Pumpkin Cheesecake Squares with Gingersnap Crust

I would be embarrassed to admit how many of these I have eaten in the past week. Luckily I’ve lost count. I came up with the idea, as often happens, lying in bed one morning. I wanted to bring something sweet to a birthday party that night, and had considered making a classic pumpkin cheesecake. But on a crisp fall morning, it seemed a shame to stay indoors for too long, messing around with water baths and springform pans, long baking times and longer chilling. So I decided to bake cheesecake squares instead, which would be quicker and easier, and more cocktail party appropriate, being finger food.
I wanted the robust, fall-friendly flavors of a gingersnap crust, but didn’t want to deal with baking my own snaps, letting them cool, pulsing them in a food processor, mixing them with melted butter, and rebaking them into a crust. (Though doing this does produce the best crust…) And I would sooner die than buy packaged cookies. So I took a cue from Martha Stewart, who, for her New York cheesecake recipe, has you make a chocolate cookie dough which you press right into the pan to bake. I used Elizabeth Falkner’s “Sammysnaps” recipe, which she cuts into dachshunds in honor of a friend’s hound, and based the filling on Cook’s Illustrated’s pumpkin cheesecake. I guessed at the quantities I would need for a 9×12″ pan and set to work.
The cookie dough recipe was too large by almost double, the cheesecake filling would have overflowed the pan had I added it all, leaving no room for the abundance of sour cream topping. So I lined a second pan with the gingersnap dough and used the excesses to make two pans full.

At the party, my bars got eclipsed by a (heavenly) pecan pie brought by another talented baker, and Jay and I were stuck (alas and alack!) with a plethora of cheesecake squares. Regardless of how hard we tried get rid of them, we kept finding ourselves in the kitchen with our fingers in the pan and crumbs round the lips. Luckily, these bars work equally well as breakfast, a mid-day snack or a satisfying dessert, as we can now attest.

I (very sacrificially) made the recipe a second time, tweaking the amounts to arrive at one panful of cheesecake squares. And then, you know, that pan needed to be eaten as well, and cheesecake squares are rather hard to give away, being delicate and needing refrigeration and all. So I may be done with pumpkin cheesecake squares with gingersnap crusts for a little while, like at least a week or so. But I hope you’ll give them a try.

These squares would be equally at home in a lunch box, on a buffet at a cocktail party, or sliced into triangles and served with a dollop of whipped cream, a drizzle of whiskey caramel sauce and some toasted pecans for an elegant plated dessert. Try adding some finely grated fresh ginger to the filling and top each square with a sliver of candied ginger for an extra gingery variation.

A word about squashes: the first time I made these, I had some very dense-fleshed ‘gold-nugget’ squash puree left over from these pumpkin cheesecake muffins. The cheesecake filling came out very firm and a brilliant orange, as you can see in the photos. This last time I used a butternut, and the filling turned out wetter and less firm, less orange. So if you’re going the roast-your-own squash route, I recommend a dense-fleshed variety such as gold nugget, red kuri, hokkaido or kabocha for the tastiest and most photogenic results. To roast your squash, cut it in half longways, place it cut side down on a lightly oiled baking sheet and stick it in a 375º oven for about an hour, or until soft and collapsed in places. Let it cool, scoop out the seeds and strings and discard them, then scoop the flesh into a food processor, discarding the skin. Blend until smooth. If your puree is watery, put it in a fine-mesh sieve for an hour or so.

Pumpkin Cheesecake Squares

Makes 1 9×12″ pan, or 24 2″ bars
Time: about 2 hours, plus 2 hours to chill
Gingersnap Crust
This recipe calls for half an egg. Odd, yes, so if you fancy, make a double batch of the dough and set half of it aside to roll out and cut into gingersnaps. Or just have half an egg lying around to add to a scramble or brush on a set of buns. To measure half an egg, break the egg into a bowl and beat well to combine. Measure out 2 tablespoons.

I’ve written this recipe to be as quick and easy as possible. For an extra-delicious crust, don’t spread the cookie dough directly into the pan; instead, wrap it and chill until firm, about 1 hour. Roll out to 1/8″ thick, and cut into 2″ squares. Place on a parchment-lined sheet pan, spaced 1″ apart, and bake for about 20 minutes, until firm and slightly darkened around the edges. Let cool completely, then grind finely in a food processor. Toss the cookie crumbs with two or three tablespoons of melted butter until they clump together, then press them evenly into the pan. Bake the crust for 10 minutes until toasty, let it cool slightly, then proceed with the recipe.

