Mini Strawberry-Vanilla Cheesecakes

IMG_3671To close out our little series about Strawberry Season 2011, I thought I’d introduce you to a little recipe I stumbled upon, last year, in a tiny sidebar of Cook’s Country Magazine. Most likely, the writers just threw it in to fill some space. It wouldn’t be the first time that I found “gold” in a sidebar.

The photo immediately drew my attention — tiny, muffin cup-sized cheesecakes topped with fruit preserves and a tiny berry (in this case, both the preserves and the fruit were red raspberries). Though my interest was certainly piqued, I did not take the time to make the recipe since I was already in the middle of my summer dessert line-up for last summer. But, I did make note of it so that I could come back to it, this year, when I’d had more time to think over how to put my own little spin on it.

As it happens, the original recipe had already taken some steps to streamline the process: 1) the recipe used muffin cup liners to make removing the mini cheesecakes a snap; 2) the list of ingredients was trimmed down significantly from other cheesecake recipes; and 3) the recipe showed you could use a 2-inch shortbread cookie for the crust rather than mixing up the ingredients for a graham cracker crust.

With most of the hard work of testing and retesting a recipe already done for me, my only real task was in deciding how to tailor this recipe to make it worthy of celebrating Strawberry Season. First, I decided to infuse the cheesecake with vanilla paste (the original recipe used no vanilla at all). Next, I substituted neufchatel cheese in place of regular cream cheese (why not cut a little fat out when you can?). Lastly, I naturally substituted strawberry all-fruit spread and tiny fresh strawberries in place of the original recipe’s raspberry ingredients.

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After giving the recipe a try with my alterations, James and I were almost completely sold on this dessert. But, there was a slight problem. The cheesecake didn’t taste like cheesecake, it only looked like it. Also, the texture of the cheesecakes was a bit rubbery — maybe even a little tough. My instincts, for some reason, drew me immediately to the two whole eggs the original recipe called for. I’ve only made cheesecake a few times in the past, but I do know that tinkering with the ingredients can sometimes yield disastrous results since cheesecakes are essentially a chemistry experiment. Either my substituting a lower fat cream cheese had caused the texture of this recipe to go awry or the cheesecake batter simply did not need two whole eggs to make it set up properly.

Here, I did what I always do when a recipe stumps me: I conferred with my fellow cooking cohort, Nicole. She’s usually in favor of leaving every bit of fat called for in a recipe alone, rolling her eyes at my attempts to lighten certain foods every now and then. So you can imagine the look of absolute disdain on her face as I explained what I’d done. But, I held my ground, insisting that taking out a tiny bit of fat from miniature cheesecakes was not necessarily asking too much of the culinary universe. I suggested that I remove one of the eggs from the ingredients. She suggested a compromise: using one whole egg and one egg yolk. In effect, this would keep the fat content the same while removing the emulsifying power of the second egg white. Was this just crazy enough to work?

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While James was away at his annual conference meeting, I whipped up another batch just to test this theory (I wanted you all to have the best cheesecake experience possible, after all). It worked! The cheesecakes had the perfect texture — creamy yet not runny, firm yet not rubbery. Best of all, just by removing the one egg white, the flavor of the vanilla and the cream cheese really stood out, filling in the flavor void the original recipe had.

Let’s Talk Ingredients

Plain ShortbreadIMG_3673 Making your own shortbread is very simple. If you don’t have the time, though, any quality store-bought shortbread cookies will do. It’s best if the cookies are 2-inches in diamater, however, since they will fit snugly in the bottom of the muffin cups. I tested two different varieties: Keebler’s Plain Sandies and Nikki’s Pecan Shortbread (from a local company in Wisconsin). Both worked equally well for this recipe.

Strawberry All-Fruit — Here, you’ll want to buy a strawberry “jam” that’s sweetened with fruit juice. A popular brand is Polaner All-Fruit. Whatever you use, the key is to stay away from jams that are overly sweetened or artificially sweetened. For this recipe in particular, the sugariness or off-taste of ordinary jam and artificially sweetened jams will shortchange you on the concentrated strawberry flavor needed.IMG_3670

Neufchatel Cheese — The story of “American” Neufchatel cheese is the story of a mistake put to good use. Some wayward farmer in the late 1800s was attempting to make Neufchatel cheese (a cheese originating in France) and instead wound up with something completely different! These days, “American” Neufchatel cheese can be found right next to cream cheese in your supermarket. If you can’t find it, “1/3 Less Fat Cream Cheese” is basically the same thing with a name that is decidedly less fancy.

