Challenged Finale! Coffee Turtle Cheesecake

Turtle Cheesecake 011 Edited Challenged Finale! Coffee Turtle Cheesecake

The final round of the five Willow Bird Baking challenges required contestants make a cheesecake. Since Julie is the queen of cheesecakes – featuring selections like Red Velvet and Sticky Toffee Pudding cheesecakes on her blog – I should have seen this coming. I, on the other, am lukewarm at best about the dessert. Then she threw in the requirement to bake something representative of our personal culinary journey. What is that exactly, and how do I get one?

I have said many a time that I am not a “foodie”. Words like “scrumptious” or “delectable” simply do not fill my brain when I am called upon to describe food. Though I look forward to a meal at a really good restaurant, I also enjoy eating pizza from the grocery’s freezer aisle. What the heck and I doing writing a “food” blog?

I am still looking for the answer to that one too. Maybe it was because I was bored to tears with work. Perhaps I just needed a creative outlet. Some people thrive off creating drama in their lives. It very well could be that I like inflicting pain upon myself in the form of continually failing at recipes.

Though I have no formal training and in anything I do here – cooking, writing or photography – people visit from time to time. I can’t say why I started this blog, but I can safely say I keep it up because I value the community, connections, and new friendships it has brought to my life. So thank you for keeping me going.

Turtle Cheesecake 024 Edited Challenged Finale! Coffee Turtle Cheesecake

I chose to craft a turtle cheesecake simply because a good family friend makes these bad boys, and they are to die for. And that’s coming from someone who is not a big fan of cheesecake! It is also worth noting that aside from watching my grandmothers and mother cook, the first thought of a culinary journey outside of my family extend to her.

As a teenager, I remember spending an evening where she tried to teach a few of us to cook. I fear we probably spent more time playing with the dog and just generally messing around. She was also the first person I ever saw use dental floss (not mint flavor!) to cut pieces of cake. This trick also works well for cinnamon-type rolls (see Challenge 1), though I inconveniently forgot about that until well after I made mine.

Why the coffee? Because I never made a coffee cheesecake before and that sounded good. As I was making the filling, complete with a layer of chocolate ganache as suggested, I remembered coffee is certainly indicative of my earliest tastes. As a young child, I used to make a point of drinking a half cup when I visited my grandma, despite warnings it would stunt my growth and perhaps put hair on my chest. Maybe I was just trying to act grown up, but I loved the flavor of the hard coffee candies she had sitting out as well.

The only things I recall loving as much as those coffee candies, were red hot cinnamon disks, tiny Chicklets and those big, red NutraSweet gumballs that used to come in the mail. Hmm, what about gumball cheesecake? Ideas like that are precisely why I should probably not be writing a food blog. Yet since I do, enjoy!

