CLASSIC CHEESECAKE W/ SOUR CREAM TOPPING

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Last year, I featured a cocktail recipe that was inspired by my trip to Berlin, Germany back in 2016. I won’t go into detail again about the trip (you can quickly read about it here if you’d like), but I spoke about how I had received an issue for Bon Appétit the month before leaving for Berlin, and luckily enough, that particular issue had an article dedicated to Berlin’s coolest neighborhoods and the best places to eat, drink and hang out. Besides taking the amazing advice to hit up an all-day cafe called ORA in Kreuzberg, I made a mental note to partake in the German ritual called “kaffee and kuchen”, translating to coffee and cake, that Bon Appétit mentioned. It essentially means having a meal between meals and simply is an excuse to relax and enjoy a cup of coffee and snack in the afternoon. Bon Appétit said that the best place to partake in this was a spot called Five Elephant, and that you had to get a slice of their cheesecake. So, before Alex and I were heading to a late lunch (at Burgermeister - another spot I strongly suggest visiting) we decided to make the journey to Five Elephant for afternoon Americanos and a slice of cheesecake.

Americanos and cheesecake at Five Elephant in Kreuzberg, Berlin

Americanos and cheesecake at Five Elephant in Kreuzberg, Berlin

And let me tell you: it was without a doubt one of my favorite meals of the trip. It was a beautiful day with perfect weather and we took our coffees and slice of cheesecake and sat at a table outside surrounded by locals. The cheesecake lived up to its reputation and we tried our hardest not to eat the entire thing before heading to our next meal. I’m pretty sure we failed.

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When I came home from the trip, I filled my mom in on everything that we did, including the best cheesecake I had ever had. When I showed her the picture of our cheesecake and coffee (the picture above), she noticed that the cheesecake had a layer of sour cream on top, which she told me was exactly the same way her mother (who was Czech) made it. My Babi (grandmother in Czech) sadly passed away when I was 10, so I don’t always remember the amazing desserts that she made, so her cheesecake had completely slipped my mind. Actually, what I regret most is that my little lazy kid self wasn’t more interested in helping my Babi out in the kitchen - I would have loved to have learned to bake all her Czech desserts. But luckily, I have my aunts and mom to call on when I need a “Babi” recipe, since they saved all of her recipe books and clippings from newspapers and magazines, and it was my aunts who helped me with getting Babi’s cheesecake recipe.

Earlier this week, when I took the first bite of my interpretation of Babi’s cheesecake, I was immediately transported back to Kreuzberg. Babi’s recipe tastes exactly like what I had at Five Elephant, and now every time I’ll bake it in the future, not only will it remind me of my time in Berlin and the wonderful trip I had there, but it also will be a tribute to Babi and will allow me to bring her back to life (in my kitchen at least). When I gave a piece of the cheesecake to my mom, she was ecstatic and quite emotional that she was able to taste that flavor again since she hasn’t had it since Babi passed away. I truly cannot wait to pass these recipes and my own onto my kids and grandkids and I just hope that they develop a passion for baking as I did.

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The cheesecake filling itself is extremely simple with only 4 ingredients - cream cheese, granulated sugar, eggs and vanilla extract. I usually recommend doing a water bath but since this is a smaller cheesecake, it only bakes for about 30 minutes, half the time compared to my other recipes. So therefore, I feel like going to the trouble of preparing the water bath isn’t worth the extra time or effort. I also made this cheesecake twice, once with a water bath and once without, and funny enough, I preferred the texture of the cheesecake without the water bath. AND although a water bath also aides in preventing cracks from occurring, there’s no need to worry about that due to the sour cream topping. The topping, consisting of sour cream, granulated sugar and vanilla extract, is poured over the baked and slightly cooled cheesecake, and then popped back into the oven for another 8-10 minutes. So any cracks or imperfections are hidden underneath the topping. And if for some reason your sour cream topping isn’t as smooth as you’d like, cover the top with fruit and you’re good to go.

If you’re not completely sold on the sour cream topping, trust me, it makes the cheesecake SO much better by adding more creaminess and tanginess. If you want, you can use less of the sour cream ( instead of a whole pint, you can use half) and just make a thinner layer.

P.S. interested in another Czech dessert? Here’s a recipe for palacinky aka Czech crêpes.

