Wednesday, January 12, 2011

"Two Birds with One Stone" - Desserts Find Their Match in Mascarpone

There’s cream cheese, and then there’s mascarpone – while the former is known for its versatility and texture, the latter is renowned as an Italian indulgence, both sweet and rich. Whether lending its velvety texture to cheesecake or  frosting, mascarpone is without a doubt. In order to showcase said miracle cheese, I have included two recipes: Mascarpone Cheesecake with Almond Crust and Tiramisu Cake.
According to Wikipedia, mascarpone is "a triple-cream cheese made from crème fraîche, denatured with tartaric acid."(Now I had never heard "denatured" before, so I had to look it up - denaturation: a process in which proteins or nucleic acids lose their tertiary structure and secondary structure by application of some external stress or compound, such as a strong acid or base, a concentrated inorganic salt, an organic solvent...or heat). Mascarpone's main event is tiramisu, but it has a number of other uses outside of dessert as well: it can be used as a butter replacement in creamy dishes such as risotto or spread on slices of toast as an hors d'œuvre. An alternative context is to simply place the cheese by itself in a bowl and serve with a sweet sauce, mascarpone is just that good. 

This first cake was cheesecake at its finest. The marriage of mascarpone and Nutella makes for an irresistible dessert. Having made this cheesecake once before, the second try proved just as successful as the first, and was just as well-received. I decided to garnish the cake with blackberries for the extra panache. This cheesecake was for Christmas Day – my parents invited a small group of friends over for lunch, and this delight was the grand finale. Enjoy! 

Mascarpone Cheesecake with Almond Crust
Yields: 12 to 16 servings

  - 1 cup slivered almonds, lightly toasted
  - 2/3 cup graham cracker crumbs
  - 3 tablespoons sugar
  - 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
  - 2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, room temperature
  - 2 (8-ounce) containers mascarpone cheese, room temperature
  - 1 1/4 cups sugar
  - 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
  - 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  - 4 large eggs, room temperature
  - 1/2 cup chocolate-hazelnut spread (recommended: Nutella)
  - 1/4 cup whipping cream
  - Whole blackberries, for garnish

For the crust: Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Tightly wrap the outside of a 9-inch diameter springform pan with 2 3/4-inch-high sides with 3 layers of heavy-duty foil. Finely grind the almonds, cracker crumbs, and sugar in a food processor. Add the butter and process until moist crumbs form. Press the almond mixture onto the bottom of the prepared pan (not on the sides of the pan). Bake the crust until it is set and beginning to brown, about 12 minutes. Cool. Decrease the oven temperature to 325 degrees F.

For the filling: Using an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese, mascarpone cheese, and sugar in a large bowl until smooth, occasionally scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Beat in the lemon juice and vanilla. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, beating just until blended after each addition.

Pour the cheese mixture over the crust in the pan. Place the springform pan in a large roasting pan. Pour enough hot water into the roasting pan to come halfway up the sides of the springform pan. Bake until the center of the cheesecake moves slightly when the pan is gently shaken, about 1 hour 5 minutes (the cake will become firm when it is cold). Transfer the cake to a rack; cool for 1 hour. Refrigerate until the cheesecake is cold, at least 8 hours and up to 2 days.

For the topping: Combine the chocolate-hazelnut spread and cream in a small bowl. Heat in the microwave until warm, stirring every 20 seconds to blend, about 1 minute. Cut the cake into wedges. Drizzle the chocolate sauce over the wedges and serve.
Mascarpone plays a key role in this next classic. I’ve made Tiramisu a number of times, and it is certainly one of my favorite desserts. This is likely due to my affection for combining espresso with chocolate. This recipe places a slight twist on the classic by substituting layers of genoise for the ladyfingers traditionally called for, as shown below: 
This cake was baked for a friend's surprise birthday party. His favorite dessert is tiramisu, and considering this lovely gem had been anxiously waiting on my "to bake" list for quite some time, I felt it only appropriate to allow its debut. It's also a Dorie Greenspan creation, which almost always guarantees greatness. 
Tiramisu Cake
Adapted via SmittenKitchen
Yields: 10 - 12 servings

