Cheesecake, chocolate brownies, fruit cobbler. Melanie Craft makes these decadent desserts and more for family and friends in her kitchen in Treynor, Iowa.
But instead of turning on the oven, she plugs in her slow cooker.
Craft's busy schedule as an Omaha nurse and mother of three doesn't leave a lot of time for cooking, but when she does, she often uses a slow cooker. She has eight of them.
Meat, side dishes, dips and other savory items are staples of her slow-cooking repertoire. But after she discovered a slew of scrumptious dessert recipes on Pinterest and other online sites a year ago, Craft started exploring the sweeter side of slow cooking.
Now the slow cooker has nearly replaced her oven when it comes to desserts.
Desserts aren't usually associated with this versatile kitchen appliance. But they should be, say some food bloggers, cookbook authors and home cooks, who use them for crème brûlée, cake, brownies, bread pudding, and other treats.
“It's way easier,” Craft said of making cheesecake in a slow cooker. She also prefers the taste. Oven cheesecakes have a denser texture than she likes, but the slow-cooker method results in a fluffy cheesecake that raises nicely.
The convenience, ease and other benefits that make slow cookers ideal for dinner also apply to desserts: Add your ingredients, turn it on and let the machine do the work. And you can leave the house — something most cooks wouldn't do with the oven on.
Food blogger and author Stephanie O'Dea has written two books about slow cooking. In 2008, she made a New Year's resolution to use a slow cooker every day for a year. She chronicled her experiences on her blog, A Year of Slow Cooking (crockpot365.blogspot.com), which includes nearly 40 dessert recipes, ranging from chocolate mousse to tapioca pudding. A few years ago, she demonstrated a recipe for one of her favorite slow-cooker desserts, crème brûlée, on “The Rachael Ray Show.”
O'Dea started using a Crock-Pot, the original Rival version of the appliance, as a newlywed 13 years ago and got hooked on the hassle-free meals she was able to make with it.
“It's a goof-proof way to cook,” she said by phone from her home in the San Francisco Bay area. “It's like an Easy-Bake Oven for grown-ups.”
People are surprised when she brings a cake to a party and tells them she made it with a slow cooker.
“They think about the savory things and forget about the desserts,” said O'Dea, who owns 14 of the appliances.
Jonnie Downing has been a slow cooker fan since the early '80s. While she's made her fair share of chili and stew, she also enjoys making sweets. Using a slow cooker for French vanilla custard, apple brown Betty and other treats is a great way to “stretch its flexibility as a kitchen tool,” she said by phone from Richmond, Va.
Downing recently wrote a cookbook all about the subject — “Slow Cooker Desserts: Hot, Easy, and Delicious Custards, Cobblers, Soufflés, Pies, Cakes, and More,” due out in December. She said it's the first cookbook she knows of that's devoted entirely to the topic.
While slow cooker desserts may not always turn out “picture perfect,” she said, the benefits outweigh any drawbacks. One advantage is that slow cookers free up oven and stovetop space. She also appreciates that she can spend less time time cooking and more time with her family since there's no standing over a stove and tending to food.
Downing uses a 6½-quart oval slow cooker, which she said is suitable for all the desserts in her book. Some recipes call for additional tools, including springform pans or ramekins that are placed inside the slow-cooker insert. She also suggests using nonstick cooking spray or lining the inside with foil or parchment paper.
Brownwood, Texas, moms Nicole Sparks and Jenna Marwitz started a Facebook page a year ago to share fast and easy slow-cooker recipes with friends and family. It caught on with other people, too. The page's popularity (more than 600,000 “likes”) prompted the women to release a cookbook. Their “Crockin' Girls Slow Cookin' Companion” came out in April and includes a section on desserts.
Marwitz says she feels comfortable letting her kids help in the kitchen when using a slow cooker because there's no risk of burns from hot oven doors or racks, she said by email.
For Sparks, one of the biggest benefits of using a slow cooker is that she can turn it on and go about her day. A programmable model that switches to warm mode after a pre-set cooking time helps prevent food from overcooking or burning.
“I crocked a cheesecake the other day and ran to town for a couple of hours. I ended up being in town a lot longer than expected and ... I came home and found my cheesecake still perfect and not burnt at all,” Sparks said by email.
For the best results, it's important to know your slow cooker just like you would your stove, microwave, or any other appliance. As with ovens, slow cookers vary, she said. Newer versions have a tendency to cook hotter than older ones.
“If you have a hot cooking slow cooker,” said Sparks, “you may not want to cook your food for the longest recommended time. Also, if you have a flop, which we all have, don't give up.”