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Classic Cheesecake with Sour Cream Topping

Makes (1) 9in. or 10 in. cheesecake

Recipe adapted from my Babi and aunt!

Ingredients

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For the crust:

  • 1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs

  • 3 tbsp. light brown sugar

  • 1 tsp. ground cinnamon

  • 5 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted

For the filling:

  • 2 (8 oz.) packages of full-fat cream cheese, room temperature

  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar

  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract

  • 3 large eggs, room temperature

For the sour cream topping

  • 1 pint (16 oz.) sour cream

  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar

  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract

Directions

Make the crust:

  1. Move the oven rack to the lower-middle position and preheat the oven to 350°F.

  2. In a bowl, mix the graham cracker crumbs, brown sugar, ground cinnamon, and melted butter and transfer to a 9 or 10 in. springform pan. Using the back of a measuring cup, firmly press the crust mixture into the bottom of the pan as well as the sides. Try to get the crust as evenly spread as possible. If the sides aren’t perfect, no worries.

  3. Bake in the oven for 9-10 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool while preparing the filling. Keep the oven on at 350°F.

Make the filling:

  1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large bowl if using a hand mixer) beat the cream cheese on medium speed for 2 minutes, and then add in the sugar and cream together for a few more minutes until no lumps remain. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.

  2. Add the eggs one at a time on low speed, making sure each one is incorporated into the mixture before adding the next. Add the vanilla extract and mix until just combined. Turn off the mixer and finish mixing the filling using a spatula, making sure to get anything that may be down at the bottom of the bowl (this area usually gets left untouched when using a mixer). Pour the cheesecake filling into the pan and spread it evenly.

  3. Bake the cheesecake for 20-25 minutes. The center of the cheesecake will still have a wiggle to it, but the outer edges will be set. Take the cheesecake out of the oven and allow it to cool for about 15-20 minutes. Meanwhile, turn the oven temperature up to 450°F.

Make the sour cream topping:

  1. In a medium-sized bowl, whisk the sour cream, granulated sugar and vanilla extract together. Slowly pour the mixture over the top of the slightly cooled cheesecake and spread evenly using an offset spatula.

  2. Place the cheesecake bake in the oven and bake for 8-10 more minutes.

  3. Allow the cheesecake to cool completely before transferring it to the refrigerator. Refrigerate the cake overnight/at least 8 hours before slicing into it.

VICTORIA SPONGE CAKE

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Another trip to Portland, Maine has come and gone, and once again I’m counting down the days until Alex and I can return. This being our third time visiting Portland, we went with the plan of hitting up our favorite spots that we miss while back at home (Bonobo for our favorite pizza, Belleville for the best croissants I’ve ever had, Ruski’s for drinks, etc.), but made it a point to try things that we never had time to try on prior trips. And thanks to finally having a rental car, we were able to leave the peninsula and see places that I always had wished to.

Among these must-see places were: Palace Diner in Biddeford for a perfect breakfast set in a 15-seat dining car; driving up to Yarmouth to check out More and Co. - a shop that sells amazing ceramics and glassware.; and hiking around Mackworth Island, where fairies apparently live (don’t ask). But most importantly, with a car, we were able to make the trek up north to see Mount Desert Island, home to Acadia National Park. Since we only spent one night in MDI, I don’t have that many tips** on what to do or see (besides the basic tourist-y locations in the park), and therefore, I won’t be giving a guide for MDI. BUT, I did update my Portland City Guide post and added some new spots that I deemed worthy of checking out, with a few of them being a short car ride away from the peninsula.

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And now, it’s time for baking again. Leading up to our trip to Maine and the week after we came home, I tried my best to eat as “cleanly” as possible. This pretty much meant no sweets, dairy, or alcohol, which was a lot easier than I thought it would be especially since Alex joined me in on this “detox”. But it also meant taking a mini break away from the blog because what fun is it to post something for you guys when I can’t eat it? No fun at all.

Today’s recipe is for a cake that I didn’t even know existed until watching an episode of the Great British Bake Off - the only baking competition show that I enjoy and cherish. I won’t go into detail about the show because I’m sure most of you have at least heard about it, but if you haven’t given the show a watch yet, I strongly recommend you do so (all the episodes are available on Netflix). In one of the season finales, the remaining three contestants had to make a quintessential British cake called a Victoria Sandwich, also known as a Victoria sponge cake. This very traditional layer cake has been around since the Victorian era and is essentially two sponge cakes with raspberry jam and/or a whipped cream OR buttercream frosting sandwiched between, with a generous dusting of confectioners’ sugar on top.