3 oz. (6 tablespoons or 3/4 stick) unsalted butter, softened but cool
1/3 cup (2 1/4 oz.) sugar
2 tablespoons molasses (unsulphured blackstrap)
1/2 egg (about 2 tablespoons)
5 1/2 oz. (1 cup plus 1 tablespoon) all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon cloves
1/8 teaspoon allspice
Preheat the oven to 350º. Place a rack in the lowest position. Grease a 9×12″ (1/4 sheet) pan.
Cream together the butter and sugar in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle until light and fluffy. Add the molasses, then the egg, beating to combine after each. Sift together the dries, then add to the butter mixture and beat on low until just combined.
Using an offset spatula or moistened fingers, press and spread the dough into the prepared pan, making it as flat and smooth as possible. (Hint: if you scrape the bowl well enough, you can reuse it for the pumpkin filling.) Place in the oven on the lowest rack, and bake for about 20 minutes, until firm. Remove and set aside. Turn the oven down to 325º.
Pumpkin Cheesecake Filling

To ensure smooth cheesecake, have all your ingredients at room temperature. Be patient while mixing the batter, and don’t skimp on scraping down the sides of the bowl and the paddle. Keep the mixer on medium-low; anything higher will incorporate too much air into the batter, resulting in unsightly bubbles in the finished product. I can think of nothing more embarrassing.
12 oz. (about 1 1/2 cups) winter squash puree or canned pumpkin
12 oz. cream cheese
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar (6 1/2 oz.)
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon each cloves and allspice
3 eggs
3 tablespoons heavy cream or sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon whiskey or brandy
Line a large plate with a triple layer of paper towels and spread the squash puree evenly over. Place another triple layer on top (I don’t hate trees, I swear!) and top with another large plate. This will press out excess moisture and prevent a watery cheesecake. Get on with the rest of the cheesecake. When you’re ready to add the squash, remove the top plate, peel off the top layer of towels, grasp the bottom layer and flip the squash onto the plate. You should have 10 or 11 oz. of puree.
Beat together the cream cheese and sugar on low in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment until very smooth and well combined, scraping down the sides of the bowl and the paddle. Add the salt, spices and squash puree and beat until combined. Add the eggs one at a time, beating until combined and scraping down the sides of the bowl and the paddle between eggs. Beat in the cream, vanilla and booze until combined, scraping the paddle and bowl to incorporate thoroughly.
Spread the puree onto the baked gingersnap crust. Place in the 325º oven on the lower rack. Bake 25-35 minutes until the sides are just barely starting to puff up a bit. The center should wiggle like jello when you jostle it, but should not seem liquidy. Remove and let cool 10 minutes.
Sour Cream Topping
12 oz. sour cream, at room temperature
1/4 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
pinch salt
Beat all together to combine. You can use a bowl and spoon for this. Gently drop spoonfuls of the mixture onto the outer edge of the cheesecake, then use an offset spatula or the back of a spoon to carefully spread the mixture to evenly coat the cheesecake. Return to the oven for 5 minutes until set. Remove.
Let the cheesecake cool to room temp, about 1 hour, then chill for at least 2. Using a sharp knife dipped into hot water and dried between each cut, slice in the pan into squares (6 the long way by 4 the short way, or whatever size you like).

Quick and Dirty Sourdough Focaccia

My first baking job, during my freshman year at UC Santa Cruz, lasted about three months. Our shift began at 4 am and often as I left my on-campus apartment, frequently still drunk from the night before, my apartment mates, who hadn’t yet gone to bed, would set down their joints and pipes to wave goodbye. I’d work until 11 am or so, then go straight to a day of classes and a night of partying, to repeat the scenario again at 3:30 the next morning. This all makes me sound rather un-bojon and go-getterish, which I assure you is not the case. About once a week, I would turn off my alarm clock in my sleep and be awakened, either naturally or by a phone call, around 9am, 5 hours late for work. Needless to say, my roommate hated me, but my boss let me continue to work there, probably because I was the only female/person under the age of 40 out of the dozen or so employees in the bakery.

