November 24, 2011

Pumpkin-Pecan Cheesecake

Happy Thanksgiving!

I learned so much about Thanksgiving today. The first Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1621, a year after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Members of the Wampanoag tribe taught these settlers how to grow vegetables like pumpkin, squash, and corn. Squanto, the Patuxet, was there. Standard, right? The disappointing news to me was that the Pilgrims really didn't wear those Pilgrim costume with white collars and stovetop hats with buckles. (I know, right?) They wore flat-bottom hats and were probably tired, sick and dirty when they ended their 66 day voyage across the Atlantic. (Just typing that out made me queasy.) Many of their shipmates died at sea. What they celebrated in 1621 was not a blissful and harmonious gathering of Pilgrims and Native Americans. Rather, the Pilgrims gathered to give thanks for their sheer survival - for making it through a harsh North American winter, for their Wampanoag friends who taught them to grow crops so they wouldn't starve, and for the bounty of harvest that those crops yielded. After all, what they encountered in the weeks and months after landing at Plymouth Rock was an established, civilized settlement of Wampanoags who had hunted, planted, and fished in the region of North America for thousands of years. This extreme clash of cultures - not to mention the sophistication that the Wampanoags brought to the Pilgrims' meager diet - is one of the less attractive parts of the traditional Thanksgiving story. I still can't get over the absence of buckles on hats, but this less romantic more accurate account reveals more about the cooperation between two vastly different cultures than anything the storybooks could describe. Of course there were rough edges to the account; of course some of the English were uncouth (but at least they wore some kind of 17th century headgear). But the coming together of cultures around one of the most basic of human needs - food - is what makes the Thanksgiving story so special to Americans.

So speaking of the coming together of elements to create our country's most perfect holiday, let's discuss this pumpkin-pecan cheesecake. Not as straightforward as pumpkin pie and not as sugary as pecan pie, this recipe uses cream cheese as the medium that cuts through the bold flavors of pumpkin and pecan. The combination of these holiday flavors is subtle yet sophisticated, and hearty cheesecake after Thanksgiving dinner is every bit as satisfying as the traditional pies.

It's been years since I made a cheesecake and I ran across this little gem in this month's Southern Living. Of course, the picture in the magazine is smooth and even, no lumps or dips in the center of the cake, and the praline topping is perfectly caramelized - it probably has no crystallized sugar like mine did (because I didn't follow directions quite right). But I did like this recipe. The cold dessert complemented our warm, starchy Thanksgiving dinner and the pumpkin flavor was spicy without being overpowering. 

The only fault I find with this recipe is possibly - possibly - with the graham cracker crust. It turned out a little drier than I would have hoped; perhaps next time I would make it with boxed graham cracker crumbs rather than grinding the crackers myself. I would add a little more butter and white sugar rather than brown to get a more delicate, less brown crust.

Then again, I am a crust snob. There's no way out of it.

The filling is just so simple and delicious. The whole thing is simple and delicious. You can garnish it with whatever you like - I used the glazed pecans that came with this recipe but even those proved to be less flavorful than I would have liked. Next time - and there will be a next time - I'll chop the pecans right into the praline topping. I don't mess around.

All in all, I loved these flavors together, and I am re-inspired to make more cheesecake. I would list only two caveats to this recipe in particular: plan it a day in advance (the cheesecake has to chill for at least 8 hours) and read through the whole recipe before diving in to make sure you are adding the ingredients at the right time. This is why I ended up with a slightly more crystallized - but no less delicious - praline sauce. You ready for this? I'm ready!

Pumpkin-Pecan Cheesecake
Adapted from Southern Living

2 cups graham cracker crumbs
1/3 cup finely chopped pecans (local if possible)
5 tablespoons melted butter
3 tablespoons brown sugar

4 8-ounce packages cream cheese, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 large eggs
1 1/2 cups canned pumpkin
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice

Preheat oven to 325 F. Stir together first 4 ingredients until well blended. Press into springform pan, about 1 1/2 inches up the sides. Bake 8-10 minutes and let cool.
With a stand mixer or heavy-duty hand mixture, beat cream cheese, sugar, and vanilla at medium speed until smooth. Add eggs, one at a time, beating until just blended. Add pumpkin and lemon juice and beat mixture until completely smooth.
Pour batter into prepared crust. Don't worry if the cream cheese mixture runs over the top of the crust.
Bake at 325 for 1 hour, until set on the sides and almost set in the middle. Turn oven off. Let cheesecake stand in oven with the door closed, 15-20 minutes. Remove cheesecake from oven but do not remove sides of pan yet. Cool completely, about 1 hour. Cover and chill overnight.

Praline Topping
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/3 cup heavy whipping cream
1/4 cup butter
1 cup powdered sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract.

Bring brown sugar, cream, and butter to a boil over medium heat, stirring often. Boil 1 minute, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and gradually whisk in powdered sugar and vanilla until smooth. Let stand 5 minutes, whisking occasionally. Pour immediately over chilled cake, spreading to within 1/4 inch of edge. Garnish with glazed pecans.

Glazed Pecans
2 cups pecans
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup dark corn syrup

Stir ingredients together until pecans are covered. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper and coat with cooking spray. Spread pecans in  single layer (or they will lump together and you will regret it, like I did). Bake at 350 for 15 minutes or until glaze bubbles slowly and thickens, stirring every 3 minutes (also something I didn't do). Cool completely.

And remember: even if your cheesecake falls in the middle it will still be delicious. This is such a classic combination with a sophisticated and satisfying twist. I'm sure that our friends at Plymouth Rock would have chucked it into the forest but for this Thanksgiving table recliner it's a little slice of almost-perfection.

**Note, 11.27.11: If possible, let this thing sit at least two or three days. I miraculously managed to go three whole days without having a piece and the leftover was amazingly better than the fresh. The flavors had mellowed and become richer, the topping had caramelized beautifully into a very magazine-appropriate praline, and even the pecans had lost their oven-crisped sharpness. This is a cake to make way in advance and enjoy for a long, long time.

No comments:

Post a Comment