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There is much debate on what is most traditional - having a whipped cream or buttercream frosting filling - and after some research, it honestly seems like it’s split down the middle. On the GBBO, the contestants were asked to make one of the judge’s, Mary Berry, version of the simple cake, with raspberry jam and a buttercream frosting. But today, I am giving you a recipe with a whipped cream filling and instead of raspberry, a strawberry jam. I felt like adding a buttercream frosting would make the cake too decadent and I wanted my cake to be more reminiscent of a strawberry shortcake, which is light and fresh. As for using strawberry jam instead of raspberry, that’s due to my preference over the two as well as how amazing the strawberries have been recently at my local farmers market. Therefore, I also added fresh strawberries to the filling, which definitely isn’t the standard, but I think a welcomed addition.

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This recipe is kind of perfect to me due to the fact that it is equal parts easy to bake, beautiful to look at, and insanely delicious. Those three vital components are what I look for in recipes and its those dishes that I continue to bake time and time again. The cake layers come together rather quickly (only bake in the oven for less than 30 minutes) and nothing is easier than making fresh whipped cream and cutting up strawberries. If you want to make your own jam, by all means go ahead, but if we really want to call this a simple and quick recipe, store bought will definitely come in handy.

The two layers of sponge cake should be as identical as possible due to the fact that there’s no hiding any flaws that would normally be covered up with frosting. Much like my carrot cake, a Victoria sponge cake is “naked” and therefore you want to make sure the layers are even so the cake looks uniform. But as for the filling, I like having it more rustic-looking with the whipped cream and jam spilling out, especially when you slice into the cake. In my opinion, I think it makes the cake look more appetizing since the ingredients are more on display. The contrast of the perfect cake layers with a “messy” filling makes it that much more beautiful.

If you’d like to go more traditional, then definitely stick with the raspberry jam, or you can fill it with any other jam/fruit that your heart desires. I plan on making a couple Victoria sponge cakes for my sister’s baby shower in July (yes, I’m going to be an aunt!) with one being filled with an assortment of berries and another filled with an in-season stone fruit like apricots or peaches.

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(*My only tip is to go to Momo’s Cheesecakes in Ellsworth, Maine. It’s a shop located in a garage that is open 24/7 with an assortment of cheesecake slices to choose from. Alex and I got a slice of blueberry cheesecake (which we immediately ate outside the garage at 10 am) and were genuinely disappointed in ourselves for not having more cash on us… it’s cash only and an honor system, meaning you drop the cash in a little box since no one is working the shop at all hours of the day. 10/10 recommend and now I kind of want to open up my own 24/7 cheesecake shop).

Victoria Sponge Cake

Yields (1) 8-inch layer cake

Recipe adapted from the New York Times

Ingredients

  • 1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour

  • 3 1/4 tsp. baking powder

  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt

  • 12 tbsp. (1.5 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

  • 3/4 cup plus 2 tbsp. granulated sugar

  • 3 large eggs, room temperature

  • 2 tbsp. milk, whole or 2% preferably

  • 1/2 - 3/4 cup strawberry jam, homemade or store bought (no judgement!)

  • 1 cup heavy cream

  • 1 tbsp. granulated sugar

  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

  • 8 oz. fresh strawberries, hulled and sliced in half or quarter, depending on size (save some for garnish)

  • Confectioners’ sugar, for topping

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease two 8-inch cake pans and line the bottoms with parchment paper. Set aside.

  2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and kosher salt.

  3. Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large bowl if using a hand mixer) cream the butter and sugar together on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2-3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, and mix fully until adding each one. Pour in the milk and mix again. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.

  4. With the mixer off, pour in the flour mixture and mix until just combined. Evenly distribute the batter between the two cake pans (a scale would be useful here) and smooth the tops using a spatula.

  5. Bake in the oven for 25-30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean. Allow the cakes to cool in the pan for about 10 minutes before transferring to a cooling rack. Let the cakes cool completely before adding the filling.

  6. Meanwhile, make the whipped cream. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whisk the heavy cream, granulated sugar and vanilla extract until stiff peaks are formed.

