Archive for the ‘Dessert’ Category


This is going to be something of a novelty on Improv Soup: I’m going to supply quantities. However, there is still plenty of room to mess with this recipe. First, I’ll explain how to make the “plain” version, and then I’ll show how I turned it into a raspberry almond cake instead and supply tips for creating other flavors.

Preheat the oven to 325º. Put 1 sleeve of broken-up graham crackers, 1/4 cup sugar, and 6 tablespoons of melted butter through a food processor until it forms wet clumps. Press the mixture into the bottom of a springform pan. Wrap the outside of the pan with a couple of sheets of aluminum foil to prevent leaks.

Beat together the following ingredients, in order and making sure to scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl between additions: 24 ounces cream cheese, 1 cup sugar, 2 eggs, 16 ounces sour cream, 2 tablespoons flour, 2 teaspoons vanilla, 1 teaspoon lemon juice, 1 cup heavy cream. Once the mixture is smooth and uniform throughout, pour it into the springform pan. Bake at 325º for 20 minutes; then, without opening the oven door, turn down the heat to 300º and bake for an additional 40 minutes. Turn off the heat, but leave the oven closed with the cake in it for one more hour. Then, pull it out and allow it to cool to room temperature; then cover the pan with saran wrap or aluminum foil and put it in the fridge to chill. When the cake is completely chilled and set, remove the ring of the springform pan and serve.

But that’s not very improvisational. Plain cheesecake is my old friend, but it has room for experimentation. In general, the three ingredients that make up the bulk of the filling – cream cheese, sour cream, and heavy cream – can be considerably reduced, making room in the batter for other things like chocolate, fruit purée, or peanut butter. My usual strategy is to cut down on the ingredient that matches what I want to add most closely in texture. For instance, to add a liquidy raspberry purée, I short the batter a similar amount of the heavy cream or sour cream. You can also make plenty of direct substitutions: in this version, I exchanged the vanilla extract for almond extracts. The crust is ripe for alteration – in a chocolate based cake, for instance, I’d have replaced the graham crackers with a similar volume of generic oreos (for which you can reduce the butter and the added sugar without sacrificing sweetness or texture). But in this case, I used the normal crust recipe – plus a quarter cup of almond flour (also known as almond meal.)


Here’s my almond-adulterated crust. Next, I made the raspberry component by cooking down some frozen raspberries and straining them with a wire mesh to remove the seeds (I wound up with maybe a third of a cup):



All the rest of my ingredients hanging out together photogenically. I added the raspberry just after the sour cream:


When I’d beaten it in completely, it left the batter just a very light pink.

But this darkened with some time in the oven:




Other variants: you can include solid things in your cake, like cookies, pieces of fruit, or chunks of chocolate. But if you don’t want your cheesecake to crack, make sure you submerge all of these things under the batter before you put it in the oven. (You can never perfectly guarantee that it won’t crack, but the best safeguard against it is a smooth surface and slow cooling.) You can make a batch of plain (white) batter, separate out some of it, and add fruit (and/or food coloring), then pour each color of batter into the pan for multicolored cheesecake. (Try a strawbery-blueberry-plain one for the Fourth of July, for instance.)


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Meringue Cookies

Meringues are pretty eggwhite cookies. They’re very tricky beasties, but once you get the hang of them, they’re delicious and not too hard to whip up. Plus, they are mostly air, so you can eat about twenty of them without having to feel too guilty.

Preheat the oven to 250º.

First, you need to separate the eggwhites without breaking the yolk or getting your hands on the egg, because the fat of the yolk and the oils from your hands are both perfectly capable of preventing the batter from frothing up properly. Crack an egg into a separate bowl, fish the yolk out with two spoons, and pass it back and forth between the spoons gently until the white has detached from it. Then discard the yolk. If the yolk breaks and any of it gets into the white, you can save it for scrambled eggs or eggdrop soup or an omelette, but it’s no good for meringues: try again with a fresh dish. When you have as many egg whites as you’d like to turn into meringues (each eggwhite makes about 20 little cookies, possibly fewer if you don’t put in any extra ingredients), dump them into a mixing bowl. Add a pinch each of salt and cream of tartar per eggwhite.


Get an electric mixer (you don’t want to try this by hand) and beat the crap out of your eggwhites. Keep it up until they form stiff peaks (that is, if you stop the mixer and pull it out of the bowl, it will leave behind solid impressions of where the beaters were, and not just slosh back in to fill the hole).


