Monday, April 25, 2011

Heavenly Healthier Cheesecake

For the longest time, I have wanted to try making a cheesecake sweetened only with natural sugars. Finally on Easter, I decided to give one of my many collected but unused recipes a try. As you might guess, I started with a base recipe and made some changes to suit my preferences. I also made a few errors which as it turns out actually improved the end result. I'm very happy to say that in one trial, I came up with a cheesecake recipe that I can be proud to serve to folks who desire a decadent dessert, as well as one that we healthier eaters can enjoy guilt-free.

The recipe I started with came from and the originator was Laura Dolson. What I liked most about this recipe is that it gave directions for both baking the cheesecake in a water bath (which is the traditional method for avoiding cracks)and a second method which involved heating the oven at a high temperature, then lowering it immediately for a "low and slow" method. A water bath is not required, however checking the temperature in the center is essential to be sure it will be baked completely. Intrigued, I used the latter method, and it produced excellent results!

One of the changes I made included using agave nectar as the "sugar substitute" to sweeten both the batter and the crust. I also decided to use real vanilla bean. It's expensive, and quite honestly this cheesecake overall is pricy to make, but worth every penny in terms of flavor.

The crust, as suggested in the original recipe, is made with almond meal or almond flour, butter, and sugar substitute (agave). Unfortunately, it took me three tries to get a crust because I kept getting distracted by other Easter duties and burned the first two! This was of course very irritating because almond flour is one of the ingredients that make this thing pricy! But I carried on in spite of myself.

My next error, caused once again by distraction, was in leaving an egg out of the batter. I had set the four eggs out ahead of time to get them to room temperature (which is recommended for all baking) and somehow one of the little buggers rolled behind my wood block cutting board. I didn't notice it until the cheesecake was already in the oven. This dessert seemed doomed from the start!

As it turned out, using three eggs instead of four was a blessing in disguise. It turned out super creamy and everyone said they liked the texture much better than regular cheesecake. If you like your cheesecakes firm and dense, by all means, use the fourth egg. But I am keeping the error in my recipe as the creaminess is heavenly.

I brushed the cooled cheesecake with some agave and garnished with the vanilla bean pods. Then I served it with some fresh strawberries that I sweetened with agave and thickened with a litte potato starch. By the way, I am eperimenting with thickeners as I am not a big fan of cornstarch. The potato starch worked very quickly and didn't add any flavor to the topping, but made the color a little cloudy. After some research, I think I will try a little arrow root next time.

I hate to mess with a delicious thing, but I am dying to try this again with the lower fat cream cheese (neufchatel) and maybe substituting the sour cream for Greek yogurt, to make it healthier still. I will post an update if and when that happens to let you know if those adjustments produce something equally as special.

Agave Vanilla Bean Cheesecake

1 1/2 cups almond flour
2 Tablespoons melted butter
1 Tablespoon agave nectar
Crust: Mix above ingredients together in a bowl and press into the bottom of a springform pan. Bake at 375 degrees until set and crust is a light brown. Set aside. Raise temperature of oven to 400 degrees.

3 (8 oz.)pkg. cream cheese at room temperature
3 eggs (preferably organic), at room temperature
2 vanilla beans
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1 cup agave nectar
1/4 cup sour cream.
Beat cream cheese until fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, scraping bowl often. Open vanilla beans with a knife and scrape the insides into the bowl. Add remaining ingredients and beat until smooth, scraping bowl. Pour batter onto crust. Place in the center of oven, then immediately turn the temperature down to 200 degrees. Bake an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes, until temperature in center reaches 155 degrees. Cool completely.

For strawberry topping: Wash and slice strawberries. Mix with 1/4 agave nectar in a saucepan. Heat over med-low heat for about 5-10 minutes. In small bowl, mix 1 Tablespoon potato starch (or other thickening agent) with 1 Tablespoon water. Slowly stir this into strawberry mixture until it thickens. Remove from heat and cool.

