So just guess… how many dishes do you think I got out of this one 25-pound fairy tale pumpkin? If my calculations are correct, from this one stunning squash I made one batch of Pumpkin and Black Bean Soup, one pot of Pumpkin Curry, a plate full of Pistachio-Encrusted Pumpkin Wedges for four, two loaves of sweet bread and two cheesecakes. Pumpkins store well in a dry, cool spot; the flesh can be frozen and even canned. And while this one made a huge Halloween statement just sitting pretty on the front porch, it was the superstar of my kitchen the entire month of November. Its versatility and economy cannot be overstated. Don’t waste it!
So coming back to those cheesecakes…. My relationship with this classic dessert all started with a swirl—a pumpkin swirl cheesecake recipe found in a tattered copy of Better Homes & Gardens Magazine. Not too many years into my teenage marriage, I was put in charge of dessert for one of the first big Thanksgiving dinners hosted by my in-laws. I was inexperienced in the kitchen, a new, too-young mom, and basically clueless. I was SCARED.
When I was a little girl there was only one Thanksgiving dessert in my grandma’s house: pumpkin pie with homemade flakey crust and mounds of real whipped cream. I loved it, maybe because my grandma loved it so much, and we would spend a secret moment with that one last piece, sharing decadence. I really wanted to make a pumpkin pie that year for my grandma, who would be joining us for dinner. So naïve to think I could make HER pumpkin pie at that stage in my life.
But there was a bigger problem: my in-laws hated pumpkin. They always had chocolate and cherry pies for the holidays. Somehow in my young, naïve head, though, I knew the dessert I made that year represented more than a decision about ingredients; it was about establishing boundaries—stuff I would compromise on and stuff I wouldn’t. Pumpkin was not on the table…or rather it was on the table and it was there to stay!
That’s when I found the recipe for a cheesecake with just a pretty swirl of pumpkin for that harvest look and flavor. It wasn’t pie, but it was a start. And to be honest, it was a much better choice for inexperienced little me—talk about green!
In the end, most of my extended family didn’t touch the cheesecake. That swirl was enough to send them to the backup desserts my mother-in-law had at the ready. And to be fair, I doubt that first cheesecake was anything to write home about. Though I can really remember nothing about it, I know the crust must have been store-bought, the filling undoubtably overdone and the pumpkin right out of a can. Thankfully, things in my kitchen have evolved. Pies, cakes, tarts, cookies and breads have all experienced the pumpkin swirl. In fact, my favorite pumpkin cheese cake uses a full cup of fresh-roasted and pureed pumpkin, imparting pumpkin flavor through and through. No more wimpy swirls for me.
Or you, if you decide to give this recipe a go. I’ve made it twice now: once with a homemade chocolate chai cookie crust and drizzled with dark chocolate and one for my gluten-free daughter made with a pecan nut crust and decorated with pistachios in leaf designs. My diners thought they were both winners. I think you will too! And don’t worry, I’ve provided ingredients and baking instructions to accommodate both versions of the cheesecake, which means you get an extra recipe for a great holiday cookie, as well!
- One cup light brown sugar
- One cup raw sugar
- One teaspoon ground cinnamon
- One teaspoon ground cardamom (I use whole seeds and crush fresh for the best flavor.)
- One teaspoon ground ginger
- One-half teaspoon ground allspice
- One-half teaspoon white pepper
- One–half cup unsweetened cocoa powder
- One cup unsalted butter, softened
- Two large eggs
- Two teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- Two and one-quarter cups flour (I suggest spelt flour, especially if you are planning to turn these cookies into crumbs for your crust. But whole wheat pastry flour or all-purpose flour will also work.)
- One and one-half teaspoons baking powder, if you are just baking cookies. (Leave the baking powder out if you are making crumbs for crust—the cookies will just crumble better, in my experience.)
- One-half teaspoon fine sea salt
- Six tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled, plus four ounces of finely grated dark chocolate (The extra melted butter and the grated chocolate are only for the crumb crust, not for the basic cookies.)
