Back when I was working as a prep cook at Houston’s Santa Monica, a cracked cheesecake wasn’t necessarily the worst thing in the entire world: It meant that some of the pieces couldn’t be served, and that they would become fair game for the cooks. Of course, for the unfortunate person who actually baked the dessert, it was a little more bitter than sweet, seeing an otherwise beautiful cheesecake suddenly develop an unsightly crack as it cooled: It usually meant having to bake another cheesecake in its place, in order to make up for the pieces that couldn’t be salvaged. On a particularly busy day, getting another cheesecake in the oven wasn’t always easy, especially when oven space could trade at a premium in the afternoon. To be honest, there were definitely days when baking cheesecake was the bane of my existence, but somehow, I’ve never grown weary of eating cheesecake. I still love it. I’m addicted to custards in general, and cheesecake is simply a hearty form of custard, much more the cousin of creme brulee than any flour-based cake.
There are a few different schools of thought regarding cheesecake, although for me, baking this dessert in a water bath remains standard operating procedure. With cheesecake, the goal is to bring the eggs just to the point of coagulation, which occurs at 158ºF. That said, the challenge is to hit the ~160ºF mark without going over, since temperatures of ~180ºF and beyond will over-coagulate the egg proteins, essentially “wringing out” the liquid, and causing the cheesecake to weep. A cracked cheesecake is a visual bummer, but can still prove palatable. However, a weepy, over-cooked cheesecake has very little redeeming value, since over-coagulating the eggs also produces a grainy texture. Since temperature is so critical with cheesecake, I recommend using a probe thermometer, at least until you learn to “read” the cheesecake by tapping the pan. But more about that later.
As a former pastry cook, I considered several possibilities regarding presentation, but I ultimately decided upon a simple motif of fall-colored leaves. Originally, I had envisioned a plate covered in fall foliage, but I soon realized that fewer leaves could convey the same notion without pushing this idea into the absurd. At one point, having fueled my imagination with a bunch of Napa Cabernet, I had also considered making a thin sheet of clear, cinnamon-flavored gelee, which would mimic the look of a rain puddle. However, I felt that this was perhaps an odd direction to take — a little too avant garde — and the idea of eggnog anglaise was just too comforting to pass up. As for the other components of the dish, I certainly didn’t reinvent the wheel: Gingerbread is a classic fall and winter flavor, and a fitting accompaniment to pumpkin cheesecake.
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I’m always curious about yields, and so I weighed the pumpkin throughout the preparation stages. As mentioned in the caption above, the two pumpkins I purchased weighed a total of about five pounds at the market. After the flesh had been seeded, roasted and separated from the skin, it yielded 30 ounces. Adding the sugar and the spices to the pumpkin increased the mass, but passing the mixture through a sieve yielded just over 20 ounces. Considering I began with 80 ounces of pumpkin at the market, these two sugar pies only yielded 25% of their original weight for filling. Quite a bit goes to compost, but fortunately, pumpkins aren’t that expensive per pound.
• RECIPE •
SUGAR PIE PUMPKIN FILLING
Sugar Pie Pumpkin Filling Ingredients
• Sugar pie pumpkins, 2 each (totaling about 5 lbs.)• Sugar, 3/4 cup• Cinnamon, 1T• Allspice, 1t• Vanilla extract, 1T• Salt, one pinch
Sugar Pie Pumpkin Filling Method
1. Halve and seed the pumpkins, and roast until fork tender (about one hour at 350ºF).•2. Remove flesh from pumpkins, then combine all the ingredients in a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Mix for about 5 minutes on medium.•3. With a rubber spatula, pass the pumpkin filling through a sieve, discarding any stringy pulp left behind. This process can take a little bit of force and elbow grease, and you may have to pass the pumpkin in batches, but the reward is a perfectly smooth filling.•4. Chill.
Essentially, I used a giant gingerbread cookie for the cheesecake’s crust, rolling gingerbread dough about 1/8″ thick, then cutting it with the ring of my spring-form pan. The cookie will spread slightly when baked, so again I used the spring-form ring to lightly score the cookie after it had been removed from the oven. From there, I cut away the excess dough with a paring knife, reserving the scraps to help create a lip for the crust. On a side note, if you don’t feel like making gingerbread from scratch, I wouldn’t be disappointed in anybody who opted to use store-bought-then-crushed ginger snaps to make a graham cracker-style crust. Even if you wanted to use canned pumpkin in the filling, I’d still consider that honest cooking, but for Round 8 of Project Food Blog, I certainly wasn’t going to err on the side of Sandra Lee. For the gingerbread, I used the November 1999 recipe from Cook’s Illustrated, which I would’ve included here, except their site is subscription-based, and they probably have a greater interest in copyright infringement than a free site. I don’t want Christopher Kimball knocking at my door.
