As I took a bite of Chef Jeff Smedstad’s "pay de queso" (Mexican cheesecake), my mind took me back to my childhood’s kitchen. I pictured my mom baking pays for the holidays and a younger me eager to eat.
“This is the real deal,” I told Smedstad. The chef and owner of the reknowned Elote Cafe in Sedona says he was influenced by a trip to Veracruz where he learned about the craft of homemade Mexican cheesecake – sort of a lighter, less sweet, less dense version of our beloved New York cheesecake. He put a spin on the traditional Mexican dessert with goat cheese from Fossil Creek Goat Farm in Strawberry, Arizona, near Payson. The result is absolutely exquisite.
The goat cheese cheesecake is just one example of the 200-plus unique recipes found on his new cookbook The Elote Cafe Notebook, now available for pre-order on Amazon and out in late July. Smedstad may get a sales boost thanks to being named a semifinalist for the Best Chef: Southwest award in the 2017 James Beard Awards, sometimes called "The Oscars of Food." But, alas, like the other five chefs and restaurants nominated, Smedstad did not make the cut for the finals. But you can't hold this guy down for long.
Smedstad is all about learning right from the source. For this cookbook, he traveled to remote Mexican villages (such as Mérida in the Yucatan to master the making of cochinita pibil, pictured below) to learn new flavors and methods of cooking. He then brought the new techniques back to Arizona to blend them with the influences of his grandmother’s kitchen in North Dakota and the Southwest culture that now surrounds him in Sedona.
His long-anticipated second book is not only a list of recipes; it’s a storytelling cookbook that includes more simplistic dishes such as green chile popcorn, margaritas, caldos (soups), appetizers, entrees and desserts the home cook can try without getting too far outside their comfort zone (no octopus ink foam, here). It also includes step-by-step guides to classic dishes he's been churning out for years at his restaurant – recipes from his scribbled notebooks full of ongoing experiments and simple last-minute dishes he likes to whip up at home for friends.
The Arizona native explained this new book is more about a reflection of his personality, rather than an account of his career as a chef, as opposed to his first book from 2009. “It was a very restaurant book,” he says. “The second book is about what’s happening in the evolution of my cooking since I’ve been here up in Sedona.”
You can learn more about the cookbook here. Chef Smedstead shares his etheral Mexican cheesecake recipe below.
771 State Route 179, Sedona
Hours: Tue-Sat 5 p.m. – 9 p.m.
Goat Cheese Cheesecake
For the cheesecake:
1 pound of fresh goat cheese, room temperature
1 pound of cream cheese, room temperature
2 cups of sugar
1 teaspoon of vanilla paste
2 tablespoons of lime juice
5 eggs, room temperature
For the crust:
2 cups of graham cracker crumbs
½ cup of brown sugar
¼ pound of melted butter
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Put the cheeses and sugar into a bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle. Beat in the vanilla paste and lime juice, then beat a little longer until the mixture is smooth.
Add the eggs to the mixer one by one, beating after each egg until it is fully incorporated. After the first two eggs, stop the mixer and scrape down the sides to make sure that you’re getting everything mixed well. Beat in the final three eggs and set aside.
Mix the three items for the crust well in a bowl and pat them into a pan lined with parchment paper that has been sprayed with a cooking spray like Pam. Press the crust into place well. Fill the crust with the cheese mixture.
Bake the cheesecake about 45 minutes and check for doneness. See if it has firmed up and perhaps insert a toothpick and see if it comes out clean. If it does, you’re done. Allow the cheesecake to cool for at least an hour, then transfer to the refrigerator.
To take it up a notch, top with cajeta (Mexican caramel made with goat's milk).
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