sarah kieffer's picture perfect cheesecake

I told Sarah that I would be making her coffee cake.

It was the first thing I'd made from her new cookbook, The Vanilla Bean Baking Book. I didn't have a good coffee cake recipe that I relied on, and hers was as good as any, with its toasted almond flavor and a dreamy cream cheese swirl. I even had the first paragraph written out:

There are a handful of desserts that every baker, serious or otherwise, needs in their repertoire. A simple but great chocolate chip cookie. An incredibly moist banana bread. A chocolate cake for celebrations. And coffee cake.

And I believe that. I really, truly do.

But something happened.

As I gathered the ingredients to make it again, this time for a photoshoot, I turned back to her open cookbook and found that, since it had been sitting on the window ledge, the cool autumn wind had blown it to a new recipe. I'm not making this up.

The new recipe was for cheesecake.

Now I love cheesecake. It's probably the first dessert I really, truly ever fell in love with. I remember always dragging my childhood best friend to The Cheesecake Factory at the Galleria to grab slices from their to-go case; we would then share a slice, huddled on a mall bench, laughing and gossiping about the passerbys. Later, I discovered that the crazy cheesecakes that we'd eaten weekly topped with Snickers, cookie dough, and Oreos were too sweet and artificial for my taste. I much preferred simpler homemade ones, where the creamy and tart texture shined through.

But boy, does cheesecake not love me.

Cheesecake is tricky to make. The wrong recipe can be too bland and one-dimensional, tasting too much like a block of cream cheese and nothing else. Better recipes tend to downplay the importance of certain steps and actions, resulting in imperfect cheesecakes with browned sides and cracks on the top. It's easy to make a tasty, delicious cheesecake. But a picture-perfect one? That's another story.

In her beautiful cookbook, Sarah discusses the various steps she took to perfect her cheesecake recipe. And boy, does her research pay off! I followed her recipe almost to a tee, and it resulted in this beautiful cheesecake that you see in these photos. Each slice was an absolute dream, managing to be dense and creamy, but still perfectly light and not overly sweet. There's also a generous amount of sour cream in the recipe to prevent the cheesecake from being too rich, providing just the right amount of tasty tang.

I'll leave you with her words:

In all honesty, before writing this book, I hadn't made many noteworthy cheesecakes. They were delicious, but they often cracked at the top and were not always perfectly smooth. After spending weeks making one cheesecake after the other, I discovered some helpful tricks. Scraping down the bowl obsessively and beating the cream cheese for an extended period of time made for a creamy, smooth filling. Banging the pan against the counter to bring any air bubbles to the surface resulted in a cheesecake that rose perfectly and did not crack. Double wrapping the cheesecake pan in foil ensured white sides that didn't overbake. My cheesecakes are now dreamy, with a creamy base and a crisp graham cracker crust.

also featured:

Some baker's notes:
  • This is a recipe where it's important to pay attention to ingredient temperatures. Look, I know that waiting for butter and eggs to come to room temperature seems like a waste of time, and that often times recipes come together anyway even with cold ingredients. But it actually matters for this cheesecake, I promise. When ingredients are all at the same temperature, they are able to blend together more thoroughly, resulting in a very homogenized batter. A homogenized batter is super important in custards — you'll end up with less surprise air pockets and the large bubbles that can lead to cracks. For further study, check out this article by Alice Medrich on the ways egg temperatures can affect desserts, and this article by The Cake Blog on the ways ingredient temperatures affect cake textures.

  • I made some alterations to Sarah's original recipe. I swapped out her graham cracker cookie crust and made one from speculoos cookies instead (mostly because I am OBSESSED). I also like my cheesecakes to have a little bit of a citrus kick, so I rubbed the zest from 2 medium lemons into the sugar in the cheesecake batter before using (you can see little bits of lemon zest in my cheesecake top too). Head's up that the recipe as it's written below includes the speculoos change, but not the lemon zest.

