge is so good that it bears repeating. While the peanut butter cookie fudge is quite good, the original recipe is just about perfect, and can be found on the Marshmallow Fluff Page.  I tend to use a candy thermometer when I make it, but it is not necessary.  The ingredients are all very basic, with the only potential difficulty being marshmallow fluff.  Outside of new england I've heard it can be a little harder to find.  On occasion I've substituted regular marshmallows for it if I was running short.

There are also variations to try if you're being adventurous.
  • The peanut butter cookie fudge linked above
  • After pouring out into the pan to cool, mixing in swirls of Nutella, or other peanut butter friendly spreads
  • After pouring out into the pan to cool, add a thin layer of chocolate to the top.
This fudge is fun because it is relatively easy to mold (for the larger silicone molds).  I did one batch as the portal companion cubes.  However, I have found that the molds tend to dry out the edges of the fudge, so there is a give and take there.  The molds make the pieces adorable, but the quality is a touch higher with just the squares.  I did have an idea during the craziness of baking, but I haven't had the opportunity to try it out yet. If it works, it will warrant its own post, so you'll just have to check back.