Working at College 8, which provided baked goods for the entire campus’s cafeterias, was not glamorous by any stretch of the imagination. Most days, my tasks consisted of mixing canned bright red cherry goo into a waiting hotel pan of muffin batter, then scooping out six hundred muffins; or operating the “cookie machine,” which, when it wasn’t getting jammed, spat out a dozen balls of cookie dough at a time onto waiting sheet pans.

My favorite part of the job was dimpling out the oiled, herb-coated focaccia dough as it slowly rose in multiple hotel pans. But my least favorite part of the job was hearing my burly, mulletted boss pronounce the word “focaccia”. He’d start in with a sort of growl (fuuuhhhh…), then add a hacking sneeze in the middle (“GAH-tchuh”), followed by a redundant, polysyllabic description of what focaccia means in English (“BRAY-ed”). Sort of endearing, I suppose, but the defilement of such a beautiful language made me want scream “Focaccia you! Eh?”

Since that trauma, I’ve managed to avoid early morning jobs for the most part. But I still enjoy making “fuh-GAH-tchuh bray-ed” in the quiet and grammatically correct comfort of my own home. This recipe came about a couple years ago when I wanted to bake a sourdough focaccia but didn’t have the hours and hours to wait for a dough leavened soley with wild yeasts to rise. I tinkered with a recipe for yeasted focaccia, adding sourdough starter and tweaking the rest of the ingredients accordingly. What I pulled out of the pan that day was the best focaccia I’d ever eaten or made; (pathetically) one of my more triumphant moments in life.
Full of big, “old-dough” flavor, the generous dose of olive oil makes the outsides addictively crisp and keeps it moist for several days. A sprinkle of flaky salt and fresh herbs add palate pleasing complexity. Cut into fingers and serve as hors d’oeuvres, or slice horizontally for sandwiches or bruschetta.

Because the dough uses commercial yeast, this is a great way to use up starter that isn’t strong enough to raise bread on its own, such as young or neglected starter, or what you would throw away while feeding your starter to build it up. Just be sure the starter still smells nice. I’ve experimented with a few different flours and found that all spelt makes a spongy, springy focaccia, while bread flour makes a chewier dough with bigger, more irregular air pockets, as shown in these photos. You can vary the herbs and toppings to your liking. I plan to try pressing whole, roasted garlic cloves into the top next time. The dough is extremely wet, and probably impossible to knead by hand, so use a stand mixer for sure.

Quick Sourdough Focaccia

Makes one 9×12″ bread
Time: 3 – 5 hours
mix the dough – 20 minutes
first rise – 1-2 hours
second rise – 45-60 minutes
bake – 30-40 minutes
cool – 1 hour
6 oz. (3/4 cup flat, 1 1/2 cups or more bubbly) liquid sourdough starter
1 teaspoon instant, rapid rise yeast (or 1 Tablespoon fresh yeast)
1 cup (4 1/4 oz.) whole wheat flour
1 3/4 cups (8 oz.) all purpose or bread flour
1 1/4 cups (10 oz.) water, lukewarm
2 teaspoons sea salt
1/4 cup good olive oil (I like Sciabica’s)
1/4 teaspoon or so crunchy salt, like malden or fleur de sel
optional toppings: 1/2 cup halved pitted black olives; chopped thyme, rosemary, or sage; whole roasted garlic cloves; anything else you can think of

Combine the starter, yeast, water and flours in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on low a couple of minutes until combined, scrape down the sides of the bowl, then increase to speed 3 and beat for 8 minutes. The dough should be very wet and sticky, almost batter-like, but not liquid. Add more flour or water as you knead if the dough seems overly wet or dry. Sprinkle on the salt, and beat on 3 for another five minutes. The dough should still be sticky, but should pull away from the sides of the bowl while it’s mixing. Leave the dough in the bowl, cover tightly with a lid or plastic wrap, and let rise 1-2 hours until doubled or tripled in bulk.

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and place a baking stone on top, if you have one. Place a sacrificial metal or cast iron pan on the floor of the oven – you will put ice in it to steam the oven, and it will become rusted and nasty. Preheat the oven to 500º.

