It's that time of year again. The time when I make big batches of pesto, fill my freezer with fish and blueberries, stock my pantry with canned peaches and (if I'm lucky) tomatoes, and consequently, find myself trying desperately to use the last of the previous summer's precious haul.
Most recently, it's been blueberries. Good berries are hard to come by, and in my opinion, you've never really eaten a blueberry if you haven't had one from Alaska. Juneau may be rainy and cool, but the fertile soil and wet weather makes for the best blueberries I've ever had; even frozen for nearly a year, these little guys are incredible.
I'm not sentimental—childhood toys and never-looked at photos don't hold much appeal for me—but nothing brings out my inner hoarder like a treasured stash of delicious (and hard-to-find) food. If I find and splurge on a real Spanish chorizo, my meal portions become pauper-like. Bring me a jar of homemade jam, and I'll be spreading it over toast and biscuits for months. With a big freezer bag full of blueberries, I found myself making Blueberry-Maple Syrup (for our now-regular Sunday brunch of pancakes) and little else.
Finally, a year after I picked them, I really needed to make room in the freezer. But what to make? I had an odd desire for blueberry coffee cake, but I also had a half-cup of Meyer lemon sugar languishing in the fridge. However, I was worried about trying something new: wasting a few cups of flour on a failed dish is expected from time to time, but what if I had to throw away—or worse yet, eat and not enjoy—a dessert studded with those carefully picked and lovingly saved blueberries? Quelle horreur!
I googled; I paged through cookbooks. I scribbled little notes and peered into the pantry, agonizing over blog postings and measurements. Eventually, Blueberry-Lemon Cheesecake Bars were born, and I have no regrets.
I initially was going to make an actual cheesecake, but despite my husband's endless love for it, it's usually a little too much for me. Cheesecakes are always too rich and too massive—perhaps I should invest in a 6 inch springform, but as it is, I need a special occasion to start working with that much cream cheese at once.
Instead, I decided to take it a bit easy. These bars are like cheesecake on Valium; there's the rich, lemony cheese custard swirled with violet fruit, but the amounts are nearly equal, and the crumbly tart-like almond crust is around half the thickness of the topping. The result is the kind of harmony I expect, but never experience, with cheesecake. Each bite has a little bit of everything and too much of nothing.
Blueberry-Lemon Cheesecake Bars
Note: Meyer lemons are long gone here, but whenever I come across a recipe that calls for juicing (but not zesting) a Meyer lemon, I make lemon sugar. Zest 1 Meyer lemon into ½ cup granulated sugar, distributing the oils with your fingers, then cover well, label the amount of sugar, and refrigerate or freeze. It will last almost forever—though the sugar will go rock-hard—and it saves you throwing away that lovely lemon zest.
For the crust:
¼ cup unbleached flour
¼ cup sugar
1 ½ cup almonds (I usually use raw, but I had a surplus of slivered and used those instead)
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
For the blueberry mixture:
1 ½ cups fresh or frozen blueberries (use the best you can find)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch or arrowroot (I've been using the latter lately and preferring it for unknown reasons)
For the cheesecake:
12 ounces full-fat cream cheese, room temperature (I find that low-fat or Neufchâtel don't set up properly, but feel free to experiment)
½ cup (Meyer) lemon sugar (see above, or substitute ½ cup sugar with zest of one lemon)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line an 8 inch baking pan with foil and butter well; set aside. In a food processor, combine all crust ingredients save the butter and pulse until it resembles coarse meal. Cut the butter into 5 or 6 pieces and add to the mixture. Pulse in 10-15 second increments until the dough holds together well with few crumbs. Press into the buttered foil evenly (this will make a nice thick crust of a scant centimeter; leave some out if you prefer a thinner crust) and bake 15-18 minutes, or until beginning to puff all over and turn golden. Remove from the heat and press the puffed parts down with the curved part of a spoon; set aside to cool.
Lower oven heat to 325°F.
Meanwhile, combine the berries and lemon juice in a small saucepan and set over medium heat. Stir together the sugar and starch and add to the mixture. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the berries have completely thawed (if frozen) and are getting bubbly, about 10 minutes (fresh berries will heat faster but take longer to break down a bit, so the time will probably be about the same, fresh or frozen). Remove from the heat and set aside, partially covered, to cool.
Combine all the cheesecake ingredients in a large bowl - make sure the cream cheese is fully softened or you might end up with lumpy cheesecake. Whisk all ingredients together well to combine.
Make sure that the crust is no longer too hot to touch (it needn't be room temperature). Scrape the Cheesecake mixture over the crust, spreading it evenly to the edges. Spoon the berry mixture, now barely warm, over the surface. Using a knife or your spatula, gently swirl the berries and cheesecake together a bit.
Bake 40-50 minutes, until cheesecake is set and beginning to turn golden at the edges, but just a little bit wobbly still in the center. Transfer to a rack to cool completely, then cover with plastic wrap and transfer to the refrigerator. For best results, refrigerate overnight before cutting.
To cut clean slices, remove the cheesecake from the pan with the foil and set on a cutting board. Cut into squares by heating a long, sharp knife under running water and drying it before cutting; rinse the knife between cuts.
Makes 16 cheesecake bites