“What do you cook at home?” is one of the most frequent questions I get from guests in my classes. My usual answer to this is “it depends”, which it does….on many things: seasonality, what I’ve been reading or thinking about, what I’ve been eating, what I’ve got on hand, whether I really feel like cooking or if I just want something to eat now (contrary to popular belief most chef’s do not eat and cook the same at home as they do in their restaurants – sorry if I shattered any grand illusions.) One of the big reasons that I love teaching cooking is that it gives me the perfect opportunity to play with various styles of ethnic cuisine, ingredients, and entertaining styles. My home kitchen tends to be my “laboratory” where I test recipe and menu ideas that I might use for classes, the blog, and my monthly “Food Fix” column for coastal senior magazine. Guests coming for a meal are usually well aware that several items (perhaps the whole meal) is an experiment and their input is not only requested, but required.
I recently catered a Christmas party for some friends and wanted a seafood item that would be reasonably easy to eat and serve but was a bit more imaginative than a big bowl of shrimp and a dipping sauce. Simple is good but the challenge of being a chef is that you can’t get away with the usual simple things that the everyday person can. This dilemma sent me into motion to work on a seafood cheesecake.
Seafood cheescake? Ok, maybe you’re saying “Blech…who would want a seafood cheesecake?” Read the title again…it’s a savory cheesecake, as in not sweet…without sugar, in other words it’s an hors d’ oeuvre. An example of what I once heard referred to at a chef’s conference as “culinary cross-dressing”….taking a traditionally sweet item and creating a savory version of it, or vice versa. (Side note from something I learned the hard way: when doing a presentation for foreign students requiring a translator, do not use terms like “culinary cross-dressing” They were Japanese and the best I could do was to explain it’s like when a husband wears his wife’s kimono…I still think it went over their heads, especially since as far as they knew I was talking about American food trends), Seafood cheesecake is far from a new concept but it’s something I hadn’t made myself and therefore didn’t have a particular recipe that I knew would work and taste good. Of course, I needed to make it NOW and didn’t have time to actually put a recipe through a test run (Key learning: Do as I say…not as I do) After consulting my cookbook collection, various online resources, and input from a chef friend, I ventured into the “laboratory” (kitchen) and proceeded to conjure up the following.
Well, this isn’t exactly the first run of the recipe…this is what I’d call “Savory Seafood Cheesecake v. 2.0” I used a basic butter cracker crumb crust with dill in version 1.0 and found that without any sugar in it to help it adhere together, it just left a dusty & crumby layer in the bottom of the pan. The guests all enjoyed it and I received a lot of compliments but I still felt like there was room for improvement. The “New and Improved version 2.0” features mixed nuts for a deeper flavor and a bit of sugar to crystallize during the baking process and help adhere the nuts and crumbs together. A “bigger, bolder” seafood flavor was achieved through adding chopped smoked salmon (hey, it counts….they spend part of their life in the sea!).
Savory Seafood Cheesecake Tips:
Have creamed cheese, eggs, and sour cream at room temperature to help ensure a smooth and creamy texture.
If using an electric mixer instead of a food processor, add the eggs last and beat only until evenly mixed. The more the mixture is beaten after the eggs are added, the more air that is incorporated and the more bubbles that are created, increasing the chance of puffing and cracking during baking.
The starch (flour) in the recipe will prevent the cheese mixture from curdling so it isn’t necessary to bake it in a water bath.
The crabmeat needs to be broken up to facilitate cutting. Save money by using claw crabmeat instead of the pricier lump crabmeat. Be sure to pick over crabmeat to check for any pieces of shell.
Savory Seafood Cheesecake
While it’s not necessarily a budget-oriented hors d’oeuvres, this easy savory cheesecake makes a memorable hors d’oeuvres that your guests won’t soon forget! Claw crabmeat is less expensive than lump and works perfectly fine here since it needs to be in smaller pieces anyway to make cutting easier. The crust is a slight adaptation of “Cracker-Nut Crust” from “BakeWise” by Shirley Corriher. If you enjoy baking I highly recommend this incredible book!
Yield: 1 9×13 pan (32 portions)
24 butter-flavored crackers (such as Ritz brand or similar)
1 ½ cups store-bought roasted salted mixed nuts without peanuts
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
½ teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons butter, melted
3 (8-oz) packages cream cheese, softened
½ cup sour cream
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon prepared horseradish
1 tablespoon capers, chopped
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh dill (or 1 ½ teaspoons dried dill)
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
½ teaspoon Old Bay Seasoning
2 cloves minced garlic
¼ cup finely diced red onion
8 oz. cooked claw crabmeat, picked over to look for shells and then crumbled
1 cup (4 oz.) cooked & frozen salad shrimp (thawed), finely chopped
8 oz. smoked salmon, finely chopped
½ cup sour cream
Fresh dill sprigs
Cooked & frozen salad shrimp (thawed)
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Place the crackers, nuts, sugar, and salt in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel chopping blade. Process until they are the consistency of fine crumbs. With the processor running, drizzle in the melted butter.
Spray the sides of a 9×13 cake pan. Pour the crumb mixture into the bottom of the pan. Wipe out the food processor bowl with a paper towel and set aside to use for the filling. Pat out the crumbs to cover the bottom evenly. Bake for about 8-10 minutes or until lightly golden. Cool completely before filling.
Return the work bowl and steel chopping blade to the food processor. Into the bowl of the food processor place the cream cheese, eggs, sour cream, flour, horseradish, capers, lemon zest, dill, Worcestershire sauce, bay seasoning, and garlic. Process mixture until smooth and well blended. Pour cream cheese mixture into a medium bowl and fold in the onions, crab, shrimp, and smoke salmon. Pour over the cooked crust and bake for approximately 20-25 minutes or just until the center barely jiggles. Remove and cool for at least 1 hour before refrigerating. Refrigerate for 3 hours before serving. May be prepared up to 2 days in advance. Keep refrigerated.
Cut chilled cheesecake into squares and place a dollop of sour cream on top of each slice along with a small sprig of fresh dill and a piece of shrimp.
Smoked Salmon Cheesecake: Replace the shrimp, crab, and smoked salmon with a total of 1 lb. of smoked salmon, finely chopped. Garnish the top with sour cream and salmon caviar or sour cream with capers and finely diced red onion.