Line a 9×12″ (1/4 sheet) pan with a sling of parchment paper (the paper should lay flat in the bottom with the long ends sticking out.) Drizzle 2 tablespoons of the olive oil all over the bottom and sides of the paper. With a plastic scraper, turn the dough over in the bowl a few times, tamping out some of the air bubbles, then blob it onto the center of the oiled parchment. Drizzle the remaining oil on top and use your fingers to dimple the dough outwards towards the sides and corners. Let the dough rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour, until it mostly fills in the pan, dimpling out the dough a few more times to fill in the corners. The olive oil will pool in the corners, so use a teaspoon to “baste” the top of the focaccia with that oil. Sprinkle a bit of crunchy salt over the top, and any other toppings you like, and give the dough a last dimpling.

Fill a 1 cup measure with ice cubes. Quickly place the focaccia pan on the baking stone and toss the ice cube into the sacrificial pan on the floor of the oven. Close the door and don’t open it again for the next 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, rotate the focaccia, then turn the oven down to 450º and bake for another 15 minutes or so, until golden and lovely on top. Remove to a cooling rack for 10 minutes, then lift out of the pan and cool completely before snarfing.

Store the focaccia at room temperature in a plastic bag for up to a few days (but I doubt it will last that long!)

Huckleberry-Fig Crumble Tart

My absolute favorite type of dessert is one made with ripe, seasonal fruit, hot from the oven, with a buttery flakey crust or topping and a big scoop of melting ice cream. For this reason, nothing beats a fruit crisp for ease, speed and sweet tooth satisfaction. Nothing, except maybe that same, gooey, buttery fruit crisp contained within a tidy, crispy tart shell.

I adapted this recipe from one I clipped from Gourmet a couple years ago. While it may look complicated and time consuming, it is delightfully simple to make and comes together quickly and efficiently; just the sort of recipe I like. You make the beginnings of a pie dough, then set aside a portion of the butter-flour mixture to which you add sugar for the crumble topping. Roll out the dough, toss the fruit with cornstarch and sugar, lay it in the unbaked shell, then crumble the topping over. Stick it in the oven and forget about it for a while (I recommend rewarding your hard labor with a glass of wine), and you’ve got yourself an impressive and swoon-worthy dessert.

The beauty of this recipe is that it can be adapted to use any fruit you like throughout the seasons. I decided to add lemon juice to the fruit in order to complement the figs and huckles, but you could add 1/4 teaspoon or so of cinnamon, nutmeg or cardamom, or use orange zest or vanilla bean seeds. The original recipe called for nuts in the topping, but I omitted them this time; oats would work well, too. A few nice combinations might be:
Strawberry- or raspberry-rhubarb, oats in topping, fresh ginger ice cream
Cherry-apricot, almonds in topping, noyaux ice cream
Plums with oats, honey ice cream
Peaches with almonds, lemon verbena ice cream
Mixed berries with creme fraiche ice cream
Blueberries with lavender ice cream
Apple blackberry with cinnamon in topping, vanilla ice cream
Pears with pecan topping, cardamom ice cream
Poached quince with rose geranium ice cream
(See the end of the recipe for a variation with rhubarb, berries and cardamom)

With the abundance of sliced figs and bags of huckleberries in my freezer, this tart all but made itself. A scoop of fig leaf ice cream finished it off nicely, and I still had enough energy afterwards to watch the Daily Show while enjoying a slice.

Crazy for Crumbles:
Berry Crumble Pie with Sour Cream Ice Cream
Strawberry Rhubarb Crème Fraîche Pie with Cardamom Crumble
Cranberry Apple Crumble Pie

Huckleberry-Fig Crumble Tart
Adapted from Gourmet

My favorite thing about this recipe is that the fruit and topping go into an un-baked crust – yay! I made this in an 8″ tart pan, but I think a 9″ pan would work fine, as well. See below for a Rhubarb Berry variation with Cardamom Oat Crumble.  