When ready to serve, heat about 1/3 cup agave nectar until thin. Brush onto cold cheescake. Garnish with vanilla pods. To serve, spoon strawberry topping over individual slices.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Lasagna Roll-ups

The week before vacation is always "clean out the fridge" week. Like most families, we try to use whatever is in our refrigerator that would otherwise be out of date when we returned. So about mid-week before our annual trek to the Carolinas for spring break, I decided to pick up some Naan so we could make pizzas and use the fresh mozzarella that I had leftover when I built the lasagnas the previous Sunday. Unfortunately, when I arrived at our Wegman's parking lot on the way home from work, I realized that I had left my purse in my desk drawer. Being 40 minutes away, I was not about to go back for it. So I drove home and resigned myself to inventing something with whatever we had remaining in the refrigerator and pantry.

For the kids, I ended up making turkey fajitas with the tortillas I had left from the last batch of chicken enchiladas and some turkey filets that were leftover from dinner a few nights prior. I had salsa, a few different cheeses, onions, peppers, and sour cream. That worked out well, and the kids loved them. But it was only enough for two. Tim and I still had to eat! So while I was cleaning up from dinner number one, I noticed the leftover whole wheat lasagna sheets that I had saved after building those lasagnas. I am not sure why I saved them at the time. After all, there were only three. But now it occured to me that I could layer them with some kind of filling, roll them up and bake them. I started with some leftover vegetables we had a few nights before: spaghetti squash and mushrooms. Then I took the leftover ricotta cheese and mixed it with some egg and a pinch of nutmeg and spread that over the vegetable layer. Next came the roasted tomatoes I got from the olive bar, some of that fresh mozarella I inteded to use for pizza, and the last of the leaves off my basil plant. I rolled the lasagna sheets up and put them in a square baking pan with some of the leftover sauce from the lasagna, sprinkled grated cheese on the top and baked it in the oven at 350 until bubbly. Pretty delicious and completely on the spot.

Now I am thinking about having those fresh lasagna sheets in the fridge from time to time. I can make a totally new roll-up depending on what ingredients I have onhand. This was one of those times when a big mistake (leaving my purse at work) resulted in a much better dinner than I had originally planned!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Fire and Spice

Recently, I was looking for a new way to use one of my favorite ingredients: forbidden or black rice. At the same time, I had a hankering for shrimp. So I thought I would sautee some shrimp and serve it with a black sticky rice and add pineapple and scallions.

So I did what I usually do- a little research. It's easier for me to start out with an existing recipe and then modify it to get exactly what I want. And although I didn't find just the right black rice recipe to satisfy me, I found this great recipe for shrimp fried coconut rice with pineapple on a site called Now this was something I could work with!

Although this recipe called for jasmine rice, black rice was easy to substitute and so much more flavorful and healthy! I also decided that I wanted it to be spicy, so I added some chopped red chilis- hence the title of this post: Fire and Spice. Although it was a great idea, I got a little carried away with the fire and cut up way too many chilis. It ended up too spicy for Connor, a little too fiery for me, and just right for Tim. I lost track, but at best recollection I think I used about 5-6 chilis. Three should be about right for me next time!

The recipe also called for some sugar, which was easily substituted with my good old agave. I think the sugar could also be just omitted, as the dish is probably sweet enough from the coconut and pineapple. I also cut the rice down by half. The recipe indicates that it is a Thai dinner for two, but even after cutting the rice down by half there were still leftovers. I also used a pound of shrimp instead of counting out twelve. Finally, I sprinkled some natural coconut over the top which was quite delicious. My recipe after adjustments should serve three people. And by the way, the picture above shows the leftovers. I hadn't taken a picture the first time around when it was a bit more colorful and garnished with the coconut.

If you'd like the original recipe it is located here:

My adjusted recipe is below. I will definitely make this again, despite the lingering fiery mouth that ensued. It heated well in the microwave the next day and I scarfed the leftovers! I tasted a bit of it cold before heating, and I think it would make a great cold salad as well.

