Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Holiday Cheer (Cranberry orange spice cheesecake bars)

For me, the holidays mark open season for baking. Cooler weather makes it more comfortable to blast the oven all day and subtly increases the caloric load, or at least I like to tell myself so. "I'm storing up for the long winter" is a frequent excuse I make, while eating a dozen cookies at a time. At first, I wanted to make one of my mother's requisite holiday recipes: Pecan Tassies. Like miniature pecan pies, nestled in a bite-sized tart shell of cream cheese crust, they've always been a favorite in my family. Owing to Aaron's unfortunate upbringing beside several pecan trees, however, he still suffers from perennial pecan fatigue and refuses to eat them. Seeking a different source of holiday cheer, I settled on cranberry orange spice cheesecake bars: rich, sweet-tart and 100% holiday-approved in color and flavor profile, these are an ideal nut-free treat for the bleak midwinter.

While oranges and cranberries are roughly in-season and standard holiday fare, it's actually the cheesecake layer that's most reminiscent of holiday entertaining, for me.  A stern steward of her children's health, my mom frowned on sugar cereal and, perhaps paradoxically, baking with cream cheese. Perhaps cream cheese averages one third the fat of butter, but that's not necessarily a selling point when you're still using three times as much. Regardless, the holidays marked an annual relaxation of this interdiction in our household, and so cream cheese always suggests Christmas, in my mind.

Beginning to look like Christmas
Of course, with so many presents and parties, decadently over-produced desserts are fun, but perhaps more trouble than they're worth. This recipe offers the golden mean between the two: it seems extravagant and packs a big punch of cranberry-citrus-spice flavor, but is actually quite quick and easy to prepare, as long as you don't mind dirtying three different mixing bowls. Three mixes are quickly stirred together, then packed into four layers of sensational delight: crunchy, buttery whole wheat and oats form a sturdy base and crumbly topping, enveloping smooth cheesecake and jammy, bursting berries.

We're jammin'
The intense ruby red color and tangy flavor of cranberries make them the star performer. I recommend using fresh berries over frozen for superior texture, but there's so much going on I imagine your diners will be soothed to forgive any compromise. The warmth and nuance of allspice, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg make this treat sophisticated enough for adults, but there's plenty of butter and sugar to still please kids, as well. Do plan ahead for the chilling time for the cheesecake, the longer it cools, the easier it will be to slice. Otherwise, hands-on time is minimal. This is a dessert you can bang out in an hour and then relax in with wassails by the fire.

The berry best
Cranberry orange spice cheesecake bars
For a boozy kick and extra zing, substitute Grand Marnier or Cointreau for the orange juice in the cream cheese layer. Yields 12 large bars or 24 triangles.

For the crumb layer:

2 cups whole wheat flour
1 1/2 cups old-fashioned oats
1/4 cup dark brown sugar, lightly packed
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, room temperature
11 ounces ivory chocolate chips

For the cream cheese layer:

8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature 
14 ounces sweetened condensed milk
1/2 orange, freshly zested
1/4 cup orange juice, freshly squeezed 
1 tablespoon vanilla extract 

For the cranberry layer:

4 cups fresh cranberries
1 cup granulated sugar, scant
1 tablespoon cornstarch 
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon 
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
5 tablespoons orange juice, freshly squeezed

Preheat the oven to 350 F and butter a glass 9x13" baking dish, set aside.

Sift together the flour, oats, and brown sugar in a large bowl, then mash in the butter using a pastry cutter or your bare hands (cold, clean, and very dry) until pea-sized lumps have formed. Then toss in the ivory chips and set aside.

In a separate bowl, beat the cream cheese until fluffy, then beat in the sweetened condensed milk, orange zest, orange juice, and vanilla. Set aside.

Using a third bowl, toss the cranberries with sugar, cornstarch, and spices, then drizzle with orange juice and vanilla and stir until evenly mixed. Set aside.

Press about half the crumb mixture firmly into the bottom of the prepared baking dish, creating an even layer.

Freshly pressed
Pour in the cheesecake mixture and smooth with a rubber spatula, then spoon cranberries on top, drizzling with any remaining juices.

Scatter the remaining crumb layer evenly across the top and bake for 35-40 minutes, until the center is set.

Ready for lift-off

Cool completely on a wire rack, then cover and refrigerate overnight. Slice and serve.


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