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Sweet techniques

| Sunday, Feb. 5, 2006

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- If George Geary wasn't stirring lemon curd, dressed in a pink shirt and huge black apron, he might look like the kind of guy who would be suiting up today for the Super Bowl.

The longtime cooking instructor, pastry chef and cookbook author cuts an imposing figure at the kitchen counter. But his bear-like hands are gentle enough to turn out flaky pastry dough, melt-in-your mouth cookies and scrumptious cheesecakes.

"My whole life is a big joke," he says with an infectious laugh. "I have a good time."

The 300 participants in the annual Lakeview Golf Resort & Spa Food Fest, held last weekend near the University of West Virginia, got a good lesson in baking sweets from Geary, whose theme was "Just Desserts." Geary, the former pastry chef and production manager for Walt Disney Corp. and the Marriott Corp. has shared his skills with students in 100 schools across the country and in all of the states except Maine.

He is the author of three cookbooks, all of them published by Robert Rose in paperback, $18.95 each: "125 Best Cheesecake Recipes," "125 Best Biscuit Mix Recipes" and "125 Best Food Processor Recipes." A fourth book -- he calls it "my big book of baking," for want of a formal title -- will be released around the holidays in 2007.

Between teasing audience members and telling naughty stories about his mother -- "she's 5 foot 2, weighs 102 pounds and can eat an entire cheesecake in one sitting" -- Geary, who co-owns a cooking school in Anaheim, Calif., discussed some of the ups and downs of home baking.

One problem area involves rolling out pie pastry. Geary says not to be shy about using flour on the board or rolling pin.

"Grandma told us not to use too much flour," he says with a laugh. "She's not here. She wanted us to fail."

His easy technique avoids flipping the dough and turning it as you roll. Starting at the center of a chilled dough disc, roll out toward the top of the circle, pick up the rolling pin, place it again at the dough's center, and roll down. Move the dough one-quarter turn, then re-roll toward the top and bottom. After that, roll the pin diagonally in from the center in clock-like directions: 10 o'clock, 4 o'clock, 2 o'clock and 7 o'clock. That's all it should take.

Geary was peppered with questions from audience members on a variety of subjects, including:

  • The best fat to use for pie crust: "If you want a pie crust that will win the State Fair, use lard."

  • The reason for using unsalted butter in recipes: "Do you know how much salt is in regular butter• No• Well, why use it• At least you know that there isn't any in the unsalted kind. Salt is used as a preservative, which is why unsalted butter has a shorter shelf life."

  • His thoughts on convection ovens: "Convection ovens are one of the most difficult (home kitchen appliances) to figure out, unless you use it all the time. If you are baking something for 20 minutes or less, a convention oven is OK -- cookies, muffins or scones, for example. For more than 20 minutes, use a conventional oven."

  • The causes of cracks in cheesecakes and custard pies, such as pumpkin: "If you let a cheesecake or pie cool in a drafty place -- like under an air vent -- it'll cause cracks or, at least, ripples across the surface." He also recommends that all filling ingredients be at room temperature when combining them. "If the butter and cream cheese are at different temperatures when they are mixed, that might cause cracking."

    Geary also advises students never to substitute reduced-fat ingredients when baking sweets.

    "Light or fat-free cream cheese is horrible in cheesecakes," he says. "Stick with the real stuff and just have half a slice."

    Unless you are his mother.

    For more information and additional recipes from George Geary, visit www.georgegeary.com

    Lemon Curd Swirl Cheesecake

    George Geary says to wash the lemons well before grating the zest. Lemons are easier to juice by rolling them firmly on a counter first to break up the membranes. All of the filling ingredients need to be at room temperature to help prevent the top of the cheesecake from cracking.

    Geary, author of "125 Best Cheesecake Recipes" (Robert Rose, $18.95 paperback), recommends using a quality cheesecake pan instead of a springform pan. A cheesecake pan has solid sides with a pop-up bottom, a flat metal disc similar to a tart pan bottom. The sides do not have a spring that can rust, and the cheesecake pan does not need to be greased.

    If you are crushing the cookies in a food processor, snap them in half first. "Don't put anything circular in the food processor," Geary says. "It will just spin around."

