There is something about the texture of cheesecake - smooth, silky, and substantial enough without being overly heavy - that when combined with the flavor of pumpkin and a few autumn spices, something positively magical results.
We first made this cheesecake a few years back, when I first got into baking, but I've since adapted the recipe to suit our tastes. Since I only make it once a year (for Thanksgiving), it's an absolute treat. The warm combination of fresh spices and sweet pumpkin is the perfect pairing for a spicy gingersnap crust.
I think one of my favorite things about cheesecake is that there is minimal work involved to actually make it but there is a huge payoff once it's all done. I think cheesecake is one of the most impressive desserts you can serve; it's an added perk that it's also one of the easiest (and deceptively so). That said, there are a few guidelines that I always follow when making a cheesecake:
1. Make sure all your ingredients are at room temperature. A few hours before you make the cheesecake, put the cream cheese and eggs on the counter to come to room temperature. It will make mixing the batter so much easier. If you forget to take the eggs out, you can submerge them (uncracked) in a bowl of warm water for five minutes. Although I don't advise this, you can also soften the cream cheese in the microwave, but that's a tough task because you don't want the cream cheese to melt too much. It's just easier to let the cream cheese warm up by itself on the counter. (I have, however, found that sour cream, if used in the recipe, does not need to be at room temperature. Same goes for small quantities of milk or heavy cream.)
2. Employ a rubber spatula often. It's crucial to scrape down the sides of the bowl you're using, especially if it's the bowl of a stand mixer, in order to fully incorporate all ingredients. Inevitably some sugar or cream cheese won't mix in entirely, and the last thing you want is unincorporated pockets of cream cheese in the finished cake.
3. Bake in a water bath. Always. Even if the recipe doesn't advise it. Actually, if the recipe doesn't advise it, then I don't even use that recipe. Cheesecake is a delicate specimen and it must be treated with care. If you cook it too fast, it will overcook and crack. There's certainly nothing wrong with cracks as far as taste goes, but appearance-wise, they leave something to be desired. Ideally, you have a roasting pan (sadly we don't) that can hold your springform pan. In this case, make sure to wrap the pan in a double layer of aluminum foil. When the cheesecake goes into the oven, pour in hot, steamy water to go about halfway up the sides of the pan. The water bath helps the cheesecake cook evenly and avoid cracking. The next best thing in our house to a roasting pan is the bottom of a broiler pan. Unfortunately, the low sides of the broiler pan encourage fast evaporation of the water. If this is your case, monitor the level of the water and refill with hot water as needed. (And, yes, I realize that this cheesecake does have a crack in it. That's why I advise monitoring the water levels as needed, something I neglected to do. It was still delicious, though.)
4. Let it cool. When the cheesecake comes out of the oven, it will have a solidified, matte-looking top layer. When you shake the pan it should still jiggle slightly in the center, though. Let the cheesecake cool for a little while on the counter (up to an hour, if possible) before chilling it in the refrigerator overnight. (That's another bonus of making cheesecake: it's an entirely make-ahead dessert, so it's perfect for company or hectic holidays.)
I realize this diatribe may be slightly intimidating if you've never made cheesecake before. I assure you that cheesecake is easy, though. I encourage you to make it for your next holiday gathering (or any other occasion). But if you find yourself needing help, don't hesitate to Skype me. I'm particularly skilled at giving late-night, virtual cheesecake-making lessons.
Inspired by Bon Appetit
As I noted earlier, over the years I have changed quite a few components of the original recipe to suit our tastes. Namely, using only gingersnaps in the crust for a spicier contrast to the sweet pumpkin filling and using more spices in the filling. If you can, use freshly grated nutmeg. This may seem like a trivial detail, but you can really taste the nutmeg flavor in the finished cake, which, owing to the variety of spices used, has a wonderfully complex flavor. This cheesecake lasts for a long while in the refrigerator and, like other cheesecakes, freezes well. If you opt to freeze a few slices, wrap them tightly in plastic wrap and then in aluminum foil. I prefer this cheesecake chilled, but you can also serve it at room temperature. Although I think the cheesecake is perfect on its own, I imagine a dollop of spiced sour cream or Greek yogurt or a spoonful of whipped cream (similarly spiced or, if you'd like, bourbon-infused) would be a welcome addition.
Yield: 10 to 12 servings
For the crust:
About 12 ounces gingersnap cookies
3 tablespoons butter, melted
For the cheesecake batter:
4 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese (I use low-fat Neufchatel cheese)
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1 (15-ounce) can solid pack pumpkin
3 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Process the gingersnap cookies in a food processor until finely ground. (Alternatively, you can place them in a ziploc bag and crush them with the bottom of a pan or a rolling pin.) Add butter and pulse until blended in.
Spray the inside of a 9-inch springform pan with nonstick cooking spray and wrap the outside of the pan with a double layer of aluminum foil. Pour buttered crumbs into the pan and, using the bottom of a measuring cup, press the crumbs onto the bottom and up the sides of the pan. Try to get as even a layer throughout as possible. Bake until just lightly toasted, about 10 minutes. Let cool while you prepare the filling.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or with a hand mixer), beat the cream cheese on medium speed until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the sugar and beat thoroughly to incorporate. After adding the sugar, the batter will appear shiny. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula to ensure that all the sugar has been incorporated. Add the spices and beat until well-blended. Next beat in the pumpkin until well-blended. Scrape down the bowl again. Add the eggs and mix until well-blended. Once again, scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the vanilla extract and beat to incorporate. Scrape down the bowl for a final time, making sure that the entire batter is homogeneous and that no lumps remain. If there are lumps, briefly beat the batter on high speed for a few seconds.
Pour the batter into the prepared crust and set the springform pan in a roasting pan or other large baking pan with high sides. Meanwhile, put a kettle of water on to boil. Once the water is boiling, set the roasting pan with cheesecake in it into the oven. Quickly and carefully pour the hot, steaming water into the roasting pan so that it comes about halfway up the sides of the springform pan. Bake for 1 hour and 30 minutes. As the cake bakes, periodically monitor the water level, refilling the roasting pan as needed. (Use the oven light to check on the cheesecake; don't open the door every 20 minutes. If you do need to refill the water level, do so very quickly to let out as little oven heat as possible.)
After an hour and a half, remove the roasting pan from the oven. The cheesecake will have a browned and set top. When lightly shaken, it will still jiggle somewhat in the center. Cool for 30 minutes to an hour. Then place the springform pan on a paper-towel lined (to avoid slipping) plate and transfer to the refrigerator. Refrigerate overnight.
When you are ready to serve the cheesecake, remove it from the refrigerator and run a knife around the perimeter of the springform pan to loosen the crust from the sides. Remove the sides of the springform pan. Cut into slices and serve.
The cheesecake will keep, wrapped well in foil or plastic, for at least a week (if it lasts that long). You can also freeze the cake (see note above) for enjoying later.