Monday, October 5, 2009

Eli's Cheesecake Festival 2009!


Every year, I look forward to visiting Eli's Cheesecake headquarters, on the west side of the city. I've been going to their festival for years solely to take advantage of the great sales and discounts they have on cheesecake. I tend to stock up during the festival so that when the holidays come, I'll have cheesecakes for last minute desserts or even hostess gifts to give. I also liked watching the culinary demos that were available during the festival. They tend to feature local chefs from various outlets - restaurants, grocery stores, specialty gourmet shops, etc.

Just as I do every year, I looked forward to visiting Eli's Cheesecake Festival. However this year was a bit different. Not only did I attend but I was a part of it! Eli's Cheesecake President, Marc Schulman is a social media buddy and we had the pleasure of meeting each other over the summer at the Taste of Chicago. Since then we've kept in touch. A couple of months ago, while he was in the planning stages of this year's Cheesecake Festival, Marc contacted me and asked if I would be interested in doing a culinary demo on stage. It was with great honor to be able to share what I do with patrons of this year's festival!

I worked closely with Sarah, Eli's marketing manager during the weeks leading up to the festival and before I knew it, it was show time. I was the first culinary demo of the day so I had a lot of time to prepare, set up and get ready for my presentation. Upon arriving, the cooking tent was pretty much set up with chairs. The stage was fitted with all the main tools needed. There are really very little for me to do.

We put up our What's Cookin, Chicago banner across the front of the stage...



We also had brochures, fliers and coupon cards ready to pass out to those that attended...


I was given 45 minutes to do my culinary demo/presentation. Because I knew there would be limited resources on the stage itself, I prepared most of the dishes in advance. This allowed me to focus more on the audience and engaging with them, instead of fussing with actual cooking.


The dishes I prepared for my demo/presentation included...

Chicken, Cheddar & Apple Meatballs

These meatballs are a great alternative to the usual pork or beef meatballs commonly seen. I wanted to highlight fall ingredients and flavors so to pair with the chicken, I added roasted apples for sweetness and some shredded cheddar cheese. I also shared with the audience some tips that helped me with this dish:
  • Ground chicken can be pricey, because ultimately you're paying for the time and effort of someone else to process the chicken for you. If you have a food processor at home, you can buy sale cuts (such as chicken leg quarters, thighs, breasts, etc), de-bone them at home and process the meat in your food processor. Tip- freeze the de-boned chicken for 30 minutes to 1 hour prior to processing. This will help prevent your chicken from turning into a mushy paste and will help maintain a nice grind.

  • If you're not too comfortable with handling raw chicken, especially when making meatballs, you can avoid forming meatballs by hand by using a scoop. They come in all sorts of sizes and using a scoop will help you have uniform meatballs. Also, the heat from your hands if you form meatballs by hand may affect the texture. This isn't an issue when you use a scoop!

  • Apples are great on their own but when roasted, all the natural sugars have a chance to caramelize and adds a nice depth of flavor. I roasted a combination of Granny Smith and Jonagold apples, which were peeled and cored. After roasting, they were finely chopped up in a food processor and added to the ground chicken. The apples added a subtle sweetness that really complimented the chicken.

  • Shredded cheese has been a major convenience item. However if you purchase a block of cheese and shred it yourself, you can save some money and even get more for what you do pay for. For these meatballs I used a combination of sharp and mild cheddar cheese. Apples go well with cheddar cheese and I figured adding just a bit to these meatballs will provide just enough flavor to meld with the chicken and apple.

  • Place 2 lbs of ground chicken, 1 cup processed roasted apples and 1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese in a bowl. Add to the bowl 1/2 cup dried breadcrumbs, 1/4 cup milk, 1/2 tablespoon of poultry seasoning and salt and pepper to taste. Carefully combine all the ingredients until fully incorporated.

  • Form the meatballs with a scoop (or by hand if you'd like) and place on a cookie sheet. Another tip - instead of a cookie sheet, I used a mini muffin pan. It allowed each meatball to cook separately and evenly. Bake the meatballs in a 350 degree oven for 20-23 minutes until browned on one side. Remove and serve.

  • You can serve the meatballs as an appetizer, in a bun for chicken meatball sandwich or even use the meatball mixture to fill mushroom caps for a flavorful stuffed mushroom!


Roasted Butternut Squash & Pear Puree
There are very few people I know who don't like mashed potatoes. It's certainly a comfort food but at the same time, it can be pretty heavy on carbs. As an alternative, I prepared a colorful yet tasty roasted butternut squash and pear puree. Some of the tips I shared with the audience on making this dish included:
  • Roasting butternut squash is easy and so affordable, especially during the fall months when they are in season. Simply cut the butternut squash in half, scoop out the seeds, drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Bake the squash in a baking dish at 350 degrees for 30-45 minutes, depending on the size of your squash. It may take longer but look for the squash to be soft enough to scoop out easily. Once you've scooped out all the flesh, process it in your food processor until smooth.

  • Just as I did with the apples for the meatball dish I prepared, I did the same thing to pears. The pears were roasted also to add some sweetness to this puree. Any kind of firm pear would work nicely and you don't need to peel the pears. I kept the skin on but cored them before roasting. After they've roasted for 25-30 minutes, I processed them in a food processor and combined it with the butternut squash.

  • To finish this dish, combine 2 cups of pureed butternut squash, 1/4 cup of pureed roasted pears, 1/4 cup chicken stock, 1/4 cup melted butter and salt & garlic powder to taste. Place in a baking dish and heat up to warm before serving.


Pumpkin Cheesecake Mousse
with Graham Cracker Crumbles
My final dish to end on a sweet note was my Pumpkin Cheesecake Mousse, which I assembled on stage. This recipe highlights one of my favorite fall flavors - pumpkin. To make, it only requires 5 ingredients:

- 1 15oz can of pumpkin pie filling (which is already spiced and sweetened)
- 2 8oz packages of cream cheese, softened
- 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
- 5 cups of heavy cream, cold
- crumbled graham crackers for garnish

In a large bowl, combine the pumpkin pie filling, cream cheese and vanilla. Mix until fully incorporated and set aside.

In a bowl of the stand mixer, place the heavy cream. Place in your stand mixer with the whisk attachment and whip until you have soft peaks.

Carefully add the pumpkin cream cheese mixture with the whipped cream and fold in. Once fully incorporated, serve in a dessert dish and garnish with crumbled graham crackers.


It's amazing how quickly 45 minutes goes by. There was a lot of audience engagement, sharing of cooking and baking tips and informing the audience about What's Cookin, Chicago and my personal culinary journey over the years. It was a great time and if you have the opportunity of being in Chicago during Eli's Cheesecake Festival, I highly recommend it... and I just might even see you there in future years!