Makes one 8 or 9″ tart, 8ish servings

Tart crust and crumble:
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 sticks (6 oz.) unsalted butter, cold, diced
ice water, as needed
1/3 cup sugar
(opt: 1/3 cup rolled oats or finely chopped nuts of your choice, zest of 1 lemon, or 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, nutmeg or cardamom)

Fruity Filling:

4 cups fruit (such as 3 1/2 cups sliced fresh figs and 1/2 cup huckleberries)
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch or tapioca flour
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon salt

Combine the flour and salt in a medium bowl. Add the butter and work with your fingers until some pea-sized chunks remain. Measure out 1 1/2 cups of the mixture into another medium bowl and set aside. To the original bowl, drizzle in the ice water slowly, tossing with your fingers or a rubber spatula, until the dough just starts to come together when you give it a squeeze. Gather into a ball, flatten into a disc, slip into a plastic bag and chill for 1 hour, until firm.

Meanwhile, add the sugar to the 1 1/2 cups of the mixture, and any other flavorings, nuts, and/or oats. Rub with your fingers until some large clumps form. Leave at room temperature. (Or chill if making the tart later.)
Preheat the oven to 375º. Position an oven rack on the lowest position. If you have a baking stone, place in on the rack.
Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface into a 10″ round, a scant 1/4″ thick. Ease it into an 8 or 9″ tart pan with a removable bottom, trim the edges to a 1″ overhang and fold over, pressing the sides even. Freeze 20 minutes.

Toss the fruit in a bowl with the sugar, cornstarch, juice and salt to combine thoroughly. Turn into the unbaked tart shell and spread even; it may mound slightly in the center. Crumble the topping evenly over the fruit. Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment (for easy cleanup), and place in the oven, on the stone.

Bake about 1 hour, rotating once, until the fruit is bubbling thickly, and the crisp topping and tart shell are nicely browned. Remove from the oven. Let cool at least 20 minutes. Remove sides and slide the tart onto a cutting board or serving platter. Slice and serve with ice cream, whipped cream or creme fraiche.

Variation: Rhubarb Berry Tart with Cardamom Oat Crumble
Add 1/3 cup quick (baby) oats and 1/2-3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom to the crumble topping. For the fruit, use 1 1/2 cups rhubarb cut into 1/2″ dice, 1 1/2 cups blueberries, and 1 cup raspberries. Increase the sugar in the filling to 1/3 cup. Serve the tart with vanilla ice cream.

Fresh Fig Custard Tart with Fig Leaf Ice Cream

I find a strawberry, sliced lengthwise, to be much more suggestive than the fresh fig about which folks often waggle their eyebrows. But suggestive or no, fresh figs are pretty much my favorite fruit in the world, and I am blessed to have incredibly generous friends as Michael and Sara DeWeil with an extremely prolific fig tree in their backyard.
I adapted this tart from a recipe in Deborah Madison’s gorgeous book Local Flavors. I picked up my copy five years ago at the Bay Tree Bookstore at UCSC, and it has become my all around favorite cookbook for its beautiful photography, heartwarming prose, and kickass recipes, both sweet and savory. I love this book equally to read in the bath or before bed, or to take on a road trip, or to get inspiration for a weeknight’s dinner.
Anyway, I changed up this recipe a bit because of the egg yolks. Being the custard freak that I am, I always seem to end up with jars and jars of egg whites in the fridge, which becomes a worse offense when they are the gorgeous whites of the happy chickens from Eatwell Farm. If I were to make meringues from all those whites, I would have enough to fill a house. And I hate meringues. So I altered this tart recipe so that instead of using two yolks in the crust and one in the custard, I just used half an egg in each. I also used honey in the custard instead of sugar, and added a sprinkling of coarse sugar on top which caramelized in the heat of the oven.
Now how ’bout this fig leaf ice cream? It certainly sounds bizarre. I got the idea from Kate Zuckerman’s book, The Sweet Life: Desserts from Chanterelle, and didn’t have much faith as I made the custard base. (Yes, I know, four more egg whites sittin’ in the fridge, but philly-style ice creams and cornstarch-based gelati just aren’t the same, I’m sorry.) But when I tasted the churned ice cream, it hit me: the distinctive flavor of figs, without the seeds and slimy texture. Incredible. So if you’ve got a fig tree, or a friend with one, give this ice cream a try to serve with any fig dessert, or just serve with plain old fresh figs, if they’re not too suggestive for you.
Fresh Fig Custard Tart with Fig Leaf Ice Cream
Fig Leaf Ice Cream:
Makes about 1 scant quart
3 medium (5-6″ long) fig leaves, snipped into 1″ pieces
3/4 cup whole milk
4-5 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
pinch salt
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
Scald the milk with the leaves in a medium saucepan. Cover and let steep 20 minutes. Have the cream in a bowl or large container with a fine-mesh sieve set over it. Whisk together the yolks, sugar and salt in a medium bowl to combine. Re-scald the milk, and temper into the yolk mixture. Return the mixture to the pan and cook, stirring constantly with a rubber spatula, until it thickens slightly and just begins to stick to the bottom of the pan, 170º. Immediately pour through the sieve and into the cream. Place in the fridge until thoroughly chilled, at least 4 hours, or up to two days. Churn in an ice cream maker.
Pate Sucrée:

Makes one 8″ tart crust
3 oz. (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup (2 oz.) powdered sugar
1/2 egg (1 oz., or 2 T)
1 1/4 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
Place the butter in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, and sift in the powdered sugar. Beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, 3-5 minutes. Add the egg slowly, beating to combine, then the salt and flour, mixing on low until just combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and the paddle, and make sure the dough is homogenous. Scrape out onto a lightly floured surface and gently roll out into an even 10″ round. (If the dough is too soft and sticky to work with, refrigerate until firm.) Fit into an 8″ round tart pan with a removable bottom, make the edges pretty. You should know how to do that by now. Chill until firm, about 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 375º and position a rack on the lowest position. Line the chilled dough with parchment paper and pie weights, place the tart pan on a baking sheet, and bake until the bottom looks dry when you lift up the parchment, about 15 minutes. Remove the weights, and bake until the bottom is slightly browned, 5 or 10 minutes more. Remove while you prepare the filling. Patch any holes with leftover dough scraps.
Figs and Custard:
1 lb. figs, about 12-15 medium figs (any one variety or a mix)
1/2 cup creme fraiche or heavy cream
1/2 egg (about 1 oz. or 2 tablespoons)
2 tablespoons honey
pinch salt
Other possible flavorings: splash of rosewater, orange flower water, vanilla extract, or a dash of cardamom or cinnamon, or a grating of lemon or orange zest
2 tablespoons coarse sugar, for sprinkling over the top
Quarter larger figs, or halve smaller ones. Lay figs in the tart shell in concentric circles. Whisk together the remaining filling ingredients and pour around, not over, the figs. Sprinkle the sugar over the top. Return to the oven, and bake until the juices from the figs are bubbling thickly and the custard is puffed and golden in places. The baking time will vary depending on how juicy your figs are – mine took around 45 minutes, but check it after 20 minutes. Let cool slightly. This tart is best served warm, with a quenelle of ice cream alongside, or a drizzle of creme fraiche.

Two-Olive Sourdough Loaf

I can count on my fingers the positive aspects of growing up in the porn capital of the world. La Brea Bakery’s olive bread ranks up there near the top, and I often brought a hunk of it, with a few slices of provolone, for lunch during high school. Now that I live in San Francisco, that bread, and my mother, are pretty much the only things I miss. What about the Malibu beaches, you ask? Mendocino’s Jug Handle beats those any day. The art museums? We have those here, too, sharp guy. And I’d take a hike in lush Muir Woods over arid Topanga State Park any day. (Sorry, Mom.)
Certainly NorCal boasts a plethora of phenomenal bakeries. But while I adore Acme’s Levain, Tartine’s walnut loaf, and Cafe Beaujolais’s spelt bread, I’ve yet to find an olive bread that rivals La Brea’s.
Luckily, Nancy Silverton reveals her secrets for this bread, and many more, in her book. Whole wheat flour and wheat germ add nutty flavor as well as nutritional value. Oil cured olives crumble into the dough, staining it a rich brown and flavoring the dough itself, while an abundance of whole kalamatas, which hold their shape, pack each bite with briny goodness. A judicious amount of fresh thyme adds a subtle nuance of flavor.
I’ve adapted Nancy’s recipe to use more starter, tweaking the other ingredients accordingly, and I even go so far as to audaciously double the olives. I love this bread slathered with eggplant caponata and topped with a crumble of goat cheese. The oils in the bread keep it moist longer than you’d expect, up to a week even, which makes it ideal for camping trips. But stick it in the fridge if the weather is very humid, like this past week; mine started sprouting little specks of mold, and had to be relegated to the crouton pile. There are worse fates, though, like living in L.A, for instance.