  • If there's one thing that made me nervous about Sarah's recipe, it's the step where she instructs you to put a roasting pan full of water in the oven floor. Her theory for doing so is that it works similar to a bain-marie (a water bath) in that the steam from the water evaporating helps prevent the cheesecake from drying and cracking. Unfortunately, I have a bit of a janky, smaller New York City apartment gas oven, and setting the roasting pan on the oven floor meant that I was blocking off some pretty critical heat sources. Indeed, when I placed the pan as instructed, I noticed my oven temperature drop from a full 100 (C) degrees in temperature. I ended up cranking the temperature way up to get it back to the temperature it's supposed to be baked at, resulting in an edge that browned slightly too much where the oven was working overtime. So unless you've got a super fancy oven where this isn't a problem, what I recommend instead is placing an oven rack on the lower third rack of the oven, and setting the pan of water there instead. The cheesecake will go directly above the pan of water on the center rack. It works just as well, and will prevent you from blocking any heat from circulating properly.

  • Sudden temperature changes also cause cheesecake tops to crack. To combat this, many recipes instruct you to cool the done cheesecake slowly by leaving it in the off oven with the door cracked — that way, the cheesecake comes to room temperature slowly with the oven as it cools. Sarah instructs you to do this for 30 minutes, but after that time, I was a little paranoid that my cheesecake was still too hot to withstand my cold and drafty apartment. So in addition to leaving it in the oven, I "domed" the cheesecake by placing an upside down bowl over it. Doing so trapped some of the heat that the cooling cheesecake was omitting, creating a warm, humid environment that helped bring the cheesecake down to room temperature slowly. You can read more about the trick in this article by Alice Medrich on how to prevent cheesecakes from cracking.

cake decorating 101

I've partnered with The Hershey Company to bring you a quick guide to decorating a cake beautifully with just a handful of tools and ingredients! 

I get a lot of folks that ask me for tips and tricks on how to decorate cakes, and I always tell them this: don't panic, it's easier than you think. On Instagram, you'll see a lot of videos and tutorials of folks using fancy decorating tips, fondant, paint brushes, and more. But the truth is that you don't need all that to create a beautiful cake. In fact, all you really need is just one tool — the mighty offset spatula. Using just an offset spatula, I'll show you how to create four of the most popular cake decorating styles on Pinterest and Instagram today.

pumpkin meringue pie for friendsgiving!

Hi friends! Happy (almost) Thanksgiving!

Neither Erlend nor myself come from very traditional families, so we usually just spend Thanksgiving with each other and a small, quiet celebration. For the last few years, we've been roasting duck instead of turkey and doing Asian-style sides. Some people are weirded out by it, but it's our jam. Because here's a little secret: I kinda, sorta, am not really that into turkey. Or stuffing. Or cranberry sauce. Or Thanksgiving foods in general.

I know, I know. I'm the worst. But I don't know, the traditional Thanksgiving flavor combinations and ingredients just seem like they need some updating, ya know? Why have soggy brussels sprouts when you could have them momofuku style? Or a dry, overly large turkey when you can have a succulent, beer-roasted duck instead?

But alas, this year, we're breaking our little not-so-traditional tradition and doing something much more normal: eating turkey with Erlend's parents in the Upper West Side. And of course, I've been made in charge of the dessert. And instead of the cheesecakes, egg tarts, and matcha pies that I've often baked in place of all the traditional Thanksgiving desserts, I'm going somewhat old school with this pumpkin pie:

Okay, okay. With its speculoos crust and meringue topping, it's not the most traditional pumpkin pie. And this'll actually the second time in the last few months that I've made this pie. Because last month, I'd staged and styled a Friendsgiving photoshoot with some of my friends for Crate and Barrel (in the middle of October!). While I'm happy to spend time with Erlend and his incredibly sweet family, a part of me is a little disappointed that he and I are not doing the scrappy and somewhat rebellious dinner that we usually do. But luckily this (insanely) early Friendsgiving gave me the opportunity to get all that funkiness out of my system:

Because for Friendsgiving, I've traded traditional green bean casserole for a Middle Eastern green bean salad complete with caramelized onions, labneh, and za'atar. I've added brown butter and orange zest to my sweet potato mashed potatoes, and thrown roasted corn, bacon, and leeks into my cornbread stuffing. It's Thanksgiving alright, but with a much-needed millennial update. Oh god, is that the most obnoxious thing I've ever said? I'm sorry, I'm sorry.

