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.

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