As I had alluded at the top, cheesecake offers no guarantees. Even if you take every precaution necessary, sometimes they’ll still develop cracks as they cool. The two best things you can do to ensure a beautiful cheese are to (a) use a water bath during baking and (b) be careful not to overcook the cheesecake. Using a water bath for cooking is straight-forward and simple, but judging a cheesecake’s “doneness” may prove more daunting. The main thing to remember about cheesecake is that it’s served chilled, but you have to determine its doneness while it’s warm. That said, just because it might jiggle in the oven, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will still jiggle after four hours in the fridge. For a cheesecake to set, the egg just needs to barely coagulate. My rule of thumb: Cut the heat on the oven when the outer ring has practically set, and the “super-jiggly” portion is only about four inches in diameter (that’s with a 10-inch spring-form pan). After you’ve made a couple cheesecakes, you’ll know it when you see it.
• RECIPE •SUGAR PIE PUMPKIN CHEESECAKE
Sugar Pie Pumpkin Cheesecake Ingredients
• Cream cheese, 24 oz (three packs)• Heavy cream, 3/4 cup• Eggs, 6 each• Sugar, 1-1/2 cups• Pumpkin filling from the recipe above, 1 cup• Gingerbread, 10″ baked disc from the recipe above
Sugar Pie Pumpkin Cheesecake Method
1. Prepare a 10-inch spring-form with parchment paper, followed by the 10-inch gingerbread disc. Use gingerbread scraps to fit the cookie tightly against the side of the pan. Preheat the oven to 325ºF, and set the rack to medium height.•2. Cut the cream cheese into cubes, and paddle on medium speed for about five minutes. Add the heavy cream, the pumpkin filling and the sugar, and paddle this mixture until it is well-combined (no streaks). Add the eggs, one at a time, scraping the sides of the mixing bowl thoroughly. Once the eggs have been added, continue to mix the cheesecake filling until all the lumps have completely disappeared. Lumps float to the surface during baking, so this is essential for the cheesecake’s appearance.•3. To prevent water from the water bath from seeping into the cheesecake, wrap the exterior of the spring-form pan with a layer of aluminum foil. Pour the cheesecake filling into the pan, then place the spring-form pan into a roasting pan. Add hot water to the roasting pan, until it reaches about two-thirds up the side of the spring-form pan. Place this set-up in the oven, and bake for about an hour, but base your decision upon temperature, not time. The center of the filling needs to reach ~150ºF, but not much warmer (when the cheesecake reaches this temperature, tap the pan gently to see how much a cooked cheesecake will still actually jiggle). At this point, turn off the oven, and allow the cheesecake to cool in the oven with the door propped slightly open.•4. After about an hour, remove the cheesecake from the oven, discarding the tinfoil, but covering the spring-form pan with plastic wrap. Allow the cheesecake to chill in the refrigerator for at least four hours. Once cooled, run a paring knife or an offset spatula around the edge of the cheesecake to help it release from the pan. Remove the spring-form carefully.•5. Serve and eat.
Putting eggnog alongside pumpkin seemed like a deft way to bridge the flavors of November with the flavors of December. I wanted a sauce that was reasonably thick, so I whisked two egg yolks with 1/2 cup of sugar until the mixture became pale yellow. I then added one cup of scalded heavy cream to the eggs, slowly stirring in the cream two tablespoons at a time. Once the heavy cream and the eggs were combined, I whisked them over medium heat until the mixture coated the back of a wooden spoon. I strained the mixture to remove any bits of coagulated egg, then added nutmeg and bourbon to taste (a touch of the former, a splash of the latter). After chilling the mixture, it was ready.
When I was cooking professionally, making tuilles was often part of the daily routine: At Auberge, we sprinkled finely-chopped dried black olives on tuilles and used this savory cookie to garnish the lamb dish; when I was cooking pastries at Martini House, we baked sugar-sprinkled tuilles in all sorts of different shapes, including mini-cones for our sorbet intermezzos. What I really like about tuilles for this project is that they have limitless possibilities, and they are very forgiving from a baking standpoint. The tuille recipe itself is disarmingly simple: Equal parts sugar, flour, egg white, and melted butter (four ounces of each makes a reasonable batch). These four ingredients (and a tablespoon of cinnamon) are combined and cooled, creating a light and simple cookie batter that spreads like paste at cooler temperatures, but behaves more like crepe batter at warmer temperatures.
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