Anyway, be sure to check out Crate and Barrel's blog to read more about my October Friendsgiving! I've got a cute little story about how each of the recipes were inspired by some of my oldest and newest friends, as well as a handful of tasty and vegetable focused sides like green beans with caramelized onions, labneh, and za'atar, cornbread stuffing with roasted corn, leeks, and bacon, and brown butter and orange zest mashed sweet potatoes. And of course, this pumpkin meringue pie, but you can also get the recipe down below.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Some baker's notes:
  • The crust is made from speculoos, a type of gingerbread cookie that's Dutch in origin. You can now find it in Trader Joe's or in regular supermarkets where it's sold as Biscoff. In a pinch, you can use ginger snap cookies or graham crackers, but I really recommend using speculoos as it adds a unique spice to the pie that's hard to emulate. If I had to guess, the flavor is some kind of combination of cinnamon, ginger, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, and pepper.

  • It's best to make the meringue right before serving; it stays soft, shiny, and silky that way, which contrasts wonderfully when torched and toasted. In a few hours, it will harden, but that's not necessarily a bad thing if you're into a harder meringue. 

maple orange amaranth granola (vegan + gluten-free)

A quick note before I get back to the regular programming: I just wanted to thank everybody who supported my last two posts (about blog burnout and last week) through emails, texts, and comments. The last few days have been difficult, and going back to the routine of blogging and social media has been a little bit hard to swallow — I can't help but feel that this space is so silly and inconsequential when compared to what's been happening elsewhere! But as I said in my last post, with such uncertain times ahead of us, it's important that we don't lose sight of the things that bring us joy and happiness. So thanks for putting up with my Twitter despair, and I hope that this blog continues to serve as a fun little refuge for both you and me. 

The other day, it occurred to me that I had been in New York for nearly six months and still hardly knew my new neighborhood at all, let alone the rest of the city. Several visitors had come to town asking me for recommendation and I froze, realizing that I only knew the bakeries and restaurants that all major publications and literally everybody else had already recommended.

To be fair, it was an incredibly busy last few months. There was all the traveling in September (to Copenhagen! to Hershey! to eastern Washington! to Feast!), and all the friends and families traveling through town (not to mention that it literally took us two months to move into our Brooklyn apartment). So with all the hustle and bustle, it really feels like I haven't established a routine yet, or set aside a time to really get to know the new neighborhood and the city.

So that all needs to change. It turns out that I am a creature of habit. I need the routine in my calendar, times when everything is the same all the time so I can actually make room and find the time for the new things like exploring the city. Does that make sense? Hopefully you get the gist.

I'm starting with the basics. I (finally) signed up for a gym membership and sat down with a highlighter to figure out all the classes I was determined to attend. And to make sure that I got a good start to the day and prevent myself from panicking at lunch time and speed eating a bag of potato chips, I made a big batch of this healthy AF granola to last me for months:

This granola comes from Alanna Taylor-Tobin's cookbook, Alternative Baker. Alanna is the incredibly talented blogger and photographer over at The Bojon Gourmet and her new cookbook is absolutely beautiful and full of wholesome, wonderful recipes. Alternative Baker focuses on baking recipes that use alternatives (hence the name) to all-purpose flour, instead using grains like almond, buckwheat, millet, and oat flours.

This granola uses amaranth, a grain used by the ancient Aztecs in religious rituals. Cooked amaranth has got a ton of nutritional value, and is an excellent source of protein and fiber. In this granola, they add a toasty flavor that makes the entire thing taste like a crisp, crunchy oatmeal cookie.


Some baker's notes:
  • Alanna uses a genius trick: she bakes the granola in between two sheet pans, ensuring that it bakes in a cluster that clumps into a thin, granola bar. Unlike traditional granola recipes that require you to toss the granola every so often, her trick basically eliminates all that extra work!

this week

On Tuesday night, I watched, in stunned silence, as the unthinkable happened. One by one, slowly but steadily, the electoral map turned a bright, bold red. States that were historically blue, counties that had voted for Bill Clinton, Gore, Kerry, and Obama over the years, instead chose a man who is the antithesis of everything that their former votes stood for. My glass of wine on the table sat full, forgotten. My cell phone buzzed with messages of disbelief first, then fear, and finally, hopelessness.

