Alex’s birthday was Friday, and if there is one thing I think we all know by now about my sous-chef, assistant photographer, sometimes (coughoften) dishwasher and starry-eyed compatriot is that he is the true chocoholic in this family. There is rarely a dish, from strawberry tarts to banana bread, raspberry-filled sandwich cookies to bretzel rolls that he does not insist could be improved by the addition of chocolate. Or cheesecake. Or brownies. But mostly chocolate.
Thus, when Rebecca at Eat wrote a few weeks ago about making a–you might want to sit down for this one–Brownie Mosaic Cheesecake for a neighbor’s birthday, I sent Alex the link and he immediately wrote back: That’s the one.
You see Alex, too, has a Very Difficult Life. Every year, he is forced to pick ONE recipe from my past or future repertoire, for his birthday cake, and this Sophie’s Choice of the decadent world leaves him paralyzed with indecision for months before. (I’m probably flattering myself but, um, as the word-ist in this relationship, it’s just one of my perks.*) The chocolate caramel cheesecake of his last two birthdays? His beloved icebox cake? Chocolate Guinness cake? The cake I made for his mother’s birthday? Or something new, like the 8-layer cake with crushed peanut butter cups between each from this month’s Saveur, adapted without (ahem) cake mix? How about a nutella/espresso ice cream cake? (Shoot, I didn’t mention this option and now he will kick himself.)
But when he saw Rebecca’s recipe he was sold, and so was I, but in my case mostly on finding ways to make it as easy as possible. (I mean, obviously I do not love him at all if I was unwilling to martyr myself over a 12-hour period for a single cake that would be eradicated quickly by punch-drunk peers.) That said, Rebecca had made clear which parts of the cake she felt worked and which did, which was very helpful as I tried to figure out ways to adapt it for simplicity.
When she mentioned having a difficulty with the crumb crust, I remember the chocolate crumb crust I have used several times now and now I’m going to let you in on a little secret and after this, we’re not going to talk about it again, okay? Psst: Chocolate Teddy Grahams. I know, it’s just so unnatural. The first time I grabbed these (on Alex’s suggestion, natch) because I couldn’t find the classic Nabisco Chocolate Wafers most recipes suggest. Then, when I was able to find the wafers again, I realized that the Teddy Grahams tasted better. I know it sounds ludicrous, but they do, by miles, in crust form at least. So does doubling the crust, something I cannot resist doing. I never argue with a high crust-to-cheesecake ratio.
Rebecca had also mentioned that she felt there were better brownie recipes out there for the chocolate chunks, such as the Cook’s Illustrated classic. And this is where the corner-cutting comes in, because although I, too, have weighed the Cook’s Illustrated recipe against my own go-to variety, the Baker’s One Bowl Brownie, for the sake of speed and the fact that the flavor would be buried and burrowed within a cheesecake, the One Bowl was definitely the way to go. Did I mention that they are still delicious, delicious brownies? They really are. If you’re ever in a hurry, don’t underestimate their knee-weakening chocolate assault.
Finally, the cheesecake. Although there was not a single thing wrong with the recipe’s original cheesecake, I’ve had my eye on the Epicurious cheesecake recipe from the Three Cities of Spain Coffeehouse for a long time. Why? Because it has 76 glowing reviews, a 99% success rate and, most saliently, four ingredients. And when you are making a crust, brownies, cheesecake and ganache, a one-bowl, four-ingredient cheesecake will be your best friend.
And don’t forge the ganache. Well, technically, you could, it’s not that anyone would ever take a bit of that cheesecake and think it was plain or repressed. But, if you’re me, and you’re too lazy to make a water bath for your cheesecake thus they always have Buffy the Vampire Slayer-like markings across the top, ganache makes some excellent touch-up.
So, how did it go? By the mouths of 17 people, including one who is lactose-intolerant, one who is always dieting, and one who doesn’t even like sweets, it was gone in five minutes flat. I couldn’t be more proud. And Alex couldn’t have found more over-the-top decadent chocolate cheesecake bliss. But, it won’t keep us from searching, as there always is next year to think of.