Turtle Cheesecake 016 Edited Challenged Finale! Coffee Turtle Cheesecake

Coffee Turtle Cheesecake Finale
  • For the Crust
  • 2 heaping cups graham cracker crumbs (about two sleeves worth)
  • 6 tablespoons butter, melted
  • For the Ganache
  • ¾ cups heavy cream
  • 10 ounces chocolate chips
  • For the Cheesecake Filling
  • 1 tablespoon instant coffee granules
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1½ teaspoons light molasses
  • 3, 8-ounce packages cream cheese, softened
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1½ tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 3 large eggs
  • Aluminum foil, for baking
  • For the Topping (measurments approximate)
  • 1-2 tablespoons pecans
  • 1-2 tablespoons mini chocolate chips
  • caramel sauce, enough to drizzle
  1. Combine the graham cracker crumbs and melted butter in a small bowl.
  2. Mix thoroughly to moisten all of the crumbs.
  3. Press the mixture into a thin layer covering the bottom and sides (about 2.5 to 3 inches high) of a lightly greased springform cheesecake pan. Use a flat-sided glass to get the crust even and thin.
  4. Bake the crust in a 350 degree F oven for about 6 minutes, then allow to cool while preparing the ganache.
  5. Bring the cream to a simmer in a medium saucepan.
  6. Place the chocolate in a medium bowl.
  7. Once the cream reaches a simmer, pour it over the chocolate and let stand 1-2 minutes.
  8. Whisk in small circles until a smooth ganache has formed.
  9. Pour 1½ to 2 cups of the ganache over the bottom of the crust (leftovers are good for eating or decorating).
  10. Place the ganache-laden crust in the freezer until firm, about 30 minutes.
  11. Meanwhile, prepare the cheesecake filling.
  12. In a small bowl, combine the coffee granules, vanilla extract and molasses.
  13. Allow to sit until dissolved, stirring as needed.
  14. Beat the cream cheese and sugar on medium speed until well blended.
  15. Next add the flour and dissolved coffee flavor and mix until well incorporated, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.
  16. Beat in the eggs one at a time until very well combined throughout the mixture.
  17. Pour the filling into the crust.
  18. Line the bottom outside edges of the pan with aluminum foil, then place the entire springform pan in a 9 x 13 baking dish.
  19. Fill the baking dish with about two inches of water. Make sure water does not get into the cheesecake mixture. It should also not top the edges of the foil lining the springform pan.
  20. Return the cheesecake dish to the oven and bake until the top is lightly browned, puffed and cracked at the edges, about 40-50 minutes. The center should move only very slightly when the pan is gently shaken.
  21. Remove the cheesecake and allow to cool.
  22. Before serving, sprinkle the top with pecans and mini chocolate chips.
  23. Complete with a drizzle of caramel sauce over the top.
One bag of mini chocolate chips should provide enough for the ganache and the topping.


Cooking Hard Stuff: Lemon Gratins

IMG 2874 Edited Edited Cooking Hard Stuff: Lemon Gratins

My friend Libby recently sent me an email to ask if I had ever made a gratin. Since I instantly thought of potatoes upon reading the word gratin, and Libby’s gratin was a lemon dessert, my answer was a definitive no. Libby described the Meyer Lemon Gratin she tried at Cameron’s American Bistro as one of the best things she’d ever tasted. Not just one of the best desserts she’d ever tasted, but one of the best foods she’d ever tasted.  I was sold.

Though I knew I would try to make the lemon gratin because 1) Libby asked, 2) Libby said it was delicious, and 3)  it gave me a reason to buy ramekins, I put it off in favor of other things. I started to plan on making the gratin in June to celebrate my first year of blogging.  Then I read a blog post Julie at Willow Bird Baking wrote about Cooking Hard Stuff. I thought it was timely in regards to the gratin, so I bought ramekins, two pounds (two pounds!) of cream cheese, and started cooking.

IMG 2875 Edited Edited e1332983897394 Cooking Hard Stuff: Lemon Gratins

In her blog post, Julie stressed the need to read a recipe in full before beginning, and I agree whole-heartedly. We sometimes unnecessarily defeat ourselves when, mid-recipe, we realize a trip to the grocery store is needed for one crucial ingredient. Or, again mid-recipe, we encounter an unfamiliar technique or realize more time than allotted will be needed for rising or chilling or baking before any eating will occur. When cooking hard stuff, one may find the recipes are not as hard as much as they are unfamiliar.

For example, this gratin recipe requires 3 1/2 hours of bake time followed by the need to cool overnight. Throw in the need to whip and mix three separate ingredients – heavy cream, egg whites, and the cream cheese mixture – and you could find yourself frustrated if you did not plan how to use your mixer in advance. Then realize the mixture bakes in ramekins placed in a water bath, and you might be ready to throw in the towel. Oh, and did I mention the ingredient list calls for two pounds (!) of cream cheese? Reading the recipe in advance removes the elements of surprise as they relate to time, ingredients, and techniques so cooking and baking may commence accordingly.

IMG 2876 Edited Edited Cooking Hard Stuff: Lemon Gratins

I wrote the recipe below to reflect how I made my lemon gratins. As you read through it before you begin, you may decide to do things in a different order, like whip the egg whites and whipped cream before beating the cream cheese. Or maybe you may want to place your ramekins in the pan before you fill them with the gratin mixture. Do whatever works for you.