Sweetened Condensed Milk — Don’t confuse condensed milk with evaporated milk! While they both come in cans, they’re definitely not the same thing. To confuse matters, evaporated milk is simply milk that’s been cooked until about 60% of the water evaporates from it (also known as condensing). It’s usually right next to the condensed milk and comes in two different sized cans. But, since evaporated milk does not have the syrupy, sugary quality of condensed milk, it is not a substitute. Condensed milk is evaporated milk that has been IMG_3675reduced even further and turned into a custard-like syrup with lots of added sugar. It’s usually available in 14-ounce cans down the baking aisle. In the case of this recipe, I do not mind the sugar content of condensed milk since it’s virtually the only significant source of sugar in the ingredient list.

Vanilla Paste — This is a syrup made from vanilla extract which is then combined with pulp from vanilla beans. When you mix vanilla paste into whipped cream, cookies, or just about anything, you not only get extra vanilla flavor, you get that gourmet appearance of vanilla beans which heightens the overall presentation — all without having to split and scrape the vanilla beans yourself. If you can’t find vanilla paste, the same amount of a high quality vanilla extract will do just fine in its place. (I buy all of my vanilla beans, vanilla extract, and vanilla paste here.)

Mini Strawberry-Vanilla Cheesecakes

Adapted from Cook’s Country
Serves 12

    12 plain shortbread cookies (2-inch cookies, see above)
    1/2 cup strawberry all-fruit spread, divided
    8 ounces neufchatel cheese, softened
    1/2 cup sweetened condensed milk
    1 tablespoon vanilla paste
    1 large egg
    1 egg yolk
    12 small fresh strawberries for garnish

    Preheat oven to 300-degrees. Place twelve muffin cup liners in a standard muffin pan. Place one shortbread cookie in the bottom of each muffin cup; top each cookie with a teaspoon of strawberry all-fruit (reserving the remainder of the all-fruit for garnish).

    In a medium bowl, cream the neufchatel cheese with an electric mixer at medium-low speed until smooth and creamy (approximately 2 minutes). Gradually add the condensed milk in 3 additions, mixing well after each addition and scraping down the bowl as necessary. Add the vanilla paste, egg, and egg yolk; beat until smooth and uniform (2-3 minutes).

    Using a ladle or large spoon, divide the cheesecake batter evenly between the twelve muffin cups. Bake in preheated oven 20 minutes or just until centers are set. Place muffin pan on wire rack and cool to room temperature. Refrigerate cooled cheesecakes for at least an hour.

    Before serving, prepare the cheesecake garnish. Place the reserved all-fruit in a small glass bowl; microwave until thinned slightly (15-20 seconds). Glaze the cheesecakes as desired, placing a small strawberry atop the glaze. Serve chilled.

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This recipe would make an elegant presentation at an early summer dinner party, but it’s equally at home in a romantic dinner for two. To be honest, I’m never able to eat just one of these… I usually have a second. But, when it comes to desserts, aren’t seconds usually the measure of success? I’m looking forward to revisiting this recipe in the future, reformulating it to celebrate the flavors of other seasons.

We’ve now turned all of our strawberry loot into fresh fruit desserts, strawberry jam, and frozen strawberries. Another strawberry season has come and gone and — though I’m always a little sad to see it go — I know that summer has a lot more fruit in store. Why not hoist a mini cheesecake with me and join in a toast to a bountiful summer? Cheers!

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~ by Jason on July 5, 2011.

2 Responses to “Mini Strawberry-Vanilla Cheesecakes”

  1. Those look amazing!

    • Thanks! These are a little too irresistible. 🙂 I’ve vowed to not make them again until fall, when I’ll maybe try to come up with an autumnal variation on the recipe… then again, blueberry season is upon us. 😉

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