Cheesecake, elsewhere on Smitten Kitchen: Chocolate Caramel Cheesecake, Key Lime Cheesecake, Bourbon Pumpkin Cheesecake, Nectarine, Mascarpone and Gingersnap Tart (almost no-bake!), Dulce de Leche Cheesecake Squares, Black-Bottomed Cupcakes (with a cheesecake filling) and Cream Cheese Marbled Brownies.
- Alex’s hot, young wife (*ibid) bought him a new camera toy for his birthday, a flash that actually adjusts itself not to blow an aggressive white light in the faces of peers! He and his new toy are already deeply in love, and although I have not yet figured out if it will get along with food pictures, it’s already vastly improved the quality of other indoor shots. Come see for yourself!
- Guess what? We’re at T-Minus-5-Days until we depart for the Napa Grilling weekend that you sent us on. (Thank you, thank you, thank you!) Please, if you’ve been to Napa or live near there, tell us where to go. We’ve got one afternoon and three evenings to fill with activity, and are absolutely overwhelmed by our options.
Brownie Mosaic Cheesecake
Adapted wildly from A Piece of Cake, by Susan G. Purdy via Eat
Part One: One Bowl Brownies
Adapted from Baker’s One Bowl Brownies
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate (Baker’s chocolate, optional of course)
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter
1 3/4 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup flour
Preheat oven to 350°F. Line 13×9-inch baking pan with foil, with ends of foil extending over sides of pan. Grease foil.
Microwave chocolate and butter in large microwaveable bowl on high for 2 minutes, or until butter is melted. Stir until chocolate is completely melted. Stir in sugar. Blend in eggs and vanilla. Add flour and salt; mix well. Spread into prepared pan.
Bake 30 to 35 minute or until toothpick inserted in center comes out with fudgy crumbs. (Do not overbake.) Cool in pan on wire rack. Remove brownies from pan, using foil handles.
Cool brownies, then cut* them into 3/4- to 1-inch squares for use in the cheesecake. You will have more than the two cups of cubes, loosely measured, than you will need, and I’m sorry, you’re just going to have to decide for yourself what to do with the extra. Add cubes to cake batter as directed below.
* I find that brownies are fantastically easy to cut once they’ve been refrigerated–you end up with nice clean lines, and in this case, a sharp pizza wheel was especially helpful. Also, brownies taste better cold. I’m just saying.
Part Two: Crumb Crust
Adapted from Gourmet, 1999
I like a doubled crumb crust. I can’t get enough cookie. Below are proportions for one crust with the amounts to double the recipe in parentheses. You know you wanna.
1 1/2 cups or 5 ounces (3 cups or 10 ounces to double) finely ground cookies such as chocolate wafers. Or Chocolate Teddy Grahams.
5 tablespoons (10 tablespoons to double) unsalted butter, melted
1/3 cup (2/3 cup to double) sugar
1/8 (1/4 teaspoon to double) teaspoon salt
Stir together crust ingredients and press onto bottom and 1 inch up side of a buttered 24-centimeter springform pan. Fill right away or chill up to 2 hours.
Part Three: Cheesecake
Adapted from the Three Cities of Spain Coffeehouse
3 (8 ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup sugar
2 cups brownie cubes (from recipe above)
Make crumb crust as directed above for 24-centimeter cheesecake. Preheat oven to 350°F.
Make filling and bake cake: Beat cream cheese with an electric mixer until fluffy and add eggs, 1 at a time, then vanilla and sugar, beating on low speed until each ingredient is incorporated and scraping down bowl between additions.
Fold brownie cubes in very gently and pour mixture into prepared pan. Put springform pan with crust in a shallow baking pan. Pour filling into crust and bake in baking pan (to catch drips) in middle of oven 45 minutes, or until cake is set 3 inches from edge but center is still slightly wobbly when pan is gently shaken.
When completely cool, top with following glaze.
Part Four: Ganache Glaze
Adapted from Purdy’s original recipe
3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, broken up, or 1/2 cup chocolate morsels
2 ounces butter
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon confectioners sugar
Grind the chocolate into powder in the food processor, scald the butter and cream in a saucepan (or in a Pyrex cup in the microwave). With the machine running, pour the hot cream/butter mixture slowly through the feed tube onto the chocolate. Blend until completely smooth, stopping machine to scrape down sides once or twice. Add the extract and sugar and process until smooth. Spread over cheesecake while ganache is still warm. Chill until ready to serve.