    For the crust:

    • 1 1/2 cups lemon cookie crumbs, homemade ( see recipe on this page ) or from purchased cookies
    • 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, melted

    For the filling:

    • 5 large egg yolks
    • 1/3 cup plus 3/4 cup granulated sugar, divided
    • 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, divided
    • 1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened, cut up
    • 3 packages (8 ounces each) cream cheese, softened
    • 3 large eggs
    • 2 tablespoons grated lemon zest
    • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

    Heat the oven to 325 degrees.

    In a medium bowl or a food processor fitted with the steel or plastic blade, stir together the crust ingredients, until of a wet sand consistency. Press into the bottom of a 9-inch cheesecake pan or two 6-inch pans -- do not press up the sides. Place the pan in the freezer.

    Bring 1 inch of water to a simmer in the bottom of a double boiler. In the top of the double boiler (preferably glass), off the heat, whisk the egg yolks to break them up fully. Sprinkle 1/3 cup sugar slowly over the top of the egg yolks, whisking gently. In a steady stream, whisk in 1/4 cup lemon juice.

    Place the top of the double boiler over the simmering water (the bottom of the bowl should not touch the water). Cook, stirring constantly, for 7 minutes or until the mixture is thick. Whisk in the butter, a little at a time, until melted and smooth and the mixture coats the back of a wooden spoon. Cool the mixture in a small bowl.

    In a large bowl, beat the cream cheese and remaining 3/4 cup sugar at medium-high speed for 3 minutes. Add the whole eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the lemon zest, remaining 1 tablespoon lemon juice and the vanilla until blended. Swirl half of the cooled lemon mixture into the cream cheese mixture. Refrigerate the remaining lemon mixture, which will be used for the topping, until ready to serve.

    Pour the batter over the crust, smoothing it out to touch the sides of the pan. Bake for 45 to 55 minutes or until the cheesecake starts to pull away from the sides of the pan but is still a bit loose in the center and looks puffy. Cool on a wire rack for 2 hours. Cover and refrigerate at least 2 hours before decorating or serving. Before serving, top with the reserved lemon mixture.

    Makes 10 to 12 servings.

    Chocolate-Pecan-Bourbon Pie

    Here's a luscious pie suitable for serving your sweetie on Valentine's Day. It's so rich that you might want to start out with small portions. Do not substitute pancake syrup for the pure maple syrup.

    Flaky Crust Dough ( recipe follows ) 1/4 cup unsalted butter 1 cup firmly packed brown sugar 3 large eggs 1 cup pure maple syrup 1/4 cup bourbon whiskey 1 cup pecan halves 1/2 cup semisweet chocolate, cut into bite-sized pieces

    Prepare the Flaky Crust Dough. Line a 9-inch pie pan with the dough. Flute the edges as desired.

    Place the oven rack in the center position. Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

    In a large bowl, beat the butter for 2 minutes, or until softened. Beat in the brown sugar (if both ingredients are at room temperature, this can be done by hand). Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the maple syrup and bourbon until well-blended.

    Place the pecans and chocolate pieces in the bottom of the crust. Place the pie pan on a baking sheet, pull out the oven rack, place the baking sheet on the rack, pour the filling into the crust, and push the rack back into the oven. Do this quickly to keep the oven temperature up, being careful not to spill the filling. (You have a greater risk of spilling the filling if you pour it into the crust while the pie plate is on the counter and you transfer it to the oven.)

    Bake for 45 to 50 minutes or until firm. The filling will look puffy, but will sink after cooling. Let cool on a wire rack.

    Makes a 9-inch pie.

    Flaky Crust Dough

    • 1 2/3 cups cake flour
    • 1 cup all-purpose flour, more for rolling out dough
    • 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
    • 1 teaspoon salt
    • 3/4 cup vegetable shortening, such as Crisco
    • 3/8 cup ice water, more if needed

    To mix by hand: In a large bowl, stir together the cake flour, 1 cup all-purpose flour, the sugar and the salt. Add the shortening and rub or cut the mixture into small pieces or lumps the size of small peas. Do not mix into a paste. Using 2 forks, stir in the ice water until all of the flour is absorbed. The dough might be lumpy at this point. Roll the dough into a ball; cover or wrap and refrigerate for 15 to 20 minutes.