- Two cups pecan halves, chopped evenly and fairly fine in a processor (Be careful not to puree the nuts because pecans are soft and have a lot of fat, so they go to butter quickly. Use your pulse button.)
- One-quarter cup unsalted butter, very soft
- Three tablespoons brown sugar
- One-fourth teaspoon fine sea salt
- One-third cup light or dark brown sugar
- One-third cup raw sugar
- One teaspoon ground cinnamon
- One-quarter teaspoon ground clove
- One-half teaspoon ground ginger
- One-half teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- Two eight-ounce packages full-fat cream cheese (We trust Organic Valley.)
- Two large eggs
- Two large egg yolks
- One tablespoon unsulfured blackstrap molasses
- One cup cooked and pureed pumpkin (I am not going to even suggest canned. Let your conscience be your guide.)
- One cup full-fat sour cream (Again, Organic Valley is a good choice and so is Kalona.)
- One-quarter cup pure maple syrup
- One teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- Note here that you can simplify making the crust if you need to by using store-bought chocolate cookies and crushing them, but not the same...just saying. Further, home-baked cookies can be made up to a month in advance, turned into crumbs with your trusty food processor and then frozen until you need them. Store in a freezer bag and just remove from the freezer and let them thaw on the counter for a couple of hours.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- In a large mixing bowl, stir together the brown and raw sugars and the spices—cinnamon through white pepper. Set aside one-half cup of this mixture in a shallow, wide bowl.
- To the remaining sugar/spice mixture, add the cocoa powder and stir well to combine. Add the one cup softened unsalted butter and beat until completely combined and creamy.
- Add in the eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition. Add the vanilla.
- Stir in the flour, salt and—if you are only using this recipe for cookies—the baking powder. If you are planning to make crust crumbs, leave it out.
- Chill the dough for at least 30 minutes. Shape the chilled dough into one-inch balls and roll each ball in the reserved sugar/spice mixture.
- Place the dough balls on baking sheets lined with parchment paper, spaced about one inch apart. Press down slightly to flatten a bit and bake for 12 to 15 minutes. Twelve minutes may be fine for cookies, but to make cookie crumbs, try to let them go the full 15, though you will need to watch them closely to ensure they don’t burn. I actually turned mine over for about three to four minutes extra to get them crunchy and crumbly.
- To finish them for a crust, allow them to cool completely. Then process them to fine crumbs either in a processor or by rolling them between sheets of parchment paper with a rolling pin. You need one and one-half cups for the cheesecake crust. Now add in the six tablespoons of melted butter and combine thoroughly. Finally, press the cookie/butter mixture into the bottom and about a half inch up the sides of a springform pan. Just before going into the oven, take a microplane and finely grate the dark chocolate on top of the crust.
- Bake in a 350-degree oven for 10 to 12 minutes. Let cool before filling.
- Making the nut crust is much simpler than the from-scratch cookie crust, and it is gluten free. So worth considering.
- Place the pecans in the bowl of a food processor and pulse several times to get them started. Now add the softened butter, sugar and salt. Continue to pulse until you have consistent fine nut crumbs. Press into the bottom and about a half inch up the sides of a springform pan. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 10 to 12 minutes. Let cool before filling.
- Have all filling ingredients at room temperature. I set my cream cheese out 12 hours in advance (usually overnight) and the rest of the ingredients out at least four hours in advance. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Have your chosen crust baked, cooled and ready to fill.
- Place a sheet-cake pan on the bottom rack of your oven and fill it halfway with boiling water to create a humid, moist environment for your cheesecake.
- In a small bowl, combine the sugar and spices.
- In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese on medium speed until it is smooth, totally free of any small lumps. You may need to stop the mixer and scrape the bowl sides and the beaters a couple of times during this step.
- Once the cream cheese is smooth, add the sugar and spice mixture and continue beating until well blended.
- Add the eggs and egg yolks one at a time, beating after each addition. Whisk the blackstrap molasses into the pumpkin puree and add this mixture to the bowl. Beat just until everything is combined.