On Wednesday morning, I woke up before my alarm with a jolt and immediately leapt to my computer. I watched with horror, with my hair still plastered to the side of my face, the video of a sedate and almost seemingly stunned Trump giving the acceptance speech that confirmed him as the President-Elect of the United States. But the tears didn't start flowing until I scrolled through Twitter — tweets assuring Muslim women that it was okay to remove their hijab if they felt unsafe, that Allah would understand. Another one of a gay, black woman asking what kind of future she had in our country. Of women advising other women to get an IUD before the funding for birth control pills was taken away.

Like a sleepwalker, I went through the motions of getting ready for work. A few moments after I stepped out of my apartment, a black man walking the opposite direction gave me a sad smile. He held up a newspaper with Trump's face and said, "We're fucked, aren't we?" I felt the effort in my face as it twisted into a grimace. The subway train was quiet, somber. Women with bloodshot eyes and puffy faces made eye contact with each other, looking away quickly, wordlessly acknowledging the failure of our country to uplift the accomplishments of our gender. According to the numbers, 47.5% of my country saw me as both something lesser AND something to fear and fight against. At face value, that number translated to half the room, almost every other person in my subway car. Was it you? I studied the anonymous faces one by one, without my usual shame or embarrassment. Are you the one at war against me? The one who believes that I don't belong here because of my gender, the color of my skin, my parents, my last name, my education, and where I was born? Was it you? IS it you?

The insidious sexism, the systemic racism, the fear of the other, the constant mistrust of what is different, the never-ending resistance against progress. This week's election showed us that all those things are not only very much alive, but thriving within our country. To quote my wise friend Lily,

This is who we are.
And it's fucking uncomfortable.
And it's fucking awful.
And it's fucking real.
And we have a lot of fucking work to do.

Indeed, there is work ahead of us. We need to learn from our failures, to stop isolating ourselves in the bubbles that blind us, and to try and treat everybody with the compassion and kindness that we also want for ourselves.

And with such darkness and hate flooding our lives, it's important that we don't lose sight of the little things that give us joy and happiness. So yes, in a short time, there will be the cakes, the cookies, and the desserts that bring you here. The pretty pictures, the light-hearted stories, the trivial tweets.

But right now, there is this.

the best red velvet cake + five years of blogging

Today is my blog's fifth birthday, and I can hardly believe it. Five freaking years, indeed!

And as per tradition, every year my blog's birthday rolls around, I like to look back on its accomplishments and see how it's grown and progressed. The first year, with these confetti cookies from (the now sorta lame) Momofuku Milk Bar, I was ecstatic. I talked about all the things I'd learned about blogging, how hard it was, and how excited I was to do more. The second year were some pink champagne cupcakes and my first giveaway; I talked about the accomplishments of the year (including my first Saveur nomination!) and upping my photo game with a new camera, Photoshop classes, and Instagram. The third year, with the help of Molly's now crazy famous funfetti cake, I got real and talked about why I started this blog and how it inadvertently lifted me from a bout of depression. The fourth year, with a naked red velvet cake, I went even further and talked about all the new friends and relationships that are a direct result of this blog, and how grateful I am for all of it.

And as usual, this year, I am equal parts excited, motivated, nostalgic, thankful, and perhaps a new emotion: exhausted.

Maybe that's not what you guys want to hear, especially at a time that's supposed to be about celebration and accomplishment. But I've never been one to shy away from real talk when it's needed, and I think it's time for another one of those posts.

I don't consider myself a veteran blogger. There are some folks who have been doing it since 2000s, while the rest of us were still in middle school updating our MySpace pages and chatting on AIM. In theory, five years is nothing compared to ten, fifteen. But still. In that time, I've watched with wonder, and almost a lack of control, as my blog turned into a hobby that I would work on when I felt like it to a small business that pays its own taxes, has its own agent and agency, and adheres to client contracts, SOWs, and FTC regulations.

