Friday, April 4, 2008

Hotel Room Cheesecake

My brother at one point had a goal. It started with ways to eat cheaply while travelling to anime cons, and developed into methods that involved making things like grilled cheese sandwiches using the hotel iron (note: it is recommended that you put the sandwich between pieces of foil, to protect both the food and the equipment). The idea was that you should be able to show up at a hotel, walk across the street to the local grocery store, and pick up supplies that could be converted into actual meals from within the confines of your hotel room. If fact, this very idea was kept in the back of my mind as I tested my travel oatmeal recipes over the course of a month.

Rewind to my cheesecake days. I've long maintained that there are a variety of different crusts that you can use for a cheesecake other than boring, old graham cracker crumbs. For instance, Delta Airlines has a partnership with Biscoff to provide the only edible snack available on the majority of their flights outside of first class: their cinnamon cookie. I've often thought about saving up a few of these to crush up for an airline-inspired cheesecake.

Suddenly, one week, tragedy struck: my brain put the two of these ideas together. Why not use crumbled Biscoff cookies to bake mini cheesecakes in my hotel room? It would still require a trip to the local grocery store, or perhaps to the local drug store or gas station to buy an egg (well, half a dozen eggs, hope you're hungry), but the other ingredients would be easily obtainable from the hotel itself. If the hotel has complimentary breakfast, cream cheese would likely be available in single-ounce portions. And what hotel doesn't have a coffee station with plenty of free sugar? If that wasn't enough sugar (and it likely wouldn't be), then the lobby would often have enough sugar packets to make up for it. Or the coffee area at the local gas station. The only element that would not be easily obtainable would be the vanilla that is usually found in New York-style cheesecake. But if the cook didn't have access to a grocery store, they still had a variety of options available. A liquor store alone would have plenty of flavored liqeurs that would work, or the cook could just go at it without additional flavoring.

There were two other variables to solve: what to bake the cheesecakes in, and what to bake them with. The second was easy: about half the hotel rooms I've stayed in have a microwave and a mini-fridge. Without at least a microwave, you're going to be out of luck. But I also needed a baking dish. As I was contemplating various methods of cutting up paper cups, it dawned on me: if there's a grocery store nearby, they'll almost certainly have baking cups for muffins! It was perfect! I just needed to make sure to use multiple cups per cheesecake, to keep them from sagging and spilling all over. I now had all of the variables figured out. It was time to run some tests.

For authenticity, decided to do my tests from within my room at the Radisson hotel in Chelmsford, MA. This room came equipped with a microwave and a mini-fridge, perfect for my experiments. I decided not to use crust in the initial testing, because it was not something that I could just head down to the store to replace once I ran out; I would have to wait for another flight to get more from the flight attendant. There was a Walgreens within walking distance, but I actually picked up my supplies at the Market Basket grocery store in nearby Westford. The Radisson did not serve complimentary breakfast, so I had to buy my cream cheese along with a half-dozen eggs. Sugar was still free.

The minimum number of eggs was one. I decided to use 4 oz of cream cheese with it, also a bare minimum. The batter would be a bit loose, but it would still set up. If I didn't get it right, I would still have another 4 oz left to try again. Using muffin baking cups, I knew I would still have multiple chances with the first batch. In this case, I discovered I would have three tries per batch. I creamed together the sugar and the cream cream (which I had left soften during the day) in a bowl normally reserved for oatmeal, and then mixed in the egg. I decided to dispense with flavors for now. As far as sugar goes, I stopped at eight packets. It wasn't enough, the flavor was still pretty rich, but it would have to do for now. A fork was not the easiest mixing implement to use, but it worked.

I knew the microwave was going to be my biggest problem. I decided to start with pulses. 30 seconds of cooking, 60 seconds of rest. Repeat as necessary. 10 seconds into the second cooking phase, the batter started boiling. First cheesecake: ruined. I went down to 15 second pulses for the second try, and while it lessened the intensity, it still boiled. Second cheesecake: ruined, but not as badly. The microwave was just too strong.

I decided to reevaluate the situation. Looking carefully at the microwave controls, I noticed that this particular oven supported various power levels. This could be my saving grace. I decided to lower the power to 10% and dispense with pulses. I checked on the wobbiliness every few minutes, and almost made it to 15 cumulative minutes of cooking time before the center got to that point of being just under-wobbly. It was time to pull the cheesecake and let it rest while carry-over cooking took it the rest of the way. By this point it was bedtime, so I moved everything to the fridge and went to sleep, content that I would have a perfectly cooked cheesecake waiting for me in the morning.

