Red, White & Blue Berry Cheesecake for 4th of July

4th cheesecake zb 16

I’m not sure anyone would describe me as a perfectionist? My house is neat enough, but it is clearly lived in.  I’ve always wanted to be the kind of person who irons my sheets, my table clothes or even my clothes, but so far it’s just a fantasy. The only place I admit to being really obsessive is my work. I’ve been known to make a recipe over and over and over, until I am happy. It also has to pass the test of the François family, which can often feel like an episode of Chopped. They are neither shy, nor sparing with their criticism (and praise), but it seems they enjoy the criticism even more and I’ve come to trust and rely on their opinions. So, when I cut into the first round of this cheesecake, they didn’t hesitate to tell me it was “WAY TOO SWEET!” None of us are a big fans of cloyingly, teeth-on-edge, sweets.  We prefer to taste the vanilla, the berries and even a touch of sour cream in cheesecake.  After a bit of adjusting and a lot of testing, I’ve got it “Just right!”

Red (raspberry), white (vanilla bean) and blue (blueberry) layers of distinct flavors, all work beautifully together in this 4th of July Cheesecake. The fresh blueberry topping is held together with just enough gelatin to give it a gorgeous, glossy look and makes it easy to cut. In order to achieve the clean layers you’ll need to have some time to let each one set, so it isn’t a recipe for a last minute dinner party. It’s super easy and completely worth the extra time to present such a fun dessert at your holiday party. (more…)

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Halloween Mummy Cakes

mummy cake

Every year at this time, I try to find some new ghoulish and creepy way to terrify my sweet young boys (in a motherly-love kind of way). Nothing like a coffin shaped cake, with a mummy laying on top to make them squeamish and thrilled to go at it with a fork. The vanilla cake, raspberry filling and chocolate ganache on a bed of oreo crumbs, may be spine tingling enough for kids on Halloween, but tasty enough for the parents as well. (more…)

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Vietnamese Ice Coffee Panna Cotta

panna cotta

I fell in love with a little Vietnamese restaurant when I was pregnant with my first son. I craved salty, spicy, big, fat flavorful foods and Quang delivered on all of it. I would have eaten every meal for the nine months there, but I knew my husband just couldn’t take it, so I limited myself to 3 days a week. Once my son was born I’d bring him in to the restaurant and the servers would carry him around, so I could have 2 minutes to slurp up my pho (soup) and suck down a Ca Phe Sua Da (Vietnamese ice coffee with sweetened condensed milk). The coffee was a bit of a ritual in those days. They poured hot water over coffee grounds in a little metal filter, which fit perfectly over a glass with sweetened condensed milk at the bottom. It was like sweet torture waiting for the slow drip to finish and yet I loved the anticipation. Once the hot coffee was done dripping over the milk I’d stir it all together and pour it over ice. The first sip, because I was too impatient to wait another second, was the slightest bit warm and cloyingly sweet. As the ice melted and the coffee chilled the flavor was perfection. Sadly, Quang now brings the Ca Phe Sua Da to the table already made and in sealed plastic cups, which is hardly as romantic, but it is still delicious and I manage to drink at least one, or two, or three a week. They don’t come in decaf, so unless you are planning to be up late, you may want to save this for lunchtime.

The strong bite of the coffee, mixed with the sweet creaminess of the condensed milk is like a perfectly balanced dessert, so I hardly worked to get this one right. I like my panna cotta with as little gelatin as possible, just enough to keep it together. This version requires even less, because I leave it right in the glass. I suppose you could invert it, but the stripes are so lovely, and it would be hard to get it to look so crisp and clean as it wiggled on the plate.

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Homemade Vanilla Extract

It is a brand new year and I figured I should start 2012 with a fresh start; right at the pastry beginning. For me that’s vanilla extract, probably the most used ingredient in my kitchen after flour and sugar. I always have a stack of beans and bottles of extract. I admit I don’t always make my own, but it is something, like homemade yogurt, that once you make it, you’re ruined to the store bought version. It is easy to make, but to get the best result you have to be patient. The longer you let the vanilla beans sit in the vodka, the better and stronger the flavor. I let this bottle sit for 5 weeks before opening it, which was a test of will power I didn’t know I possessed. The result is like perfume, I want to add it to all of my recipes and dab a bit behind my ears. I’ll use it in everything from cakes to cocktails.

This year I have only made one work related resolution…to make more how-to videos on my ZoeBakes YouTube Channel. If you have any ideas for cake decorating, baking, pastry or any other sweets you’d like to see in more detail, please let me know. You can subscribe to my YouTube channel to see all my new videos. Hope they are helpful. (more…)

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The Best Fresh Strawberry Ice Cream – roasting is the secret.

Last weekend my folks presented me with a container of fresh strawberries they picked up at an Amish Farmer’s Market. They were ruby red and absolutely gorgeous, in a not-from-the-supermarket way. Their shapes were slightly distorted, their sizes uneven, and yet, they smelled like pure strawberry, in a way Bonne Bell Lip Smackers can only wish for. The beauty of growing your own fruits and vegetables or buying local is that they have a certain ugly beauty, which is not an oxymoron at all. The Japanese call this gorgeous imperfection “Wabi-sabi” and it is what makes a piece of pottery (or fruit) special and clearly not mass produced.

My husband’s favorite ice cream is strawberry. In fact, it can be a point of frustration between us when we go to Convention Grill for dinner. We always split a malt, and it always has to be strawberry. Their malts, even a 1/2 order are fit for a family of 4, so I can never finish one on my own and prefer to share, but does it ALWAYS have to be strawberry? Yep, married for 20 years in August and that is what the man likes, so be it. When I saw the container of strawberries from the farmer’s market I knew instantly that I would use them in ice cream. The color was outrageous and they just begged to be dipped in cream, but not until I roasted them in a touch of balsamic to add even more character. I roasted them to concentrate the sugars and to get rid of the excess water content before mixing them in the vanilla custard ice cream base. This produced a more intense strawberry flavor and a much smoother, less icy consistency. I like to leave some chunks in my fruit ice cream to add texture and drive the favor home, but not if those chunks are hard as a rock. Roasting the fruit first created the perfect flavor and texture. I even made a malted milk shake for my husband with it, which was CRAZY good! (more…)

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How-to Video: Smoothly Buttercream a Cake (recipe included)

In the first two cake decorating videos I demonstrated how to cut, fill and crumb coat your cake. Now we are ready to put on the final coat of icing. I chose a very simple vanilla Swiss Meringue Buttercream to cover the cake. It is elegant, smooth and has a wonderfully rich flavor, but isn’t overly sweet. It can be left pure vanilla or you can easily add flavors to compliment your cake. This buttercream is wonderful for piping roses or doing basket weave as well. Before we get into the finishing touches we want to create a smooth surface, which will act as a canvas. If your cake is straight and smooth it will be stunning without any flourishes at all, but it will also show off your decorating prowess if you want to add some flowers or writing.

Also see my other How-to Cake Decorating Videos:

Part 1: Cut and Fill a Cake Like a Pro!

Part 2: Crumb Coat Your Cake

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