But unfortunately, with this transition of blogging for a hobby to basically running a small business in addition to my full-time job, I've burnt myself out. Because over the last few years, the way I talked about my blog to close friends and families changed. The response to "What are your plans this weekend?" went from "Oh! I'm planning on trying out this recipe I bookmarked last week that I've been curious about for ages!" to "I have to develop a recipe for a client that requires this ingredient and make edits for a post for another client." Reactions to the photos I saw on my Instagram stream went from "Oh, that's gorgeous! I love that! Good for them!" to "What the fuck?! How does that person have so much engagement but have less followers than me?" The change was subtle and slow, but one day it was there all at once.

And this is where it gets tricky. Five years ago, it was rare to find people who blogged full time. Quite frankly, the opportunities weren't there. But these days, brands have almost caught up. Bloggers can now earn a decent living working with companies, advertising, freelancing, and more. And I genuinely, genuinely believe that's awesome. As I've said in the past, we all work too hard and too much for blogging to not be recognized as a legitimate career. I recognize that I'm incredibly lucky to have had the opportunities that were granted to me.

But at the same time, I think those opportunities might be killing my love for my blog.

Because those very same opportunities have made it difficult for me to see my blog in other terms besides its analytics. When every agent, agency, brand, company, and (if we're being honest) blogger is judging your worth by your pageviews and social media numbers, it's incredibly hard not to start to do so yourself. From there on, it's easy to get taken over by The Bug, to get sucked into the game of "how to grow your blog from zero to a million", and to try and keep up with the ever increasing demands of running a "successful" blog and all the damn internet trends that drive people to blogs and accounts (Tasty videos, I'm looking at you). The market is more saturated than ever, with more and more talented folks joining the game and doing all the easy tricks and hacks to grow fast (like what on earth is a feedfeed editor and why does they all seem to drive so much Instagram engagement?). It's harder to get noticed and stay noticed. And with my focus now on keeping up with all those things and struggling to stay relevant, the reasons why I started blogging and why I kept on doing so for so long — my love for baking, photography, and my friends — are almost forgotten. Or at the very least, seem very, very far away.

There are days where I legitimately feel like I no longer enjoy what I do here.

So what do I do from here?

I'm wrapping up a few long term partnerships at the end of the year, and then I'm likely scaling back from all the events, sponsored posts, and trips. I'll make an exception for the companies I really like and think is a good fit, but put my foot down on the ones I don't (even more than I already do, because you should see three-quarters of the crap that lands in my inbox). I'll start writing more about non-baking topics that interest me, even though it'll probably make half of you guys yawn. And for several years, I've been following a strict editorial calendar dictating when and what to post. Haha, bye boi to that.

Because I recently read a post from Dine and Dish about slow blogging that I really, genuinely enjoyed and took to heart  (in fact, it partially inspired this post!) . You can read more about it here, but the short of the long is that slow blogging is the focus on crafting meaningful posts at your own paceFor me, that means ignoring all those trends and pressures that I've been sucked into, and instead allowing myself to explore the new skills, topics, and recipes that genuinely interest me.

Like this red velvet cake.

For a long time, I really didn't know what to make for such a significant milestone like my blog's fifth birthday. I wanted to go all out. A red velvet cake certainly qualifies for the occasion, but I was paranoid that since I'd made one last year, it wouldn't be all that special. But honestly, who the fuck cares besides me?

That's right, no one. (I hope. Otherwise, get out of here!)

I've mentioned in last year's post that I've been looking for the perfect red velvet cake recipe for many, many years. Last year's cake base was near perfect — incredibly moist, with just the right touch of orange flavor that I've been looking for — but the frosting wasn't quite right. No matter what people say (including what I've said in the past), red velvet cake should always be paired with cream cheese frosting. Which is what I've done here today.

So here's to another five years of (hopefully SLOW) blogging!

