Monday morning began with dessert. Zesting and juicing teeny Key limes, fashioning a cheesecloth sling for Greek yogurt and preparing a bain marie. Typical. Or it is when your boyfriend turns 26. I offered the idea of Key lime pie — a favorite of his while living in Florida; he asked if I could bake a Key lime cheesecake. As you wish. I dreamt up my version of the dessert, pulling from what I knew of traditional Key lime pie and cheesecake recipes.

Careful not to grate your fingers. The slippery buggers kept flying out of my hand!

Grand plans to bake a homemade graham or amaretti cookie and walnut crust were dashed in order to use the pre-made graham cracker crust he bought ages ago. No worries — less work for me, and more true to the dessert’s Key lime pie roots, I guess.

The evening’s festivities began around the table with a game of cribbage. After my brutal lashing [the birthday boy should win anyway, right?] we moved into the kitchen to prepare supper, and something amazing happened. A birthday miracle. Our first successful Spaghetti alla Carbonara.

Abondanza!

Before we started dating, we’d both attempted carbonara: him once, me twice. Our attempts, while still delicious, were either too runny or dotted with specks of cooked yolk. This batch was nothing short of incredible. A lovely dish of spicy, creamy pasta with cheese, eggs and bacon — spiked with heady notes of turmeric and saffron. The plates were piled high, high, high, but scraped clean in no time.

And shortly thereafter we were cutting into that light and creamy cheesecake, lifting out perfect wedges with my antique server.

A revamped Italian classic — saffron carbonara, and an entirely new recipe for Key lime cheesecake. It was sheer luxury, the stuff of great birthdays.

Happy 26! See you there soon.

Saffron Spaghetti alla Carbonara [serves 4-6]

Printable recipe.

1/4 t saffron, about 2 pinches

kosher salt [we like Penzey’s kosher flake salt best]

1 lb thick spaghetti or bucatini; 1/2 c starchy pasta water reserved

3 T extra virgin olive oil

1/3 lb pancetta, cut like thick bacon at the deli counter and then chopped [we used bacon]

4  cloves garlic, grated or finely chopped

1/4 t crushed red pepper flakes

1/2 c dry white wine

1 t turmeric

2 egg yolks

3 T grated pecorino cheese, plus more for sprinkling

freshly cracked black pepper

a generous handful fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

Place saffron in a small pot with 1 c cold water. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and let steep while pasta cooks, about 6 to 8 minutes.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt generously and cook pasta according to package directions or to al dente.

In the meantime, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add pancetta [or bacon] and cook until just crisp, 4 to 5 minutes. Add in the garlic and red pepper flakes after 2 to 3 minutes and stir another 2 to 3 minutes until fragrant. Stir in wine and turmeric. Beat egg yolks and cheese with starchy cooking water. Drain pasta and add to the skillet. Pour saffron water over the pasta and toss to combine; season with pepper. Add the parsley, pour in egg-cheese mixture and remove from heat. Toss the spaghetti to coat evenly in golden sauce. Top with additional cheese and serve immediately.

Loosely adapted from here.

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Key Lime Cheesecake [serves 8]

Printable recipe.

For the crust:

5 graham crackers [maybe even homemade!] or amaretti cookies

1/3 c walnut halves

2 T melted unsalted butter

For the cheesecake:

14 oz reduced fat cream cheese [often called Neufchâtel]

1 c sugar

2 1/2 c low-fat or nonfat plain Greek yogurt

7 large egg whites

2  freshly grated lime zest, preferably Key lime

1/2 c fresh lime juice, preferably Key lime [if using traditional limes, about 4-5 limes; if using Key limes, about 10-16 limes depending on the size]

To prepare crust: Preheat oven to 325° F. Put a kettle or pot of water on to heat for the water bath. Coat a 10 or 11″ springform pan with cooking spray. Tightly wrap the bottom and outside of the pan with a double layer of foil [fold a sheet in half lengthwise].

Process cookies and walnuts in a food processor until fine crumbs form. Transfer to a medium bowl. Add butter and toss until evenly moist. Press the crumb mixture into the bottom of the pan. Bake until lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool to room temperature, about 30 minutes.

To prepare cheesecake: When the crust is almost cool, beat cream cheese and sugar until smooth — in a large bowl with an electric mixer or in a stand mixer with the whisk attachment. Add yogurt, egg whites, lime zest and juice; beat until well blended. Pour the batter over the cooled crust.

Place the cheesecake in a roasting pan and pour in enough boiling water to come 1″ up the outside of the springform pan. Bake the cheesecake in the center of the oven until set around the edges but the center still jiggles, about 45 minutes. Turn oven off and let sit in the oven with the door ajar for 1 hour. Let cool on a wire rack for 1 hour more. Place in the refrigerator with sides still in tact.

Once ready to serve, remove the sides from the springform. Top with zest and slices of Key lime, if desired.

A squirrel bread original! This recipe is created for a standard springform pan [10 or 11″], but is easily halved to fit a small springform pan [7, 8 or 9″ — and in this case, a graham cracker pie shell].

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