    To mix with a food processor: Place the cake flour, all-purpose flour, sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Pulse the ingredients several times to mix. Place the shortening in chunks around and on top of the dry mixture. Pulse about 20 times to distribute the shortening; you do not want the mixture to form a ball. With the processor running, pour in the water until the mixture is moistened. Again, do not let the dough form a ball while processing.

    Remove the dough from the processor, smear it on a clean work surface, then wrap and refrigerate for 15 to 20 minutes.

    Using a floured surface, flatten the dough to create a flat, round, thick pancake. Use a rolling pin -- preferably a baker's wooden dowel instead of one with handles -- to further flatten the dough. Roll out.

    The best way to roll out pie dough is to place the dowel on the center of the dough, then roll toward the top. Second, roll from the center to the bottom. Turn the dough 1/4 turn; roll from the center to the top, then roll from center to bottom. Do not flip the dough.

    Roll from the center out on a diagonal to the 10 o'clock position, then to the 4 o'clock position. Repeat the diagonals toward the 2 o'clock position, then toward 7 o'clock. Always start in the center and work outward. If the dough is disc-shaped to start, you will have an easier time working the dough into the desired size.

    Check for the correct size by placing the pie pan on top of the rolled-out dough.

    Makes one 9-inch pie crust.

    Pecan-Praline Muffins

    George Geary makes an annual tour of New Orleans, appearing at the Cookin' Cajun Cooking School along the Riverwalk Marketplace. The school is undergoing reconstruction after being damaged by Hurricane Katrina last fall. Geary says this recipe is from the school -- use mini muffin pans, because larger pans will produce underbaked muffins.

    Vegetable cooking spray 2 cups firmly packed brown sugar 2 cups pecans, chopped, toasted 1 1/3 cups unsalted butter, melted 1 cup all-purpose flour 4 large eggs, beaten 2 teaspoons vanilla extract Cream Cheese Icing, optional ( recipe follows )

    Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Coat mini muffin pans with vegetable cooking spray.

    In a large bowl, stir together the brown sugar, pecans, melted butter, flour, eggs and vanilla until blended and moistened. Do not beat. Turn the batter into the prepared muffin cups and bake for 20 minutes.

    If frosting with the Cream Cheese Icing, let the muffins cool in the pans completely first.

    Makes 48 mini muffins.

    Cream Cheese Icing

    This recipe makes enough to frost a 9-inch two layer cake. It goes well with carrot muffins and cake. If all of the ingredients are at room temperature -- particularly the cream cheese and butter -- it will be easier to incorporate them.

    • 1 pound cream cheese, softened
    • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
    • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
    • 5 cups confectioners' sugar

    In a large bowl, beat the cream cheese and butter for 2 minutes or until smooth. Beat in the vanilla until blended. Gradually beat in the confectioners' sugar, 1 cup at a time. Refrigerate, covered, for 2 hours or until firm.

    Lemon Butter Cookies Drenched in Chocolate

    These light and lemony cookies can be crumbled and used as a crust for cheesecake. If serving them whole, dip them in or drizzle them with chocolate or drench them in confectioners' sugar for a finished look.

    1 cup granulated sugar, plus more for rolling 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened 1 large egg 1/2 cup vegetable oil 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract 1/3 teaspoon lemon extract Grated zest from 1/2 large lemon 3 cups all-purpose flour 1 teaspoon baking soda 1 teaspoon cream of tartar 1/8 teaspoon salt 12 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, melted, cooled

    Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.

    In a large bowl, beat 1 cup granulated sugar, the butter, egg, oil, vanilla, lemon extract and grated zest at medium speed until well-blended.

    Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, stir together the flour, baking soda, cream of tartar and salt. Stir into the butter mixture until fully incorporated. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

    Place enough granulated sugar in a small shallow bowl to coat the dough balls. Place a round piece of dough about the size of a large walnut into the palms of your hands and roll it into a ball. Roll the dough in sugar, then place on a baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining dough.

    Bake 10 to 12 minutes or until light brown in color. Let cool on a wire rack. Dip in or drizzle with melted chocolate.

    Makes 2 dozen cookies.

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