  7. Take one of the cake layers (preferably the least attractive of the two) and place it on your desired cake stand or plate. Spread an even layer of the jam over the cake using an offset spatula or butterknife. Next, add about 3/4 of the whipped cream and spread evenly over the jam - leftover whipped cream can be used for serving. Over the whipped cream, arrange a layer of the fresh strawberries as evenly as possible. Place the second sponge cake on top and dust with confectioners’ sugar. Enjoy!

MY FAVORITE BANANA BREAD

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April has been a pretty exciting and busy month so far, but the best has yet to come. This Friday, even though I’ve lived in southern California all my life (minus college time), I am finally visiting Joshua Tree for the first time ever! How I made it almost 30 years without venturing to one of the most popular and beautiful deserts in the state (and country!) is beyond me, but I tend to make up for all that lost time by exploring and hiking around as much as humanly possible. And then… Alex and I will be landing in Portland, Maine on the last day of this month, so I’m pretty much counting down every day with too much excitement.

Today I’m sharing another one of my favorite standby recipes which I’m surprised took me so long to post: banana bread. I have a funny (re: picky) relationship with bananas: I absolutely do not like to eat them by itself mostly due to its texture, but I add them to my daily smoothies and I could live off of banana bread if I had the choice. It’s strange, I know, but I think that my dislike of bananas should be a testament to how good my banana bread is! If I could hate plain bananas, but love banana bread… I must be doing something right with this recipe.

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I don’t think there’s anything better than the smell of banana bread baking in the oven. I know a lot of people talk up the smell of fresh chocolate chip cookies, but I gotta say that the scent of fresh banana bread is up there as one of my most cherished scent “memories”. Even though the scent makes you want to eat the bread as soon as it comes out of the oven, I strongly advise against this! I come from the mindset that banana bread is 100 times better the next day and the next day after that. The longer the bread sits, the banana flavor intensifies. And speaking of bananas, I want you to wait to use your bananas until they look like fruit flies are going to eat them. Sorry for the gross visual, but the riper the bananas are, the more flavor and sweetness we’ll get from the fruit. I feel like this wait period is what sets a good banana bread from an exceptional one.

It took me a while to find my favorite version of banana bread, but the one I’m giving today is by far the best one I’ve ever come across. We all have our personal preferences when it comes to the popular loaf cake: some believe that adding chocolate chips is a must; some believe that adding yogurt or sour cream will give it the best moist texture; and some think nuts aren’t necessary. I believe that the best banana bread doesn’t have chocolate (I feel like it overpowers the banana flavor too much), needs sour cream for flavor and texture, and pecans must be added for a much needed crunch in each bite. Besides that, I don’t have any other notes or suggestions for this recipe! It’s pretty straight-forward, but trust me, it’ll quickly become a staple in your household after inhaling an entire slice.

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My Personal Favorite Banana Bread

Yields (1) 9x5” Loaf Cake

Recipe adapted from Epicurious

Ingredients

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  • 1 2/3 cup all-purpose flour

  • 1 tsp. ground cinnamon

  • 1/2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg (ground will work as well)

  • 1 tsp. baking powder

  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda

  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature

  • 1 cup dark brown sugar, packed

  • 2 large eggs, room temperature

  • 4 large ripe bananas (about 2 cups), peeled and mashed with a fork

  • 1/4 cup sour cream

  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract

  • 1 cup toasted pecans, roughly chopped

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350° F. Grease a 9x5” loaf pan with nonstick cooking spray (alternatively, you can butter and flour the pan). Set aside.

  2. In a large bowl, sift together the flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Whisk to fully combine it.

  3. Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and brown sugar together on medium speed until light and fluffy, a couple minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing until each one is fully incorporated until adding the next. Add the mashed bananas, sour cream, and vanilla extract. Mix on medium speed until combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.

  4. Slowly add the dry ingredients to the stand mixer bowl while on low speed. Mix until the ingredients are fully incorporated. Using a spatula, fold in the chopped pecans.

  5. Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan and smooth the top using a spatula. Bake in the oven for 60-65 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through. When ready, the bread will be a deep golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center should come out clean. Allow the bread to cool in the pan on a cooling rack for 15 minutes. Run a butter knife around the perimeter of the bread and carefully turn it out onto a plate or platter.