Vegan Cheesecake… It’s a Close Second to the Real Thing!

I’m by no means a vegan. Not a chance. I am too much of a carnivore to be one. However, with that being said, I do enjoy having vegan and/or vegetarian days. Especially more so now that I’ve discovered vegan desserts. I really love desserts. It’s something that definitely contributed to my weight gain. Well, that and my lazy, inactive butt on the couch watching trashy reality TV shows. So finding vegan recipes that almost mimick “the real thing” is a fun challenge that I’ve engaged myself in.

I cut out desserts almost completely when I started my diet and exercise plan back in late August 2010. It was on a strict caloric intake per day and coupled with exercise has led to my success now. However, cutting out sweets was a really difficult thing. I love a good port with something sweet at night. I started having sugar withdrawals when I cut out the sweets (no way could I cut out my evening night cap!). I’ve slowly introduced desserts back, but only if it’s vegan. It amazes me how lower in fat vegan recipes can be compared to recipes that use butter and shortening. And that’s the thing, butter and shortening. The two very ingredients that can make anything taste good. But finding butter, egg, gelatin, shortening alternatives has been a wonderful and interesting learning experience.

Vegan Cheesecake (adapted from Happy Herbivore)

1 prepared graham cracker pie crust
14 ounces silken tofu
8 ounces Tofutti cream cheese
1/2 cup raw sugar
3/4 teaspoon almond extract
2 tablespoons cornstarch

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Prepare pie crust if you have not already done so.

Place tofu and Tofutti cream cheese in a blender and blend for about 30 seconds. Stop and scrape the sides, and blend for another 30 seconds. Add remaining ingredients and blend for another 3 minutes, stopping periodically to scrape the sides.

(Yes , that is a blender circa 1970.  It was my parents’ blender that I got to inherit!  It’s one of my favorite tools in the kitchen.  They just don’t make them like they used to!)

Once fully incorporated, pour into prepared pie crust and smooth top with a spatula. Set the cheesecake pan on a large piece of aluminum foil and fold up the sides around it. Place the cake pan in a large roasting pan. Pour boiling water into the roasting pan until the water is about halfway up the sides of the cheesecake pan; the foil will keep the water from seeping into the cheesecake. Bake for about 45 minutes. Remove from oven and place somewhere to cool to room temperature (about 2 to 3 hours). Chill overnight or for at least 6 hours before serving.

Blueberry Topping

1 pint blueberries
1 lemon, zested and juiced
2 tablespoons sugar

In a small saucepan add all the ingredients and simmer over medium heat for 5 minutes or so until the fruit begins to break down slightly. Leave to cool before spreading on cheesecake.

Makes 6 servings.

Saltine Toffee

My partner graduated with a Master’s Degree in Special Education in June ’10, and I took her to Napa, CA, to celebrate the occasion.  It was something that we had talked about wanting to do for a number of years, and just never got to do it.  So her graduation was the perfect reason!  We stayed at a wonderful and cozy bed and breakfast, Arbor Guest House.  If you like B&Bs, I suggest you check it out.  The food was phenomenal, the happy our wine and appetizers were plentiful, the rooms were spacious and comfortable, and the hosts were exceptionally friendly.

When we arrived in Napa, we immediately checked into our B&B, changed into “date night” clothes, and ready to get our food on!  I had been scoping out restaurants for several months before our trip and decided on Richard Reddington’s Redd for our first night there.  Redd (located in Yountville, CA; about 10-15 minutes north of Napa) is currently featured as a one-star rated restaurant according to the 2011 Bay Area Michelin Guide.  It had gotten lots of really good reviews, so it was something we had to try.  We arrived a few minutes late after our reservation, but were immediately seated.  The restaurant was chic and modern, but not pretentious.  The service was fantastic.  We ordered too much food and devoured all of it.  The food was just exceptional.

We were presented with the dessert menu but just couldn’t bring ourselves to eat more.  We were so full that it was uncomfortable, but a good kind of uncomfortable, if you know what I mean.  So we asked for the check and when the bill arrived, so did a small dish of candy.  Two words… saltine toffee.  What??  Exactly.  We never heard of such a thing either, but leave it to Richard Reddington and his magnificent staff.  It was the perfect combination of sweet from the toffee/chocolate, and saltiness from the old-school saltine crackers.  It was… well, there were just no words to describe how much we enjoyed those small morsels of sweet and savory goodness.

Upon our arrival back to reality, I immediately sought out for saltine toffee recipes.  I actually found a lot of recipes, all with a slight variation of another.  I bookmarked a few for our sweet & savory holiday gift bags, and just now had the opportunity to make them.

Saltine Toffee

1.5 sleeves of saltine crackers
1 cup butter
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
2 cups semisweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.  Line a half sheet pan with parchment paper and coat it with non-stick cooking spray.  Lay the crackers out onto the sheet pan, in an even layer, filling in any gaps with broken pieces. You will have some crackers left over.  Set them aside for now.

