Bluebird Kitchen offers upscale comfort food at good value

| Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012, 8:57 p.m.

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When the staff of Bluebird Kitchen began organizing their equipment prior to their spring opening, executive pastry chef Julie Cogley had the cafe's labeling tool in hand, but nothing to label. So, she printed out the motto “Think Happy Thoughts,” and posted it over her work space.

Happiness is exactly the philosophy owner Liz Moore wants to convey in Bluebird Kitchen, which offers breakfast and lunch to the Downtown crowd.

“I just want people to be happy,” says Moore, 35, of Mt. Lebanon. “I felt Downtown Pittsburgh really needed a breakfast and lunch place to provide a higher-quality, from-scratch product to go, with good service and good value.

“We're not the cheapest, but we make our own bread, our own breakfast pastries and desserts,” she says.

The aptly named Bluebird Kitchen —for the bluebird of happiness — opened May 11 on the Forbes Avenue arm off Market Square.

“I wanted an environment where you feel like you're walking into someone's home,” Moore says. So, she had the cafe decorated in classic style: molding along the painted-gray counter bar, marble countertops, white-subway tile behind the counter, and ceramic wood-tone tile underfoot. Most customers buy food to go, but many linger, perched on 11 metal stools at butcher-block bars.

Bluebird Kitchen serves breakfast until 11 a.m., including choices such as locally produced eggs, fried with cheddar and Swiss cheeses on house ciabatta bread or pretzel roll for $4.75. Pastrami-cured salmon on a toasted bagel, sweet potato-corned beef hash and large biscuits and gravy are all $5.50. Diners can opt for lighter fare, like muffins for $2.25 or breakfast bread pudding for $3.75.

Lunch choices include the house roast-beef sandwich with confit garlic, thyme onions, arugula and horseradish aioli on ciabatta for $8.75. The popular Cuban sandwich for $8.50 comprises braised-kurabuta pork belly, rosemary ham, house pickle, Gruyere cheese and mustard dressing on a ciabatta.

The cafe's luncheon meats are prepared in-house, often using the “sous vide,” or under vacuum, method that executive chef Steven Thompson prefers, which retains moisture in meats. The method uses a vacuum bag and water bath.

Bluebird Kitchen features a soup of the day for $3.75 per cup and $5 per bowl, and salads such as a Tuna Nicoise for $9 and a House-Roasted Chicken Salad with Point Reyes bleu cheese, roasted shallots, shaved pear and caramelized walnuts for $9.

Beverages include an array of coffees and drinks such as espresso, cappuccino and latte, hot chocolate, tea and chai latte.

“We make very good coffee,” Moore says. “I tried to make everything, across the board, of very good quality,” including the hot chocolate and teas. “I thought it was important to be consistent so people understand this is what we do. I think people have really taken us in and appreciate what we're doing here.”

Among them are leaders of a nearby 750-person Downtown law firm, who decided to have Bluebird Kitchen provide lunch service each day beginning this month.

Mt. Lebanon native Moore began her work career in industrial relations for in New York City, but “decided that wasn't my career goal.” She wanted to own her own business, and loved entertaining, though she has no professional training. So, she hired Thompson, who has 15 years' culinary experience, and Cogley, who trained at the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute, to head up the kitchen and pastry staffs, respectively.

The menu changes regularly, depending on the season, with available seasonal offerings.

Says Moore: “Feeding people — there's no more rewarding thing than that.”

Sandra Fischione Donovan is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

Pumpkin pie is a mainstay conclusion to Thanksgiving dinner, but not everyone likes the traditional holiday dessert. Enter Bluebird Kitchen executive pastry chef Julie Cogley, 25, of Lawrenceville, who came up with Drunken Pumpkin Cheesecake, a sensational twist on the traditional pumpkin confection.

The dessert name comes from the addition of dark rum to the pumpkin puree. The rum adds a deep, delicious bass undertone to the higher, flavorful notes of the pumpkin and spices. Additional tasty twists come in the gingersnap crust and delectable double topping.

