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Baking as art

Vera DawsonVail CO, Colorado
Summit Daily/Kristin Anderson
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I think of baking as a visual art. One of its main attractions for me is the challenge within each baking project to create something that is as pleasurable to look at as it is satisfying to eat.This pastry is a good example. If you use an artistic approach when creating the swirls of jam amidst the white cheesecake topping, the results can be delightful to behold. But don’t think this cheesecake bar is just a pretty face; I want more than that from my efforts. These cookies taste pretty darn good! The combination of the pecan crust and the rich, smooth texture of the cheesecake topping is delicious. I guarantee that you’ll be greeted with a whole lot of “Mmmmmms” if you make them. The cheesecake bars are fancy enough to serve as the final course for a nice dinner. They make a particularly smashing dessert tray when presented in paper cups and paired with some upscale brownies. These will stay in the refrigerator for a day or two, so you can make them ahead.

Cheesecake barsAdjusted for altitudes between 8,000 and 10,000 feetMake in a 9X13 baking panIngredientsCrust1 1/2 cups of flour3/4 cup of sugar1/2 teaspoon of salt1/2 teaspoon of baking powder12 tablespoons of unsalted butter (this is one and a half sticks or six ounces), cold if making in the food processor; at room temperature if making with an electric mixer or by hand1 cup of pecans, toasted and chopped fine

Filling16 ounces of cream cheese (two eight ounce packages), regular or low fat, at room temperature3/4 cup of sugar1 1/4 teaspoons of vanilla2 large eggs1/4 cup of raspberry or strawberry jam, whichever you preferStep One: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, with a rack in the middle position. Line the 9X13 baking pan with Reynold’s Release Aluminum foil or regular aluminum foil. If using regular foil, grease and flour it well. Let the foil hang over two opposing sides of the pan by several inches, providing you with handles you can use to remove the baked pastry.Step Two: Make the crust: To do so in the food processor, place the flour, sugar, salt and baking powder in the bowl. Pulse to combine completely. Cut the cold butter into 12 pieces and add to the bowl along with the toasted pecan pieces. Pulse until big, moist crumbs are formed. Stop before a ball of smooth dough is created.To make the crust with a mixer or by hand: Place the flour, sugar, salt and baking powder in a medium sized bowl and stir briefly to mix. Cut the room temperature butter into pieces and add it to the dry ingredients, mixing until combined. Stir in the finely chopped pecans.

For both methods: Pour the dough in the lined baking pan and press it into a level, even, smooth layer. I use my hands to do this, wetting them if the dough sticks. You may also cover the dough with plastic wrap and smooth it with your hands or press it smooth with a smaller baking pan (a 9 inch loaf pan works well).Step Three: Bake the crust in the preheated oven for about 12-15 minutes, until it is set. If it puffs up while baking, gently push it down with the back of a soup spoon or metal spatula. Remove the pan from the oven and let it cool on a rack for 15 minutes. Leave the oven on.Step Four: Make the filling while the crust cools: Cut the softened cream cheese into 8-10 pieces and place in a medium bowl with the sugar. Beat with an electric mixer or medium speed or by hand until smooth. Don’t overbeat or the cream cheese may get runny. Add the eggs and vanilla and beat gently until thoroughly combined.Step Five: Pour the filling over the crust and level and smooth the top. Stir the jam or warm it slightly so it is spreadable. Drop teaspoon-sized amounts of it over the surface of the filling, spacing them so the there are dots of jam all over the filling. Swirl the jam into irregular shapes, using the back of a table knife or a skewer. Keep the knife/skewer on the surface of the pastry; you don’t want to cut into the crust while swirling the jam.Step Six: Bake the bars from 20-22 minutes, only until the filling is set. The center should still jiggle a bit. Step Seven: Remove the bars from the oven and place them on a cooling rack. Grease or butter a metal spatula or bench knife (Greasing will prevent the filling from sticking to it) and run it around the edges of the pan to keep cracks from forming on the surface as the bars cool. Step Eight: Let the bars cool for about an hour at room temperature. Then, place them in the refrigerator to chill completely and become firm before cutting. This will take at least 4 hours; leaving them overnight works well. Final Step: Once chilled, you can either cut them in the pan or use the foil handles to carefully remove the uncut bars and then slice them. Use a sharp, thin knife to cut them and wipe it clean between each cut.This is an adaptation of a recipe from The Essential Cookie Cookbook, by King Arthur FlourVera Dawson lives in Summit County, where she bakes almost every day. Her recipes have been tested in her home kitchen and, whenever necessary, altered until they work at our altitude. Contact Dawson with comments about this column and/or your baking questions at veradawson@aol.com


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