Measure out a scant half a cup of sugar per eggwhite, or 3/4 cup per two. Use superfine if you have it, but granulated will do. Sprinkle it in a little at a time while continuing to beat the crap out of your batter. When the sugar has all been poured in, continue beating for a few more minutes and add a quarter-teaspoon of vanilla extract per eggwhite. (If you’re making an unusual flavor of meringues, you could add something else at this step – almond extract, for instance, or some lemon juice.)

Add the solid ingredient of your choice, folding it in gently. I make chocolate chip meringues almost invariably, but you can include whatever you like – I’ve seen a number of recipes that call for nuts, for instance.

Spoon small dollops of meringue onto paper towels (I have tried parchment paper and aluminum foil and they wind up burning the cookies) on cookie sheets. Sprinkle them with cocoa powder or some other decoration (colored sugar, nuts, whatever you like) and pop them in the oven. Start checking them at ten minutes or so; poke them gently with a finger and see if they feel dry or not. When they feel dry, pull them out. If they get even a little brownish (including on the curly little bits on top), pull them out right away.

They will be chewier than storebought meringues, but dramatically cheaper and just as tasty. If you want crispier meringues, try a lower oven temperature and leave them in longer, but remember, you don’t want them to turn brown.

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A number of weeks ago, I found a cookie dough cupcake recipe online that I wanted to try because cookie dough is the best thing in the universe, so I bought a muffin tin and made the cupcakes. (Not according the recipe, heaven forfend. I adjusted ratios slightly, and I made my own cookie dough to put in the middles and used a different frosting.) They were underwhelming, but… I still had the tin. It did not seem right to just leave my muffin tin there, to be used for only one less-than-spectacular batch of cupcakes.

So I e-mailed my mother and got a lot of recipes for muffins, and for quickbreads, which are basically the same batter as muffins but shaped differently and baked longer (so you can make the same batter and just bake it in a muffin tin instead of a loaf pan). I got a great big stack of recipes in the mail, found some more on the Internet, and set about merrily making muffins. But because I am an improvisational cook and recipes grate on me, I was also taking careful note of the distillable qualities of the muffins I made. For example, the recipes which called for butter as the sole fat content had a consistent ratio of one stick of butter to one dozen muffins. I made a chart like so (click for full image):

Muffin chart

Obviously, there’s a fair amount of variation here, but see the recipe on the far right of the full image – apple oat? I made them up. To be fair, I was timid about it: I used the banana bran muffin recipe as a template. But since I swapped out both the banana and the bran from a recipe called “Banana Bran Muffins”, I think I retain my improvisational cred. (Note: “batch of applesauce” means I dumped in the applesauce I had in the fridge from when I made some the other day. It was 3 lbs. apples worth minus what I had for a snack right after it came off the stove. I didn’t measure it, I just eyeballed it as about the right amount. My batter wound up pretty thick, so I splashed in a little milk, which is not noted on the chart.)

And the variation between the different recipes – even the ones that I took at face value – is a great example of my claim that even baking isn’t infinitely delicate. All of these recipes produce muffins. Some of them have baking powder and no baking soda; some of them have baking soda and no baking powder; some of them have both. They have different numbers of eggs per dozen muffins. Different amounts of flour. Additionally, they all come with optional extra ingredients like chopped nuts, dried fruit, or chocolate chips; these don’t affect them substantially either.

I still need to make more muffins, from recipes or closely adapted from recipes, before I will be able to make any kind of muffin I want without looking at a piece of paper. But this is a good example of how you can graduate from strict recipe-based cooking to modular cooking by learning what recipes have to teach you, and then gradually departing from them.

If you want to try making some of these muffins, just preheat your oven to 375-400 degrees, mix up all of the ingredients (butter at room temperature unless otherwise specified) in this order: fat, sugar, eggs, wet ingredients, all dry ingredients. Unless you have a Teflon-coated muffin tin like I do, you should smear the muffin cups with butter and then sprinkle them with flour so the muffins don’t stick. Fill muffin cups most of the way full of batter. Bake. After fifteen minutes or so, or when they start to smell so good that you really really wanna open the oven, poke them with a toothpick (or, if you don’t have toothpicks, an unused twist tie from the grocery store – you can swipe those things by the dozens) and see if it’s goopy in the middle. If it is, give it another couple minutes and poke one again; repeat until they are not goopy, then remove the muffins from the oven. Let them cool until you can touch the pan without burning yourself, because it’s hard to get muffins out of a tin with oven mitts on. Ease them out of the pan carefully. Nom them. Put extras in bread bags or Rubbermaid-type containers; freeze for long-term storage or just leave them on the counter to sneak at a whim.

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