Friday, May 9, 2008

Tinkering with Hotel Cheesecakes

I decided to play with my hotel cheesecakes again this week. This time I had some new equipment in my arsenal, and a couple of new ideas for proper cooking.

I've started carrying various cooking utensils with me. Most are either plastic or rubber, with the exception of my Oxo mini-whisk. I also have a small rubber spatula, some plastic measuring spoons, and a small stack of silicone muffin cups. Most of these were purchased with the intent of not getting into trouble with the TSA. The muffin cups were supposed to save me from having to buy new paper cups all the time. When I opened the package, I discovered they had the added bonus of being more stable, so that they don't collapse from the weight of their own filling when unsupported.

My last experiment involved using just the yolk, rather than a whole egg. This succeeded in lowering the water content which was making the batter too loose, but it unfortunately lowered it too much. The resulting cheesecakes bore more resemblance to over-cooked scrambled eggs. Obviously, I needed to loosen up the batter again. I had considered using heavy cream, but the idea of sour cream appealed to me. It's a common cheesecake ingredient which I had scarcely considered before. I was also short on sugar packets this trip, but had managed to pick up a tiny bottle of Kentucky honey at the Cincinnatti airport. Perhaps an invert sugar would help, as well as providing an interesting flavor profile.

I started with about a tablespoon of honey and 4 oz of softened cream cheese in a paper bowl. I mixed them together with the spatula, adding in about a tablespoon of sour cream. When it seemed liquid enough, I switched to the mini whisk and added the egg yolk. When it was nice and smooth, I poured it into two silicone muffin cups, foolishly ignoring the fill lines that the manufacturer had so graciously provided for me.

This microwave had a manual knob with no power control or turn carosel, so I knew I had to be careful. I cooked them in bursts of 15 to 20 seconds, manually switching their places with each burst. After 3 or 4 bursts I got brave and did a 30 second burst. The cheesecakes, which were undoubtedly slightly aerated from the whisking, had started to rise over the tops of the muffin cups. I put them in the hotel mini-fridge to cool and waited till morning.

The next morning's taste test revealed what I expected: an overcooked, grainy center. Interestingly, the outside was slightly undercooked, mostly silky smooth with the occassional graininess. This, I surmised, was because I hadn't given them time to cool properly by themselves. The shock of the icebox had stopped the carry-over cooking, and possibly forced some of the proteins to prematurly coagulate. The flavor was decent, but a little bitter from the honey. Also important, I noticed that even though I was nuking these at 100% power, the over-coagulation was not nearly as bad as with earlier attempts with lower power. I decided that the added mass (cooking two at once instead of just one) had a part to play here.

I had one more night to experiment with the other 4 oz. I added a tablespoon and a half to it, along with two packets of sugar to counter the slight bitterness of the honey. After mixing with the spatula, I added in two tablespoons of sour cream, mixed a little more, and then switched to the whisk. I added in my egg yolk, and just for kicks, a packet of True Lemon powder. Honey lemon is a pretty classic flavor profile, right?

Because of the extra sour cream, I had enough batter to fill three muffin cups right to their fill lines. I hoped the extra mass would help even more, but I had another trick up my sleeve. I added a cup of ice water to the center of the microwave, and placed the filled muffin cups in a triangle around it. Water has a very high specific heat, meaning it has to absorb a lot of energy just to raise it even one degree farenheight. My hope was that ice water would absorb even more of the microwaves in the oven, effectively limiting the power attacking the water molecules inside the cheesecake. I was careful not to overfill the water cup, just in case it absorbed enough energy to actually boil.

I went with 20 to 25 second bursts this time, each time rotating the cups with each other manually counter-clockwise one position. It took 6 or 7 bursts before I noticed that the centers of the cheesecakes had sunken in slightly, and the sides were starting to climb the muffin cups. They were overdone, I just didn't know by how much. I let them cool for about 45 minutes by themselves and then moved them to the mini-fridge.

In the morning, I tried all three. They all ended up pretty much the same, just slightly overcooked and grainy in the center, but almost perfectly cooked on the outside. I'm thinking that had I ditched the last burst of cooking time, they might have been perfect. The flavor was better, not too sweet, but not bitter either. I wish I had added a second packet of True Lemon. There was a slight hint, and I think just a little more and the flavor would be perfect. I noticed something else interesting though. The edges of the cheesecakes seemed to have pulled slightly away from the cups, and from the looks of it, I'm wondering if it's not because of steam from the cup. Would hot water have been a better way to go about it? How about a cup of hot water in the center to provide steam, and a couple of cups of ice water elsewhere to soak up excess energy?

I'm a few steps closer to hotel cheesecake perfection. Extracting the first two cheesecakes from their cups was a pain because of how rigid the cups were. I had already decided to try putting paper cups inside the silicone ones next trip, but now I'm reconsidering. Perhaps if I swiped some pats of butter from the breakfast bar, and brought a small brush with me to paint it to the sides of the cups. Since I'll be using butter for the crust after I get the filling figured out anyway, maybe it's not too far of a stretch.

From what I hear, my next class is tentatively scheduled in Toronto. Will Canadian cream cheese behave differently? They do have cream cheese, don't they? Will I even have a microwave in my hotel room? Or will I be so totally entranced with Toronto that I don't even bother with hotel cookery? Only time will tell.

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