The original recipe states, “The hardest part of this recipe is figuring out exactly how long it should cook. When done correctly, the top should just be firm to the touch, not be browned or cracked.” Well, so much for that. After about an hour and a half, the tops of my gratins were slightly browned. I do a great deal of guessing with my oven, but I did not expect browned tops with two hours of bake time left. I elected to carry on, and the condition of the gratins worsened only minimally.

IMG 2856 Edited Cooking Hard Stuff: Lemon Gratins

Correctly baked gratins should not have browned or cracked tops. Oops!

Not only did my gratins look fairly ugly just out of the oven, I didn’t do them any favors by turning them out of the ramekins. I prettied them up the best I could with a whipped cream garnish and a bed of citrus slices. Next time, I might just serve the gratin in the ramekins.

Though my gratins turned out much less lovely than I had hoped, and I was unable to find Meyer Lemons at my local stores, they still tasted delightful. Sweet, lemony, and smooth – a taste that deepened and improved as the week wore on. I used regular lemons, though Meyer lemons are sweeter and more flavorful. I simply didn’t want to use their lack of availability as an excuse not to cook some hard stuff.

IMG 2866 Edited Cooking Hard Stuff: Lemon Gratins

Remind me why I removed the gratins from their happy ramekin homes.

By now some of you may be wondering about the difference between a gratin and a cheesecake. I certainly was after baking two pounds of cream cheese flavored with citrus and sweetened with sugar. The closest I could come to an answer was the English word gratin translates to “grate” in French, and a gratin is a dish cooked to a brown crust. Cast in that light, my golden brown gratin crusts don’t seem so bad.

Someday, when I own an oven with a properly calibrated temperature (I’m pretty sure mine is off) and a door with a window (so I can see my baked foods without opening the door and disturbing them), I will try this again.

Were the gratins pretty? No. Were the gratins tasty?  Yes.  Are gratins worth trying on your own? Definitely!

IMG 2870 Edited Edited e1332984219628 Cooking Hard Stuff: Lemon Gratins


Lemon Gratin
Recipe type: Dessert
  • 2 pounds cream cheese
  • 1¾ cup sugar
  • 2 (Meyer) lemons, juiced and zested
  • ½ orange, juiced and zested
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1½ teaspoons vanilla
  • 3 egg whites
  • ¾ cup heavy cream
  • 2 teaspoons sour cream
  • if desired, additional whipped cream for garnish
  1. In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the cream cheese, sugar, and the lemon and orange zests.
  2. Beat until very smooth, about four to five minutes.
  3. Add the lemon and orange juices, egg yolks, and the vanilla to the cream cheese mixture.
  4. Continue to beat until well blended.
  5. While the mixtures combine, place the heavy cream in a medium bowl and use a hand mixer to beat until the cream is whipped.
  6. Then place the egg whites in a separate medium bowl and use the hand mixer to beat to stiff peaks.
  7. Fold the whipped cream and the sour cream into the smooth cream cheese mixture.
  8. Then fold in whipped egg whites and gently mix until blended.
  9. Prepare six, 10 ounce ramekins by coating the insides with vegetable spray then coating with sugar.
  10. Ladle about 8 ounces of the mixture into each sugared ramekin and smooth the surface.
  11. Place the ramekins in a 9 x 13 pan and fill the pan with ½ inch of hot water.
  12. Bake in the oven at 300 degrees for 30 minutes.
  13. After 30 minutes, turn the heat down to 225 degrees and continue to bake for 3½ hours.
  14. When done, the gratins should be slightly firm to the touch, but not browned or cracked.
  15. Remove the ramekins from the water bath and allow to cool overnight.
  16. To serve, run a spatula or knife along the inside edge of each ramekin to separate the mixture from the side.
  17. Place upside down on serving plate and garnish as desired.


Cheatcakes! Cheesecake Cupcakes with Homemade Vanilla Wafers

SAM 1974 Edited Cheatcakes! Cheesecake Cupcakes with Homemade Vanilla Wafers

Happy National Cheesecake Day! Cheesecake is one of those desserts that makes people swoon, though personally, I am not overwhelmed by it. I usually think of cheesecake as a triangular slice of  springy, white, baked cheesy-ness resting on a graham cracker crust and topped with cherries or blueberries, though my Auntie Kathy is famous for her turtle cheesecake. I have not had one of her infamous cheesecakes in many years, but I can still picture the mountains mini chocolate chips and rivers of caramel sauce sitting atop her rich cheesecakes.