Some baker's notes:
  • It can be quite difficult to frost this cake because its crumb is so open, light, and airy. I recommend making the cake the day before serving, wrapping each layer in plastic wrap, and refrigerating overnight to chill all the layers. Chilling the layers will help the crumbs stay together and not beak away from the cake when you frost it. If opting for a fully frosted cake, I definitely, definitely recommend covering the cake with a crumb layer first before frosting. Also, make sure to double the frosting ingredient quantities if going for the full look.

  • A note on ingredients — this recipe uses a handful of specialty baking ingredients like espresso powder and Fiori di Sicilia extract. I wanted to go all out for five years, you see! Both are available at King Arthur Flour's store. Espresso powder is there to enhance the otherwise subtle chocolate flavor of this red velvet cake. Fiori di Scilia is a sort of Italian citrusy extract that enhances the orange in the recipe. In a pinch, you can omit or replace with orange extract (for a more citrusy flavor) or orange blossom water (for a more floral flavor). Also, because this cake uses a lot of red food coloring, I suggest using a red food coloring gel as opposed to plain old red food coloring dye. In my experience, gels tend to disperse color more evenly throughout the batter and you end up with a more vividly colored baked good. I also think that gels taste less artificial than dyes, but that one might just be in my head.

  • I saved a little bit of the cake batter to make the donuts you see on top of the cake. I actually wouldn't recommend it — red velvet doesn't really make for a good donut! It dries out too easily or something. But, if you really insist, you can reserve about a 1/2 cup of the batter and, using a mini donut pan, follow the instructions for baking the donuts and making the chocolate glaze in my recipe for mini funfetti donuts

weeknight dinner: orange freakin' chicken

Hihihi! Happy Halloween!!!

Do you follow me on Twitter? If so, do you know about my sordid, steamy love affair with orange chicken? I'm partial to the Panda Express kind (Molly, Cale, and I have been trying to convince them for a good year-and-a-half now to take us on an influencer trip, EHEM PANDA EHEM WE'RE STILL WAITING), but in a pinch, I'll settle for Trader Joe's frozen version or the sketchy takeout place down the street.

And until recently, I was always a little scared to make it from scratch at home. And why bother, especially if it's just a takeout menu away?

Because it's like roasting your own chicken instead of grabbing it from the HOT FOOD section at Whole Foods, or making your own non-box mix cake for the first time. A rite of passage, and not actually all that hard or scary when it comes down to it. Well... okay, fine. Unlike your own roasted chicken and making your own cake — both of which are infinitely better than their HOT FOOD/shelf-stable mix counterparts — I wasn't actually 100% convinced that the homemade version was better. I mean, don't get me wrong, it was DELICIOUS, but push comes to shove, I'll probably still reach for the takeout menu next time. Besides this was a fun little weeknight project instead of just spending countless hours binge-watching Shameless (I'm late to THAT party, I know).

I adapted the recipe from one of my favorite savory blogs, The Woks of Life. If you're ever looking for an Asian recipe — or really, any recipe at all — you really need to check their blog out. It's full of amazing stories and photos, all guiding you through the most delicious recipes. The main changes I made were mostly to make it more low-brow and more similar to the ingredients I found in copycat Panda Express orange chicken recipes and the back of a Trader Joe's orange chicken bag.


This post was done in partnership with Food52 who provided me with a Staub rice cooker. I've been a big fan of Staub cookware for many years now; their cookware is not only incredibly functional and durable, but extremely beautiful. This petite rice cooker in the blue color with the brass hardware is only available at Food52As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own. Thank you for supporting Hummingbird High and all my partners! 

also featured:

Some maker's notes:
  • The original recipe from The Woks of Life uses half orange juice and half chicken stock for the sauce, but when I tried that, while tasty, it was far more umami than what the Panda Express variety traditionally tastes like. I subbed out the chicken stock for another portion of orange chicken for a sweeter dish.

  • I used both dark soy sauce and light soy sauce in this recipe because both those ingredients were listed in the back of the Trader Joe's orange chicken bag. Dark soy sauce is richer, saltier, and sweeter than light soy sauce, which is traditionally used more as a light dipping sauce. In a pinch, you can use whatever soy sauce you happen to have on hand, but it's worth reading up on the flavor differences between soy sauces and seeing what nuances they can add to your dishes!