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!
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!