Heat the butter and brown sugar in a saucepan, over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture comes to a boil. Pour the toffee over the crackers, then use a spatula to smooth it out over the entire surface.  Transfer to the oven & bake for about 5 minutes, or until the toffee is bubbling all over.

Remove the pan from the oven and sprinkle the chocolate chips over the hot toffee and let them sit for about five minutes or pop the pan back into the oven for a minute or two, until they have begun to soften and melt. Use a spatula to spread the melted chocolate evenly over the toffee.  Take the reserved crackers and crumble them over the chocolate while it is still soft.

Chill the pan, until the toffee and chocolate are set, which takes about 30 to 45 minutes. Break it up into small pieces and serve.  The toffee can be stored in an airtight container (chilled, or in a cool, dry spot) for up to one week.

Maple Bacon Caramel

Being a first-generation Chinese-American, we never grew up celebrating the western Holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Our one big holiday of the year was, I’m sure you guessed, Chinese New Year (aka, Lunar New Year).  I can remember only one time in my 31 years where we had a Christmas tree with lots of presents, and that was when my brother and I were 1 and 3 years old, respectively.  From then on, not celebrating Holidays became the norm.  And that was okay for us.  Sure, there was a little bit of envy when my school friends would go on and on about the many gifts that awaited them under their big Christmas tree.  But it only made me look forward to Chinese New Year even more for the endless amounts of dumpling and red envelopes filled with money.  So take that!  However, the one thing that I did look forward to during Christmas was the 24 hour rerun of “A Christmas Story” on Christmas day.

Four years ago, my partner wanted to make mini banana bread loaves to pass out to her friends and coworkers for the Holidays.  She asked if I wanted to some to pass out, but I was shook my head and declined.  In fact, I didn’t understand why she would even go through all that much work.  I think I even suggested getting Holiday bags and stuffing it with Hershey’s kisses to save her some time, money, and energy.  But she only snickered at my recommendation.

The following year, before Christmas, I caught an episode on the Food Network of Ina Garten making her “fleur de sel caramels.”  I couldn’t find a good excuse to make them as a just-because-kind-of-treat, so when time came for my partner to make her Holiday treats, I found the perfect opportunity to make them!  She made chocolate-dipped biscotti, and I made salted caramels for the gift bags.  At that point, I wanted to make the salted caramels not for the gift bags, but because I merely just wanted to try them.  The salted caramels were well received that year, and so, it has become our Holiday gift bag traditions.  So why did I change my mind?  I’ve taken lots of pride in my salted caramels.  In fact, we get requests for them throughout the year, and we would make them if it didn’t take so much time to make and wrap each individual caramel.

Well, this year, I wanted to do something a little different.  Something outside-of-the-box that people won’t expect to find.  I wanted to play up on our savory & sweet treats.  While I was perusing the TasteSpotting website a few months ago, I found a recipe for bacon caramels.  I heart anything that involves pig parts, so I made sure to bookmark this website.

My Sunday was spent as if I were working in a hand-made candy factory.  I felt like Charlie from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, standing over the boiling mixture of sugar, cream, and butter to ensure it doesn’t pass the firm-ball stage.  My partner helped wrap some of the candy, and referred to herself as my “oompa loompa.”  I digress.  I spent about 10 hours making and wrapping two types of caramels for our holiday treats gift bags for friends, family, and coworkers.  They turned out perfectly, and I am super excited to pass them out!

These caramels remind me of a few different things… the maple bacon bar from VooDoo Donuts in Portland, OR, and bacon dipped in maple syrup and eaten with a bite of pancake.  I love bacon.

Maple Bacon Caramels (adapted from Not Without Salt)

12 strips of bacon
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1 cup corn syrup
1/2 cup butter
1 cup heavy cream, divided
1/4 cup maple syrup

Bacon fried to a crisp. The amount is up to you. I used 8 strips of thick-cut bacon.  However, next time, I would definitely like to use more as there were some caramels that had little to no bacon at all.  Besides is there ever a time when there’s too much bacon?!

Reserve 1/2 cup of the heavy cream. Combine all the other ingredients in a medium sauce pan. Stir to combine. Set on medium high heat. Stir occasionally and cook until 240. The candy is now at soft-ball stage. Remove from the stove and carefully stir in the remaining 1/2 cup cream. Place back on the heat and continue to cook to 248* (firm-ball stage, which is the desired state for making caramels). Immediately remove from heat and stir in a portion of the crispy bacon. Pour the caramel into a buttered or oiled pan… I used a 9×13 jelly roll pan.  Scatter the remaining bacon on top.  Place the pan into the refrigerator to set for about 60 minutes.  Remove from refrigerator and cut into pieces, and enjoy!

Cooking tip: buy a candy thermometer!  I’m sure most of you will know to do this.  I didn’t when I first starting making caramels a few years ago.  I was using this little dinky thermometer to only went up to 200 degrees Fahrenheit, so I had to wait for it to go all the way around to reach 48 degrees Fahrenheit to equal 248 degrees F.  I finally invested in a candy thermometer (hence, the picture) this year and it has made ALL the difference!  I think this year’s caramels are my best yet :)

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