I love birthdays, mostly because they provide me with the perfect excuse to indulge in baking something extravagant and rich. For my friend Dan’s birthday, I made vodka nectarine cupcakes; for Gillian’s, a double layer Victoria sponge. This past weekend, my friend Brian turned 21 and to commemorate his entry into manhood, I made him lots of mini-cheesecakes.
Now before you go all soft and say things like, “Awww. That’s so sweet,” or “You’re such a good friend,” remember that my motives are completely selfish. I mean, I care that it is their birthday. But baking is my drug and people with birthdays, are my enablers. It gives me the chance to try out new recipes and intriguing combinations of taste (oh, if only I had an ice cream maker – brown butter gelato , how I want you!) and justify it under the rubric of friendship. Brian gave me his dessert parameters: strawberries and chocolate, and I went to work.
I found a variety of ideas for tortes, flourless chocolate cakes, standard chocolate cakes, yet none of them seemed quite decadent and exciting enough. I can be an absolute snob when it comes to food, especially regarding desserts. I refuse to use boxed mixes and will not touch cake bought from a grocery store. While all of these sounded delicious, they didn’t have the “Wow” factor I was looking for.
But then I found this recipe. It looked beautiful. The rich velvet brown ganache lay atop the soft pink of the cheesecake with swirls of strawberries offered as punctuation marks. The only problem? I didn’t have my 9 inch springform pan with me, but thanks to some cleverness on my part and America’s inescapable obsession with cupcakes, I made mini cupcake cheesecakes. They were the perfect serving size, baked in half the time and were much easier to eat. Brian sunk into a pit of happiness upon having one, as did his roommates, and then promptly stowed the rest of the batch somewhere in his room.
Strawberry Cheesecakes with Chocolate Ganache
10 oz. frozen strawberries
2 tbsp sugar
2 tsp lemon juice
Animal Cracker Crust:
1 ½ cups crushed animal crackers
1 stick unsalted butter, melted
3 tbsp sugar
¼ tsp salt
2 8 oz. packages of cream cheese, room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs, room temperature
1 ½ tsp vanilla
¼ tsp salt
12 oz. sour cream
2/3 cup strawberry puree
8 oz. dark chocolate (around 70% cacao) (also most people use 4 oz….but I really like my chocolate)
¾ cup cream
½ egg, beaten
Strawberry Puree: In a small saucepan, cook strawberries over medium heat to release liquid. Cook down to 1/3 of volume, stirring and mashing with a spoon. Add sugar and continue to cook. Mix with lemon juice.
Crust: Preheat oven to 400 F. Meanwhile, on a clean surface, crush animal crackers with a rolling pin. Combine crumbs, sugar and melted butter in a mixing bowl. Press crumbs into the bottom of pan or into the muffin cups to form a firm, even crust. Bake 10-15 minutes for mini cheesecakes and 15-20 minutes for larger cheesecakes or until golden. Remove from oven and allow to cool.
Strawberry Cheesecake: Turn down oven to 350 F. Beat the softened cream cheese and sugar together until smooth and creamy (approximately 3 minutes). Add eggs, one at a time, beating in fully. Add vanilla and salt. Beat in sour cream. Fold in strawberry puree. For mini-cheesecakes, fill cups just to the top and bake 15-20 minutes or until firm on top and golden around the edges. Same for larger cheesecake, but bake 45-50 minutes.
Ganache: 5-10 minutes before removing the cheesecake, break chocolate up in chunks and place in a bowl. Set aside. In a small saucepan, bring cream just to the point of boiling, remove from heat and pour over chocolate. Let sit for a few minutes and then whisk together to form a smooth cream. Whisk ½ egg in. Spread over hot cheesecakes with a knife (do not pour it all on a once, otherwise you could break your cheesecakes in the middle. Bake 3-5 minutes or until ganache is set on sides. Fridge for at least 8 hours.
Garnish with fresh strawberries and a sprig of mint.
Makes 20-24 mini cheesecake cuplets or 2 normal-sized cheesecakes.