- Scrape the filling into the prepared crust using a rubber spatula so you get every drop. Smooth the top to even everything out. Place the springform pan on a large no-rim cookie sheet (makes it easy to get in and out of the oven) and place in the prepared oven. Bake for 30 minutes at 350; then, reduce the oven temperature to 325 and continue to bake for about 10 minutes, until the sides of the cheesecake puff and the center is still jiggly when you tap the pan. Do not overbake.
- As the cheesecake is baking, whisk together the sour cream, maple syrup and vanilla. Using a rubber spatula, scrape the topping directly onto the hot cheesecake and do your best to spread around. Tricky.
- Return the cheesecake on its cookie sheet to the oven and bake five to seven minutes more.
- To cool the cheesecake, remove the springform pan from the cookie sheet and place on a wire cooling rack. Cover the cheesecake and the rack with your largest stock pot. Let it remain covered until completely cooled. Then, refrigerate overnight before unmolding and serving.
Note that the prep time does not include the time it takes to actually bake the chocolate chai cookies. It is assumed having the prepared/baked crust is prior to the cheesecake prep. Also, the cooling and chilling time are not included—so plan ahead.
The Technical Side of Cheesecakes
So maybe you are wondering about some of these directions—water baths, big pots, springform pans, etc. Since my early married life, I’ve probably made a million cheesecakes—well, quite a few, anyway. All kinds, using all variety of techniques and tips. Some worked and some didn’t. The main trick to cheesecake is getting the batter smooth and creamy but not beaten silly, the cake done but not overdone, and the final unmolding clean.
To ensure the best batter, your ingredients must be at room temp and you must stop the mixer and scrape the sides of the bowl and the beater, as necessary. Don’t skip. Make sure the cream cheese is silky smooth before you add the next set of ingredients. Don’t spend too long on each addition, but combine completely, always looking for that smooth finish.
Use the water bath in the over to make sure the texture of the cake remains creamy while it bakes. You can get by without it—I have—but it’s a risk. The water bath is easy insurance on perfection.
Finally, that big pot. What’s up with that? Well, the goal is to make sure the cheesecake finishes “baking” as slowly and gently as possible. Ever been told a cracked cheesecake means you did something wrong? That crack develops as a result of either overbeating and/or overbaking. It means you may have a dry cake (Although truth be told, I’ve had plenty of cracked cheesecakes that tasted just fine.). Over the years I’ve tried lots of different ideas for cooling cheesecakes. I’ve let the cake cool in the oven for hours—usually ended up overdone. I’ve let it sit on the counter overnight and then refrigerated for another 8 hours—sometimes worked, sometimes the cake was not completely done and sort of runny. But this pot idea is the sweet spot. I found it in The Joy of Cooking for their pumpkin cheesecake recipe, which is very similar to mine. I guess you could say it was my inspiration.
So a couple things—the beauty of the baking rack and stock pot cover method is that it allows air to circulate underneath the cheesecake but maintains a fairly consistent warm and humid interior—just like the oven but without any added leftover heat. One tip: lift the stock pot a couple of times as you cool the cake to room temperature in order to wipe out the condensation on the pot interior. You don’t want drips on the cake.
At the end, you must unmold. I do this when the cake is thoroughly chilled, though many people do this before chilling. Just run a sharp knife around the edge, being sure to separate the crust, as well as the cooked filling, from the sides of the pan. Then unhinge the spring on the side and…ta da! Now breathe. Springform pans are nearly foolproof, as pans go. Be brave.
Well nothing could be simpler here: for the Chocolate Chai Cookie Crust Cheesecake, just melt your best dark chocolate in a double boiler and, using a dinner fork, dip and drip, a la Jackson Pollack. For the pistachio leaves, it’s only a bit more work. Crush about a cup of shelled raw pistachios in your food processor until very fine, place a leaf cookie cutter (or any shape you choose) on your chilled cake, and carefully sprinkle in the nuts, pressing into any crevasses. Then—with finesse—delicately lift the cookie cutter. Repeat, as desired.
And there it is, a delicious holiday dessert that can be made ahead by 24 hours, which to my way of thinking, is always a plus. Happy baking!