Saturday, December 19, 2009

Secret Ingredients: Sour Cream & Citrus

I had been hearing about Herald Top Chef for a couple of years now and since I had become a self-proclaimed chef in training and blogger for, I felt it was only proper that I join in on this year’s competition.

Our Executive Editor, Anders Gyllenhaal picked the secret ingredients and they were – sour cream and citrus.

Being the newbie, I assumed you had to use both ingredients (which I still think should be a requirement), and I went home to read every recipe in Cocina al Minuto until I found one that contained both citrus and sour cream.

I read the book for over an hour and could only come up with one.
And, it didn’t even have citrus – it is made with strawberries and pear but for this one time, it was time to alter the recipe and switch out the pear for mandarin orange. And key limes. Key lime makes everything taste better.

To be honest, I had no idea that a Pastel de Queso y Frutas was a cheesecake with fruit on top. I just call it "chiscay" (chees-cay) in Spanish.

Fancy shmantzy Nitza with her pastel de queso. What is this thing supposed to look like?
And this was the recipe I was going to throw my hat in the ring for?

Recipe #420: Pastel de Queso y Frutas

ingredients for pastel de queso y frutas

Four days before the competition, I gave it a dry run at home. There was no way I was going to submit this to a panel of expert judges without at least tasting what it was I was making.

Décor? I’d have to just make it up as I went along. I had a feeling this was going to be one of those fancy glossy Cuban desserts from Tia Glady’s Thanksgiving.

First things first – preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Then, you get a pound of cream cheese – a full pound, and you beat it in your stand mixer until creamy and then you add three eggs to it, one by one. Add the sugar and vanilla extract and let it keep mixing for five minutes.

Five minutes of stand mixing work? I actually got a chance to sit down.

Once it’s light and airy, you pour the mix into a 9" round pyrex and bake it for 50 minutes.
While that’s baking, you beat the sour cream, sugar and vanilla until well mixed, again, in the stand mixer.

first layer plus second layer

Once the first layer has finished baking and has cooled for about 20 minutes outside the oven, you go ahead and pour this second layer over it and bake it again for 15 minutes this time, still at 350 degrees.

Once that’s done, you get started on your fruit topping as you let the pastel cool to room temperature.

You get a bag of frozen strawberries that you have defrosted (yes, Nitza says 1 package of frozen strawberries in her list of ingredients –I almost keeled over when I read that) and put them, along with the juices that are in the bag in a saucepot. You cover the strawberries and their juices with sugar and flour and stir constantly over low heat until it thickens.

with orange slices

When you start feeling resistance while stirring, you add slices of mandarin oranges, along with the juice from one key lime and you mix it all together. Then you mash it really well with a potato masher to get all the fruit pieces broken down.

Once that fruit compote cools, you can add it to the cooled cheesecake.
Nitza then says that you add pears to the topping, but I added mandarin orange slices instead – I needed the citrus. And, it was more Florida of me to add oranges. Pears are so…Oregon.

test cheesecake

I took my test cheesecake to work the next day and shared it with anyone that would pass by. That is, anyone but those in the newsroom. After all, this was a competition and I was not about to let anyone in the newsroom know what it was that I was preparing.

So, not a peep about my recipe on Facebook, Twitter, nada. Hidden cookbook and test cheesecake under my belt, I was ready for the competition.

When Top Chef-eve rolled around, I made mini cheesecakes, as per the guidance of my food stylist, so that the cheesecake wouldn’t look mushy and destroyed when cut. Since it’s a crust-less cheesecake, it doesn’t hold up well as a pie.

I’m telling you, I don’t know what this recipe looked like in Cuba. If anyone has any photos from the past with this "chiscay" in it, please share!

I took my mini cheesecakes to the office in the morning, snuck them into the Advertising kitchen and hid them for the day.

At 4 o’clock, it was time to start the prepping. I topped them with the strawberry orange key lime mermelada (marmalade) and some key lime and orange slices for dramatic effect. I color coordinated the presentation so well, even my food stylist advisor was impressed.

closeup of mini cheesecakes

I took my dish up to the newsroom and was the first to arrive.

Rookie here was freaking out while all the veteran Herald Top Cheffers were taking it all in stride.
After I placed my entry in its proper spot, I stepped away from the tables and kept an eye out for competition. Who would I have to beat out to surprise my coworkers as the blogger that really could cook?

dessert table

Would it be the two-time reigning champion, Lisett, known for her Best in Show desserts and her Orange Brownie with Citrus Cream Frosting?

Would it be Fred Tasker and his Poor Man’s Champagne Punch he was submitting as an entry for dessert?

Fred Tasker? Really? I shouldn’t be in this competition.

Joan Chrissos from Neighbors, Niala Boodhoo from Business. All in the dessert table.

Can I take my "chiscays" back and go home?

The judges showed up and I just wanted to cringe. Not only was David Landsberg, our Publisher, a judge, but so were:
- Beverly Mills from Desperation Dinners (and Anders’ wife);
- Linda Bladholm, Miami Herald’s cook with a deep understanding of global food and culture (oh no);
- Cristina Arencibia, special food contributor to El Nuevo Herald (ay dios mio!)

I put on my best face as they called us dessert contestants to the middle of the floor. When Iron Chef Cheung asked some of us to step forward and I found myself alongside Lisset, I knew I was safe.

When he asked some of us except for Niala, Lisett and Teresa to step forward, I knew I was a gonner.

And I was. And Lisett lost too, which made me feel a wee bit better.

And Teresa won, which made me feel a whole lot better because she was a total sleeper competitor. I didn’t even know she was entering in the competition and she’s such a great person to work with, I was just elated for her and her Torta de Queso Coronada, which, by the way, I didn’t even try because I had only tried the shoe-in, Lisett's Orange Brownie!

And that was the end of my first competition. No consolation prizes, no second places, no nothing. Teresa was Top Chef Dessert and that was it!

teresa's torta de queso coronada

At the end of the day, it was a fun event. Everyone participating had a great time and my dear friend Silvi even won with her total random entry of Cuban Black Beans and Rice with a dollop of sour cream and citrus zest (not that her dish was random, it was her last minute decision to enter that was random). Those beans give my mother in law’s beans a run for their money.

So, at in the end, it was another recipe made, a first experience at a competition and a newfound respect for anyone that has to prepare food to be consumed en masse.

Herald Top Chef I may not be, at least not this year. But wait until the secret ingredient next year ends up being Patagrás cheese and chicharrones – two of Nitza’s most commonly used ingredients. Now we’re talking!

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