Two-olive Sourdough
Makes one large loaf, about 2 pounds

note: I like to use a stand mixer for this bread as kneading in the olives by hand can be quite messy.

See my recipe for a basic boule for more info on starters and instructions for mixing the bread by hand.

Total time: about 9 hours, not including refreshing starter
refresh starter four hours before beginning recipe
mix, knead and autolyse dough, 1 hour
first rise, 3 – 4 hours (or overnight in fridge)
shape dough, 10 minutes
second rise, 1 1/2 – 2 hours
bake, 45 minutes
cool loaf, 1 – 2 hours

12 oz. liquid sourdough starter, active, bubbly and ready to go (about 1 1/2 cups stirred down, or 3+ cups at full froth)
8 oz. (1 cup) room temperature or lukewarm water
1 oz. (1/4 cup) wheat germ
5 oz. (1 cup) whole wheat bread flour
8 – 10 oz. (1 2/3 – 2 cups) white bread flour
1 – 2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves, chopped (or 1 – 2 teaspoons dried)
1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
1/2 cup pitted oil cured olives, whole
1/2 cup pitted kalamata olives, whole
Weigh the starter, water, germ, and both flours into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook. (Add the smaller amount of bread flour.) Knead on medium-low speed (2) for 5 minutes. Cover and let autolyse 20 minutes. Sprinkle on the salt, and knead the dough on medium speed (4) for another 5 minutes. It should be sticky, but not wet, and should pull away from the sides of the bowl as it is kneaded. Add more flour by the tablespoon if necessary. Add the thyme and olives, and knead on medium low (1-2) for another 5 minutes until thoroughly combined. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead a few minutes by hand until the texture feels right, adding as little flour as possible to keep the dough from sticking to your hands and the surface. The dough should feel smooth, springy and elastic; wet enough to be pliable, but not overly sticky.
Place the dough in a large, lightly oiled ceramic bowl or a large plastic container at least twice the size of the dough. Cover the vessel tightly with plastic wrap or the lid, and allow it to rise until doubled, three to four hours. (You can also let the dough rise in the fridge or a cool place overnight. Let the dough come to room temperature before shaping it, and be sure that it has doubled in bulk to properly develop the glutens.)
Gently turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, pressing out the air bubbles. Shape into a boule by tucking the edges under itself, then gently rotating the dough on the surface to form a taught outer layer of dough. Here’s a quick video of how to shape a boule. To shape into an oval, rock the boule on the counter with your palms until is elongates slightly. If you have a rising basket, sift a light layer of flour onto the inside, and place the boule in it upside-down, pinching the seam shut. (If you don’t have a rising basket, place the boule directly on a peel or board dusted with cornmeal or flour.) Place the whole deal in a large plastic bag, such as a trash can liner. Inflate the bag and close it with a twist tie or clip. Let the bread rise a second time until doubled, about 1 1/2 – 2 hours. When the bread is ready to bake, it will hold an indentation of your finger when you press it lightly, rather than springing back.
While the bread is rising, about an hour before you’re ready to bake, remove all but the bottom rack of your oven. Place a baking stone on the rack (or a heavy duty baking sheet), and place a metal pan that you don’t care about sacrificing (it will get rusty) on the floor of the oven. Crank the oven up to 500º.
When the bread has doubled, gently turn it out onto a wooden peel dusted with flour or cornmeal. Holding a lame or sharp knife at a 45º angle to the loaf, draw the blade, about 1″ deep, across the top of the loaf, beginning and ending 2″ from the bottoms of the boule. Fill a 1 cup measure with ice cubes. Quickly slip the boule off the peel and onto the stone, and toss the cubes into the hot pan on the floor of the oven. Bake 20 minutes, then turn the oven down to 450º and bake another 20 minutes or so, until the bread is a deep, burnished golden-brown. An instant read thermometer inserted into the middle should read 210º.
Let cool completely on a wire rack, one to two hours, before enjoying. The best way to store this type of bread is in a paper bag at room temperature for a couple days. After that, I put the whole thing, paper bag and all, into a plastic bag and continue to store at room temp.