Cheesecake can be tricky to make, so Cogley includes several hints, such as mixing ingredients on low beater speed and leaving the cheesecake in the oven with the heat turned off after it bakes, to prevent cracking.

Cogley adds two toppings designed to wow: One, melted white chocolate; and the other, a homemade pumpkin-seed brittle, for a decadent taste experience. The white chocolate has the practical advantage of disguising any cracks in the cheesecake, and the caramelized praline brittle gives a sweet, crunchy bling to the finished product. The dessert takes several steps but can be made in advance to impress one's Thanksgiving guests or contribute to a host's groaning board.

“I would definitely be excited to see something like this” on a holiday table, Bluebird Kitchen owner Liz Moore says. And, so were several recent Bluebird Kitchen patrons, whose eyes widened as Cogley carried the cheesecake through the cafe.

For the gingersnap crust:

Nonstick cooking spray

½ cup melted unsalted butter

½ cup granulated sugar

4 cups ground gingersnaps

For the filling:

3 packages (8 ounces each) cream cheese, at room temperature

1½ cups firmly packed light-brown sugar

1 cup sour cream

4 large eggs

½ cup canned pumpkin puree

1 tablespoon pumpkin spice or a total of 2 teaspoons cinnamon, ½ teaspoon ground ginger, ¼ teaspoon ground clove and ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 ounce Meyer's Dark Rum

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the white chocolate topping:

4 to 6 ounces white chocolate, melted in a double boiler on the stove or in a microwave

For the pumpkin-seed praline topping:

1 cup granulated sugar

¼ cup water�

1 cup toasted pumpkin seeds

To prepare the gingersnap crust: Heat the oven to 300 degrees.

Coat with cooking spray the bottom and sides of a 10-inch springform pan and line the sides of the pan with strips of parchment paper or waxed paper. Mix the melted butter, sugar and ground gingersnaps until the mixture is evenly moist. Press the mixture onto the bottom of the pan and set aside while preparing the filling (See Photo 1).

To prepare the filling: Mix the softened cream cheese and brown sugar on low speed in the bowl of a stand mixer or with a hand mixer until it is mixed and no lumps remain, making sure to scrape the sides of the bowl. With the mixer still on low speed, add the sour cream and stir until blended (Photo 2). Scrape the bowl after each addition, add the eggs, one at a time (Photo 3), and mix just until the eggs are incorporated. Do not overbeat. With the mixer still on a low speed, add the pumpkin, spices, rum, salt and vanilla, and stir until blended (Photo 4). Pour the filling into the prepared pan (Photo 5) and bake for 45 to 60 minutes or until the center of the cheesecake still jiggles slightly when shaken. Turn off the oven and crack the door. Leave the cheesecake in the oven to cool for about 1 to 2 hours or until room temperature to touch. This prevents the cheesecake from cracking as it cools. Store the cheesecake in a refrigerator, uncovered, for at least 4 hours or overnight.

To prepare the white chocolate topping: Melt the white chocolate (Photo 6) in a double boiler on the stove or in a microwave

To prepare the pumpkin-seed praline topping: In a heavy-bottom saucepan, combine the sugar and water and place over low heat. Do not stir. After the sugar starts to boil, watch the pot carefully until it turns a light-amber color. Remove the pan from the heat, and allow it to cool for one minute. Stir in the pumpkin seeds, and, working quickly, spread the caramel mixture on a sheet tray lined with greased parchment paper. Allow to cool and harden.

To assemble the cheesecake: Remove the cheesecake from the refrigerator. Pour the melted white chocolate on top, (perfect if your cheesecake did happen to crack) and before it sets, chop the praline into small pieces and sprinkle evenly over the top of the cake. After the chocolate sets, run the edge of a knife around sides and release from the pan before serving.

Makes one 10-inch cheesecake.

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