Ever since Jim saw this recipe for pumpkin cheesecake, he's been excited to try it. Many, many years ago, I baked a pumpkin cheesecake (recipe probably from Bon Appetit magazine). It was a huge cheesecake, and I made it for dessert at a dinner party where we had only two guests. The cheesecake went on and on and on. It wasn't all that good, but we had it for so many days and nights that we were getting quite attached to it, and Jim, especially, yearned for it once it was gone. "I sure wish I had a piece of pumpkin cheesecake for dessert," he'd sigh mournfully. Even after all these years, he sometimes talks about that cheesecake the way you'd talk about an old friend whom you haven't seen for years. "How nice it would be to get together again!"
I've resisted the pumpkin cheesecake's siren song until now, mostly because a) pumpkin pie is better and b) I did not want another dessert to haunt my refrigerator for weeks. How nice to discover that this cheesecake a) is better than pumpkin pie and b) is already gone.
This cheesecake is a two-day affair, but an easy one. On Day One, you make the cheesecake and on Day Two, you make the caramel. The crust is made from gingersnaps, pecans, butter, and sugar. Rose says the crust is even more delicious if it's made with beurre noisette instead of plain old melted butter. I declined this invitation to do more work, because I believed that you would have to be a super-super taster to tell the difference. After eating the cheesecake, I am very satisfied with the melted-butter choice, and still don't think I would have known one from the other.
The big excitement for me in making this cheesecake was using a silicone cake pan to keep the springform pan away from the water bath so nothing could soak through. If you don't have this, you have to double-wrap the springform pan in heavy duty aluminum foil, and even then, a little hot water may seep in.
The down side to all this cleverness is that my springform pan no longer fit snugly in my roasting pan, as it did before. This is the second week that my roasting pan, inherited from Jim's mother, has failed a size test. I love using this pan because it has roasted so many turkeys for so many Wolf family Thanksgivings--long before I was in the picture and before I myself was a Wolf. I had to put the 9-inch springform pan in a 10-inch cake pan, which didn't leave much room for a water bath. Faced with a too-small roasting pan, I really should have used a 12-inch cake pan (didn't have) or a disposable roasting pan (ditto). Still it did the job, which, according to Baking 911, is to make the cheesecake creamier, without the top forming a crust or, even worse, cracking.
When you first read this recipe, you may be surprised to notice that there are no typical pumpkin-pie spices: not even a pinch of cinnamon. When Rose devised this recipe, she thought the spices would overpower the pumpkin. Instead of using spices to amp up the flavor, she used turbinado sugar, which makes the pumpkin darker and richer looking.
Once you've made the crust and cooked the pumpkin and sugar together for a while, the rest of the preparation is pretty much just putting everything in a food processor and letting it do all the work. All you have to do is lean over the counter and watch the pieces of cream cheese--and then the eggs--disappear before your eyes.
When it's poured in the pan, it's a thinner mixture than most cheesecakes. If you're a worrier, you will think that it won't set.
But it does.
That's the end of the first day. Let the cheesecake cool at room temperature, and put it in the refrigerator overnight.
The second day is trickier because it's caramel. And you're supposed to have an instant-read thermometer. When Woody saw a picture of me using an old-fashioned glass candy thermometer with mercury, he was shocked. He was trying to be tactful (he didn't say, for example, "do you do your laundry in a wringer washer too?"), but he didn't sound thoroughly approving either. I had to explain about how I'd bought a digital thermometer, but the sensor was not on the tip, so I didn't like to use it. Still, I think I'd better not use the old glass one again. At least not in pictures. (I don't think it really is mercury anyway, so if it broke it probably wouldn't kill us. Which is comforting).
I'm getting pretty good at telling when a sugar-water mixture has reached the appropriate "dark amber."
Almost. I tried the thermometer again, taking the pan off the heat, and tilting the pan so the sensor could work.
It never did give an accurate reading, so I gave up, and just guessed. But I was so annoyed by this thermometer that when I was done with the cake, I ordered the thermometer that Rose recommends. I had a Therma-Pen thermometer (the Cadillac of instant-read thermometers) on my Christmas list, but if this works I'll cross it off. Should we still be using the phrase the "Cadillac of..." now that GM is bankrupt?
I know that thermometers are very good--essential, even--and I don't know why I'm so resistant to them. I would rather buy another cool bundt pan than a boring thermometer. In my defense, I've always said I'm more of a cake-eater than a cake-baker.
I love the rich, brown caramel that I ended up with.
The cake came out of the pan without a snafu, and I liked the idea of ringing the outside with pecans, as in the book's photograph.
That was the easy part of decorating. The harder part is drizzling the caramel artistically over the top. "For the greatest precision, use a pastry bag..." Compared to how I feel about pastry bags, I'm ardently in love with thermometers. I am truly, truly resistant to pastry bags, and no good has ever come from a pastry bag in my hand. So I decided I'd use a spoon. This actually was fine, except that it only took a few spoonfuls of hot caramel to get the effect (more or less) in the book's photograph. After a few more spoons, the drizzles started to fill in, and it was clear that a decision must be made: either use all the caramel and just have a glob of caramel on top, rather than artsy drizzles, or maintain the drizzled effect and have a lot of caramel left over. Each option had its benefits: with option A, the cheesecake eaters would get more caramel but less decor; with option B, I would end up eating an ungodly amount of caramel straight from the cup and the other eaters would have prettier pieces.
I opted not to gorge myself on caramel, which was probably the right choice. Maybe I should have presented the decorated cheesecake and passed a bowl of additional caramel sauce, but that didn't occur to me at the time.
Serving the cheesecake with a lot of caramel, rather than with mere squiggles, made this dessert sweeter than Rose's norm. The cheesecake itself is more a more typical Rose dessert--subtle, complex,and light. The caramel does give it a serious dose of sweetness. I'm not complaining, not at all: the caramel was delicious, and I loved the taste contrasts with the cheesecake and crust. I think I would actually have to have another piece before I could make a final decision on whether the amount of caramel per slice was too much or just right.
P.S. I liked this cheesecake so much that I ignored my usual one-piece-only rule, and had another (very thin) slice on Monday. It was even better and more flavorful than on the day before, so do not fear making this cake a few days before you need it. I also now believe that the caramel amount is just right.
Fred: "It was a very delicate flavor, and it's almost chiffon-like in texture."
Betty: "It's lighter than most cheesecakes. The caramel goes really well with the pumpkin. A dessert very appropriate to the season."
Karen: "It's incredible."
Doug: "A nice combination of flavors. Sometimes caramel can overwhelm things, but this doesn't."
Jim: "It's lighter than the pumpkin cheesecake you made years ago--and it's better too. The crust is very good."
Laurel: This cheesecake was delicious. It was amazing. How could the combination of two heavy pies be lighter than either ? The crust and toppings added the extra pizzazz that, while unneeded, was superb.
Tansy Rose (Karen's cat, who stole a taste of the piece Karen took home): "Four paws up."