Pumpkin Cheesecake Muffins

It’s a difficult thing to admit, but: Jay doesn’t have a sweet tooth. He didn’t even eat fruit when I first moved in, several years ago, and would turn his nose up at sugary vegetables, such as sweet potatoes and winter squash. While creamy custards and ice cream make me weak in the knees, he can take or leave them, passing them up any day for a bag of salty chips or a plate of greasy french fries.

Every so often, though, I catch a gleam of enthusiasm for some childhood classic: pumpkin pie, butterscotch ice cream, tapioca pudding, the old standbys we all enjoy as children. During a muffin phase a few years back, Jay spoke lovingly of pumpkin cheesecake ones he used to get from Rebecca’s Mighty Muffins in Santa Cruz during his college days. I looked around for recipes, but didn’t find anything that seemed quite right. I wanted a sturdy, not-too-sweet muffin made with butter rather than vegetable oil, redolent with the flavors of brown sugar and warming spices. I wanted a smooth, creamy filling with the salty tang of cheesecake, and plenty of it, so that you got some in each bite. Quite pleased with the results, Jay even set aside the chips to devour a few.
The first real rain of the season has brought on a desperation to bake with winter squash, so I decided to make these muffins, but I made a few changes from my original recipe, browning the butter, adding freshly grated ginger to the cheesecake mixture and toasted pecans to the muffin batter. They are delicious, but, I don’t know, I kind of prefer the plain-Jane originals. So here’s the original recipe, with the ginger-pecan variation at the end.

Pumpkin Cheesecake Muffins
You can use any dense fleshed winter squash for this recipe. I actually don’t favor pumpkins for baking, as they tend to be stringy, watery and bland. This time, I used an incredibly dense-fleshed red kuri squash, but kabochas, hokkaidos and butternuts are other excellent choices. If your squash puree is watery, or if you use canned pumpkin (which is fine), drain it for about 3o minutes in a fine mesh sieve, lined with cheesecloth if necessary.
For the squash puree, preheat the oven to 375º. Lightly oil a rimmed baking sheet. Using a large, sharp chef’s knife, cut the squash in half lengthwise. Leaving the seeds in (they are much easier to scrape out once the squash is cooked, and also add flavor and moisture to it during baking) place the squash cut side down on the baking sheet. Roast in the oven until tender when poked with a knife. Let cool. Scrape out the seeds and discard, and scoop the flesh out of the skin. Puree in a food processor or food mill until smooth.
For the cheesecake filling:
6 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature
1/4 cup sugar
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon sour cream or plain yogurt
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
pinch salt
Beat the cream cheese and sugar together until smooth. Add yolk, sour cream, lemon juice, vanilla and salt to combine throughly. Put in fridge while you get on with the muffins.
Pumpkin Muffins:
1 stick (4 oz.) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
3/4 cup squash puree, or canned pumpkin
1/4 cup buttermilk
3/4 cup packed brown or unrefined sugar
2 tablespoons molasses
2 eggs
2 cups flour (I use equal parts whole and white spelt)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Preheat the oven to 350º. Line a standard 12-cup muffin pan with muffin liners (does that sound a bit dirty, or is it just me?) In a medium bowl, whisk together the melted butter, squash puree, buttermilk, sugar, molasses and eggs to combine. In a large bowl, sift together the dry ingredients. Make a well, and gently fold in the wets until just combined. Divide the batter evenly between the cups.
Now comes the fun part, and there are two possible ways to go about it. You can either use the back of a spoon to make a small well in the center of each muffin, and spoon the cheesecake filling in. Or use a piping bag fitted with a smallish, plain tip (or a plastic baggie which you will snip the corner off of) and fill with the cream cheese mixture. Plunge the tip into the center of the muffin, and gently squeeze out a couple tablespoons. The muffin will puff up. Repeat with the remaining muffins until you have used up all the filling.
Bake the muffins on the center rack until puffed and golden, about 30 minutes.
Variation: Brown-butter pecan pumpkin muffins with ginger cheesecake filling
Follow the above directions, making the following changes:
Add 1-2 teaspoons finely grated fresh ginger to the cheesecake filling.

For the muffins, brown the butter by cooking it over medium heat, swirling occasionally, until it browns, smells nutty and makes you swoon with olfactory pleasure. Let cool to warm.

For the spices, substitute the following, omitting the allspice:
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Toast 3/4 pecans, let cool, and chop coarsely. Gently fold in after combining the wets and dries.