Spicy Shrimp with Tropical Forbidden Rice
1 cup Chinese forbidden (black) rice
1/2 cup water
1 cup light coconut milk
1 T canola or peanut oil
1 clove minced garlic
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 lb. shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/2 tsp agave nectar (optional)
1 T fish sauce
3-5 chopped red chilis
4 oz. chopped fresh pineapple
2 green onions, chopped
Rinse black rice until water runs clear. Add rice, water, and coconut milk to a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook about 15-20 minutes or until rice is sticky and soft. Set aside.
Heat the oil in a wok or large pan and then add garlic, chilis and white onion. Cook on medium heat 1-2 minutes or until onion is shiny.
Add shrimp and stir fry until shrimp just turns pink all over. Add agave, fish sauce, and rice and toss.
Add pineapple and green onion and cook about 2 minutes more or until heated through.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A Family Favorite- Chicken Enchiladas!

There are a few dishes my family asks for time and time again, and my chicken enchiladas is one of them. I would love to give credit to the inventor of the recipe, but I have had it scribbled down in my recipe book for so long, I have lost sight of its origin. This is another one of those recipes, however, that quickly becomes your own when you make specific ingredient choices.

Beginning with the tortillas: Tim and I want 100% whole wheat, Connor and Carly want the white flour tortillas, and Gillian will eat them either way. So I buy both and make about half and half. The tortillas are then stuffed with a mixture of chicken, spices, corn and scallions that are then mixed with cheeses and sour cream. This makes a delicious filling that can be different every time you serve them, again, due to the variety of choices you have.

This time, I used rotisserie chicken to save time, and chose a salsa Jack cheese for the inside and a milder 2% milk fat cheddar for the top. The reason for this was to reduce the fat somewhat, but I was also concerned that the salsa Jack would be too spicy for some of us. As it turned out, the Jack mellowed a bit after cooking, so the "heat" factor should not have been a concern.

In addition to the shredded cheese, the filling contains 4 oz. cream cheese and 1/4 cup of sour cream. I mistakenly bought a 3 oz. bar of cream cheese, so I substituted a little goat cheese to make up the difference.

Lastly, the recipe calls for prepared salsa, both to cover the bottom of the pan and to mix in the filling. You may certainly make your own salsa but I use several different kinds of jarred salsas- Wegmans has some great ones if you are fortunate enough to live near a Wegmans! My favorite so far has been the lime garlic. YUM!

The enchiladas are baked in the oven with more salsa, more cheese, and then sprinkled with more chopped scallions when done. Serve with sour cream and hot sauce if you like them spicy. We had these last night and I just dropped some off at Carly's so she could bake some in her new apartment. So delicious!

Baked Chicken Cheese Enchiladas

4 oz. cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup sour cream
2 cups prepared salsa
2 cups grated cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese
2 cups shredded cooked chicken
1 cup frozen corn kernels, thawed
1/2 tsp.cumin
1/4 tsp. oregano
1/4 tsp. cayenne
salt, pepper
4 scallions, thinly sliced
10-12 soft round tortillas

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In medium bowl, cream together cream cheese and sour cream. Stir in 1/2 cup salsa and 1 cup of the cheese.
In second bowl, toss together chicken, corn, cumin, oregano, cayenne, salt, pepper and half of the scallions.
Add chicken mixture to cheese mixture and stir to combine.
In a baking dish, spread 1/2 cup salsa on the bottom. lace about 1/3 cup filling on a tortilla and roll up. Transfer to baking dish with seam side down. Repeat process for remaining tortillas.
Pour remaining salsa over tortillas, spreading to coat, and top with remaining cheese.
Bake 20-25 minutes or until hot and bubbly. Sprinkle with remaining scallions before serving. Serve with sour cream and hot sauce.