Growing up, I never liked bread. I didn't care for pasta, and I could take or leave pizza. As it turns out, that's not a bad thing.
In August 2006, I was diagnosed with celiac disease, which means I can't eat wheat, rye, barley or oats. I had to start watching food labels for things like "modified food starch," which could indicate hidden gluten, the celiac's enemy. Luckily for me, my mom's two sisters, Kathy Sweet and Jane Hlad, are also celiacs, so they were able to teach me the ins and outs of living gluten-free.
While a lot of my favorite foods are still OK for me to eat - meat and potatoes, rice and vegetables are all go-to items for celiacs - some things take some adjusting. Like desserts, for example. Try finding a wheat-free boxed cake mix at your local grocery store.
There are a lot of recipes for gluten-free cakes and cookies available, using different kinds of celiac-friendly flours, but I have found that many regular recipes can be converted to gluten-free recipes with little difficulty. Cheesecakes, in particular, are easy to adapt. Crusts can be made with chopped nuts or gluten-free cookie crumbs, or they can be skipped entirely. When I was looking for a recipe to make in the 2008 Taste of Home Annual Recipes cookbook, I kept coming back to the Chocolate-Covered Cheesecake Squares. Chocolate and cheesecake, in my opinion, are an unbeatable combination.
The only modification I needed to make to this recipe for it to be gluten-free was to replace the graham cracker crumbs used in the crust. Although there are graham cracker substitutes available for celiacs, one of my favorite ways to make a cheesecake crust is to use crushed gluten-free gingersnaps. The recipe calls for chopped pecans as well, and a celiac cook could also make the crust just using nuts.
If you've never made your own graham cracker (or imitation graham cracker) crust, I highly recommend it - it's fun! I put the cookies and nuts in my food processor and pulse until they are finely chopped. Adding melted butter creates a mixture that resembles coarse, wet sand that is pressed into the bottom of the pan. A note for working with cookies instead of crackers - if your cookies are soft, you may not need as much butter to hold your crust together. In this case, the butter to cookie ratio worked out well, but I've had some soggy crusts from too much butter.
Chocolate-Covered Cheesecake Squares
Prep: 1 hour
Bake: 35 min. + freezing
1 cup graham cracker crumbs
1/4 cup finely chopped pecans
1/4 cup butter, melted
2 packages (8 ounces each) cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup sour cream
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
24 squares (1 ounce each) semisweet chocolate
3 tablespoons shortening
Line a 9-inch square baking pan with foil and grease the foil. In a small bowl, combine the graham cracker crumbs, pecans and butter. Press into prepared pan; set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, beat the cream cheese, sugar and sour cream until smooth. Add the eggs; beat on low speed just until combined. Stir in the vanilla extract. Pour over the crust.
Bake at 325 degrees for 35-40 minutes or until center is almost set. Cool on a wire rack. Refrigerate until chilled. Freeze overnight.
In a microwave-safe bowl, melt chocolate and shortening, stirring occasionally until smooth. Cool slightly. Using foil, lift cheesecake out of pan. Gently peel off foil; cut into 49 squares. Remove a few pieces at a time for dipping; keep remaining squares refrigerated until ready to dip.
Using a toothpick, completely dip squares, one at a time, in melted chocolate. Placed on waxed paper-lined baking sheets; spoon about 1 teaspoon chocolate over each. (Reheat chocolate if needed to finish dipping.) Let stand for 20 minutes or until set. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator or freezer.
Yield: 49 servings.
I did use real butter for my crust, by the way. It may not be the healthiest ingredient, but in my opinion, a good cheesecake should be unhealthy - it's an indulgence.
Cheesecake as a rule is pretty easy to put together, and this recipe was no exception. One thing to keep in mind is to keep mixing to a minimum once the cream cheese and sugar have been combined. Overmixing the batter can lead to cracks in the cake during baking.
When it came to baking my cheesecake, I had to adjust the cooking time. The recipe calls for a 9-inch square baking pan, and somehow, though I have a decent collection of baking supplies, I do not have a 9-inch square pan. I substituted an 11-by-7-inch pan instead. After the allotted 40 minutes, the cake wasn't set up to my satisfaction, so I used another cheesecake making tip. I shut off the oven, left the oven door open a crack, and left the cake in until the oven cooled to allow it to finish cooking without burning.
I froze the cake as directed and cut it up the next day to coat the squares in chocolate. The recipe says to line the baking pan with foil before baking, and this was a great idea. The cake lifts right out of the pan, and the pan stays clean.
As I prepared to dip my cheesecake in chocolate, my husband suggested that I set up a mini-assembly line - cake squares, melted chocolate, paper-lined baking tray. This worked very well, except when I dripped chocolate down the side of the stove while transferring a square from the chocolate to the tray - one of the perils of a tiny apartment kitchen. I also didn't place all my squares far enough apart on the baking tray. Although I was able to collect enough neat cheesecake squares for the picture, many of my coworkers had to settle for squares with exposed sides, where the chocolate shell had stuck to another square.
Reviews were good, however. I gave samples to family members and my coworkers at the Tribune. My editor commented that the squares tasted like something you could order in a restaurant, while other coworkers commented that they were very rich and indulgent. My youngest sister, who doesn't like nuts, didn't care for the crust, but the rest of my family enjoyed them.
These cheesecake squares would be great for a holiday party or whenever you're looking for a rich, decadent dessert. I found it impossible to eat just one.