Sunday, July 19, 2015

In Pursuit of the Perfect Cheese Pastry

First, a brief note as to our absence of late: We're still alive! Still biking, boating, gardening, cooking, camping and generally having fun, mostly. We have, though, in the last 8 months, been sort of derailed a bit from our regular routine of fun, fun, fun and more fun: Zeek had a quarter of his lower jaw bone removed last November because of cancer, and two more tumors of the same type popped up very recently. And Sprocket came down with Valley Fever in March, after our last Arizona trip. Naturally, we've been very focused on taking care of them and getting them through what we hope was the worst of their illnesses. Things are as under control as they can be at this point, so we'll likely have the mental energy to resume more of a presence here, including more on the dog dramas at a later date. For now, the boys are doing a lot of recuperating and just enough playing, and I'm taking comfort in baking while they rest:

In Pursuit of the Perfect Cheese Pastry
by Trina

Greg isn’t really one for planning. He enjoys the spontaneity of winging it and going with the flow. He’ll show up in an unknown country with his bike and some camping gear, pick a direction at random, and start riding. He loves seeing what surprises are in store for him when he just lets things unfold as they will. Plus, planning is hard. I’m 99% happy to wing it as well, and I, too, find that if you leave things unplanned, you are likely to stumble upon much more magical experiences than anything you could’ve conceived of in advance and from afar.

Proceeding in this manner, we frequently find ourselves stumbling upon secret hidden treasures that we would never have known to seek out: unlikely little creeks bursting out of the side of a mountain; bike-able trails that aren’t on any map; vugs in the sparse, arid desert that are full of water and teeming with odd and unfamiliar lifeforms; incredible handmade cheese in the Baja farm country; the world’s best cheese pastry in a homely Mexican cafĂ© in a mostly abandoned Southern Arizona border town:

…which brings me to the 1% where I’m not willing to risk missing something because I didn’t know where to look for it: cheese pastries.

It doesn’t take much research to find, in advance, the “best bakeries” or “ethnic bakeries” or “gourmet bakeries” or “best cheese danish” in a town, state or country you’re going to visit. Doing this tiny bit of advance planning allows your route to be dictated by the locations of bakeries, and you can still leave all the rest of the (less important) details of your journey delightfully unscripted.

Before we went to Baja a few years ago, I had seen a picture of a pastry that looked like it must be the Mexican version of sfogliatella, which is stuffed with a sweet ricotta mixture, and is divine. The picture was, however, without caption or any other descriptive text – it was just a picture of beautiful handmade pastries at a farmers market – so all throughout our travels in Baja I described the pastry, in my best Spanish, and asked people if they knew it, and where I might find it. My inquiries were fruitless until, at last, eating at a taco-stand-style breakfast shack, seated on sawhorses at the bar, I asked our dining companions about it. They talked amongst themselves in Spanish that was much too brisk for me to follow, and then, with the wide-eyed excitement of having solved a puzzle, one of the men shouted, “O, si, si, si! Se llama La Philadelphia!” Ugh. My must-have authentic Mexican pastry had an English name based on the American brand name product it featured. Bubble popped, I longed a little less for the previously romanticized pastry, and was therefore not heartbroken when we never managed to find La Philadelphia in Baja.

The other place where a great cheese pastry cannot, with any amount of planning or mapping, be found is the culturally-lacking mountain biking Mecca where we currently live. Yeah, the local bagel shop has a cheese danish. It’s lame. It has not enough cheese, an overly greasy pastry and a dollop of highly-sugared fruit-flavored glop on it. For a very brief time there existed in town a little coffee shop owned by a woman who studied pastry-making in France – Good sign! I was excited! – but while her cheese mixture was perfect, she put it on a giant mound of weird, flavorless, leavened dough that really didn’t work.

Recently, I’ve taken advantage of some (unusual) rainy Sunday mornings to stay indoors and see if I could come up with a cheese pastry that might satisfy. Also, we have a burgeoning crop of raspberries that need to be used.

In tackling these two "problems," I ended up with two different pastries, both of which are scrumptious and pretty easy to throw together.

This one is a tart -- actually 12 individual tartlets -- with a pecan shortbread crust. The tart crusts are baked, and then filled with room temperature cheese filling (recipe below) and fruit right before you plan to eat them. If you fill them and let them sit, the crusts will get soggy and fall apart.

The second is a danish, which is surprisingly quick and easy if you use frozen puff pastry instead of making your own, which is a ridiculous undertaking, really, considering that when you need a cheese danish, you need it pretty much ten minutes ago.

Filling (for both the tartlets and the danish):
8 oz cream cheese (Philadelphia brand, naturally)
¼ cup sugar
Zest from 1 lemon, chopped

A couple of handfuls of fresh fruit

To make the danish:
Thaw the pastry according to the instructions on the package. Cut one sheet into four squares and roll them out a bit. (Save the second sheet in the freezer for another time.) Pile on the cheese and fruit. Form the pastry into whatever shape you want. Brush the dough with melted butter. Bake at 400 for 15 minutes.

I also made one with no berries, enough cheese filling and a generous grating of fresh nutmeg. I’m not sure whether my eyes rolled back in my head before or after my socks were knocked off my feet. And really, does it matter?