Cake Layers:
  - 2 cups cake flour
  - 2 teaspoons baking powder
  - 1/8 teaspoon baking soda
  - 1/4 teaspoon salt
  - 1 1/4 sticks (10 tbsp) unsalted butter, room temperature
  - 1 cup sugar
  - 3 large eggs
  - 1 large egg yolk
  - 1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  - 3/4 cup buttermilk
Espresso Extract:
  - 2 tablespoons instant espresso powder
  - 2 tablespoons boiling water
Espresso Syrup:
  - 1/2 cup water
  - 1/3 cup sugar
  - 1 tablespoon amaretto, Kahlua, or brandy (I used Kahlua)
Filling and Frosting:
  - 1 (8-ounce) container mascarpone
  - 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted
  - 1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  - 1 tablespoon amaretto, Kahlua, or brandy (I used Kahlua)
  - 1 cup cold heavy cream
  - 2.5 oz bitter/semisweet chocolate, finely chopped (1/2 cup mini chips)
  - Chocolate-covered espresso beans, for decoration (optional)
  - Cocoa powder, for dusting

Getting ready: Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter two 9×2 inch round cake pans, dust the insides with flour, tap out the excess, and line the bottoms of the pans with parchment or wax paper. Put the pans on a baking sheet.

For the cake: Sift together the cake flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the butter on medium speed until soft and creamy. Add the sugar and beat for another 3 minutes. Add the eggs one by one, and then the yolk, beating for 1 minute after each addition. Beat in the vanilla; don’t be concerned if the mixture looks curdled. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the dry ingredients alternately with the buttermilk, adding the dry ingredients in 3 additions and the milk in 2 (begin and end with the dry ingredients); scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed and mix only until the ingredients disappear into the batter. Divide the batter evenly between the two pans and smooth the tops with a rubber spatula.

Bake for 28 to 30 minutes, rotating the pans at the midway point. When fully baked, the cakes will be golden and springy to the touch and a thin knife inserted into the centers will come out clean. Transfer the cakes to a rack and cool for about 5 minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the cakes, unmold them, and peel off the paper liners. Invert and cool to room temperature right-side up.

For the extract: Stir the espresso powder and boiling water together in a small cup until blended. Set aside.

For the syrup: Stir the water and sugar together in a small saucepan and bring just to a boil. Pour the syrup into a small heatproof bowl and stir in 1 tablespoon of the espresso extract and the liqueur or brandy; set aside.

For the filling and frosting: Put the mascarpone, sugar, vanilla, and liqueur in a large bowl and whisk just until blended and smooth.Working with the stand mixer with the whisk attachment or with a hand mixer, whip the heavy cream until it holds firm peaks. Switch to a rubber spatula and stir about one quarter of the whipped cream into the mascarpone. Fold in the rest of the whipped cream with a light touch.

For assembly: If the tops of the cake layers have crowned, use a long serrated knife and a gentle sawing motion to even them. Place one layer right-side up on a cardboard round or a cake plate protected with strips of wax or parchment paper. Using a pastry brush or a small spoon, soak the layer with about one third of the espresso syrup. Smooth some of the mascarpone cream over the layer – user about 1 1/4 cups – and gently press the chopped chocolate into the filling. Put the second cake layer on the counter and soak the top of it with half the remaining espresso syrup, then turn the layer over and position it, soaked side down, over the filling. Soak the top of the cake with the remaining syrup.

For the frosting: Whisk 1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons of the remaining espresso extract into the remaining mascarpone filling. Taste the frosting as you go to decide how much extract you want to add. If the frosting looks as if it might be a little too soft to spread over the cake, press a piece of plastic wrap against its surface and refrigerate it for 15 minutes or so. Refrigerate the cake too.

With a long metal icing spatula, smooth the frosting around the sides of the cake and over the top. If you want to decorate the cake with chocolate-covered espresso beans, press them into the filling, making concentric circles of beans or just putting some beans in the center of the cake. Refrigerate the cake for at least 3 hours (or for up to 1 day) before serving. 

Just before serving, dust the top of the cake with cocoa. I cut a star shape out of waxed paper and placed it lightly over the cake, and shaved a layer of chocolate over it with a microplane, before carefully removing the star to leave a stenciled shape.

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