In the morning I realized something very important: little cheesecakes have less mass to produce carry-over cooking than big cheesecakes. When I moved my under-cooked cheesecake to the fridge, it essentially stopped the carry-over cooking from happening. Of the other two cheesecakes, the first attempt was actually the only one that set up enough to be removed from its paper wrapper. By all indications, my first supposed failure was actually my only success so far. I moved everything back into the fridge and headed off to work. I would have to try again that night.

That night I started by tasting the cheesecakes from the first round of tests. As expected, the first was overcooked and had the texture of scrambled eggs that had been cooked too long. The flavor had also changed significantly from what the batter had tasted like. The second was still a little curdled, but the flavor and the texture had both improved drastically. The third was creamy and the flavor was spot-on. Unfortunately, it had almost no structure. Still, it gave me hope.

I bumped the sugar up to 12 packets, which I think was just about right. I still used 4 oz of cream cheese and a single large chicken egg. Again, I had three test runs. The first was nuked for 30 minutes at 10% power, and the second and third for 40 minutes at 10% power. I had less batter left over for the third, so it was slightly smaller, which I expected to change the cooking time. I made sure that there was no wobbliness. Obviously, carry-over cooking was going to be significantly less with a cupcake-sized cheesecake than with a 9-inch round cheesecake.

When they were done cooking, I let the first two rest for at least half an hour. I didn't expect much carryover cooking to happen, but I still needed to give it a chance. The last one came out just as I was about to go to bed, so it went straight into the fridge with the two rested ones. By all indications, they had all set up properly. A quick test in the morning would say for sure.

In the morning, I checked. They all looked fabulous. But as I tried to pull the paper away from the sides, the cheesecakes stuck. But the smaller one still mostly pulled away. I decided the small one could officially be called a success. The other two still looked good, if not quite as much as the last. It looked like 45 to 50 minutes was likely to be the magic range.

Unfortunately, as it was getting towards the end of the work week, I was getting pretty burned out in general. I ended up not trying any other cheesecakes at the Radisson. I would have to wait until my next trip, a week later.

I found myself in Baltimore about a week and a half after my last Radisson experiment. I was in the Hilton Garden Inn in BWI's hotel district. I made sure this time to get a room with another mini fridge and microwave. The microwave was older, and the power dial was analog this time rather than digital. I didn't know if 10% was going to be the same, so rather than shooting for 45 to 50 minutes, I decided to go for 10 and see how things looked.

My first batter was comprised of half an 8oz tub of cream cheese leftover from the first morning's bagel breakfast at the training center, 6 packets of sugar from the coffee station (these seemed to have about twice as much sugar per packet as the ones in Massachussetts) and the yolk of an egg from a local organic market. Let me tell you, you haven't lived until you've separated eggs in your hotel room. I had a styrofoam container left over from that evening's takeout dinner, so I cleaned the crumbs out and used it to mix up the batter.

Because I wasn't using a whole egg, the batter wasn't nearly as loose, and there was only enough for (almost) two servings. I poured one serving into some paper muffin cups and tossed it in the microwave at what looked like 10% power. 10 minutes later, I had a truly overcooked cheesecake. A taste test revealed a tasty cheesecake with the texture of overcooked scrambled eggs. Apparently, microwave times will vary.

I tried again a couple of nights later. I dropped the power all the way, which still seemed to be more than the 10% at the Radisson. By 10 minutes, the cheesecake was almost done. A couple of minutes later, it was perfect. I let it sit, and then tasted it. The taste was perfect, but the texture was still a little rougher than I had hoped. It seemed that leaving it at a single egg yolk did provide a little extra richness, but the texture itself left something to be desired. It was clear that I either needed to include some of the white, or add some liquid from elsewhere. Fortunately, many coffee stations include little cups of half and half. This would make up for lost moisture, while not adding too much like an egg white would.

I didn't try again on this trip to Baltimore. I was nearing the end of a 6-day class, and I was even more burned out than I was in Boston. By this point, I'd been writing the article off and on for around a month. I'm in Mountain View, CA this week and the Comfort Inn here has a microwave (I'm told all the rooms at the El Camino location have microwaves), but I'm still burned out from moving last week. I decided to post my progress so far, and post again after a few more experiments. Besides, it was holding up another couple of posts that I wanted to get out. Perhaps a reader or two will have something to offer in the meantime.

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