I initially thought I would bake up some cheesecake batter in mini filo shells to celebrate National Cheesecake Day. But as I was reading “I Love Cheesecake Cheatcakes! Cheesecake Cupcakes with Homemade Vanilla Wafers” by Mary Crownover, I found a recipe for individual cheesecakes, i.e) cheesecake cupcakes.

I like to refer to these cheesecake cupcakes as cheatcakes since the process of baking an entire cheesecake is not involved.  The recipe called for a vanilla wafer for each individual cake’s crust, so I figured this would also be a great opportunity to make homemade vanilla wafers.

SAM 1948 Edited Cheatcakes! Cheesecake Cupcakes with Homemade Vanilla Wafers

SAM 1956 Edited Cheatcakes! Cheesecake Cupcakes with Homemade Vanilla Wafers

Nearly every flavor of cheesecake, from Almond Coffee Swirl to White Chocolate Orange, is covered in “I Love Cheesecake.” Nearly every flavor uses a base recipe of cream cheese, sugar, cornstarch, and egg for the filling. From there, a baker can have fun with the flavor.  I opted to use the Honey Vanilla Almond recipe for my cheesecake cupcakes.

I was really impressed with how the almond flavor permeated the cake, and it was quite light and flavorful.  Today’s Taste Tester also confirmed my findings that the filling was “lighter than I expected” and noted the crust (the vanilla wafer) was “more cakey than crusty.”

I wasn’t all that sure how to best top the cheesecakes, and I found I liked spreading the whipped cream over the tops of the cupcakes as much as I liked using a decorating bag to pipe the whipped cream on the tops.  If desired, toasted whole or sliced almonds can be used as a garnish.  Enjoy!

SAM 1971 Edited Cheatcakes! Cheesecake Cupcakes with Homemade Vanilla Wafers

SAM 1968 Edited Cheatcakes! Cheesecake Cupcakes with Homemade Vanilla Wafers

SAM 1979 Edited Cheatcakes! Cheesecake Cupcakes with Homemade Vanilla Wafers


Honey Vanilla Almond Cheesecake Cupcakes with Vanilla Wafers Crust
Recipe type: Dessert
Serves: 11
  • Vanilla Wafers Crust
  • 1⅓ cups all purpose flour
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup (1 stick) butter
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • ¼ cup granulated sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • Cheesecake
  • 8 ounces (1 package) cream cheese, softened
  • ¼ cup granulated sugar
  • 2¼ teaspoons cornstarch
  • 2 tablespoons heavy cream
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
  • ½ teaspoon almond extract
  • Topping
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 2 Tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
  1. Vanilla Wafers
  2. Whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl and set aside.
  3. Cream the butter and sugars together in a large bowl.
  4. Add the egg and vanilla and beat until well incorporated.
  5. Slowly add the flour mixture and mix until well combined.
  6. Drop by rounded teaspoons onto a greased baking sheet.
  7. Bake at 325 degrees for 8-10 minutes until light golden brown.
  8. Line a cupcake pan with paper cupcake liners. Place one vanilla wafer in each liner. Set aside.
  9. Cheescake
  10. Beat cream cheese, sugar, cornstarch, heavy cream, and honey until smooth.
  11. Add the egg, vanilla and almond extracts and beat until well incorporated.
  12. When well mixed, pour approximately ¼ cup of filling over the vanilla wafer in each paper liner.
  13. Bake at 200 degrees for 45 to 50 minutes. When done, the center of the cupcakes will spring back when touched.
  14. Topping
  15. Beat the heavy cream, vanilla, and confectioners’ sugar together at high speed until the cream thickens to stiff speaks.
  16. Spread or pipe over the cupcakes when they have cooled.
Vanilla Wafers recipe adapted from Baking Bites Cheesecake recipe adapted from I Love Cheesecake, by Mary Crownover