Archive for November, 2009

Pumpkin Cheesecake with a Pecan Shortbread Crust

slice of pumpkin cheesecake

Pumpkin pie is the quintessential Thanksgiving dessert. Most people eat it just once a year, and that’s after first gorging themselves on turkey, mashed potatoes, yams, and about ten other side dishes. Yet more often than not I hear people say they’ll take only a “sliver” of pumpkin pie, saving any available room for the other desserts. Sure, we serve pumpkin pie each November, but mostly because it’s become obligatory: an expected holiday staple very few get excited about.

But pumpkin pie can be more than the standard fare of pureed pumpkin mixed with cream, sugar, eggs, and spices in a butter or graham cracker crust. I mean, honestly, do we all need to make the same pie every year? So this holiday, after a lifetime of eating traditional pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving, I decided I was in the mood for something a little different. While enjoying some pecan shortbread last week, I started to wonder how it would taste paired with a pumpkin custard. But then my mind began to wander even further from the norm. Why make a regular custard filling when I could use cream cheese? I looked up some pumpkin cheesecake recipes, but most seemed more cheesecake than pumpkin pie, and I wanted to retain the pie’s essence for the holiday, so I decided to make up my own concoction.

As I wanted the pie to preserve some traditional flavors, I started with the customary pumpkin puree mixed with eggs, sugar, and cream, along with the conventional spices of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. With my eye on making my pie creamier and richer than in years past, I then mixed in a package of cream cheese that had been whipped with some sugar, more eggs and vanilla. Then, to wake up the palate a bit, I also added in some ginger. Of course I used a pecan shortbread crust, the idea of which started this whole adventure in the first place. Finally, once the cake cooled, I topped it with sour cream that had been flavored with maple syrup simply because I wanted a hint of tartness and sugar to help balance the rich creaminess of the cake.

My new and improved pumpkin dessert was light and silky with a rich Fall flavor that wasn’t overwhelming. Using only one package of cream cheese endowed the filling with a velvety sumptuousness that was more fluffy than overwhelmingly cheesy. The pecan crust’s nutty and buttery crispness was also the perfect foil for the creamy center. And did I mention that you just press the dough in the pan, which means you don’t have to prepare and roll out a crust? I have a feeling this new pumpkin dessert will find a place in my holiday repertoire of desserts, but I’m also open to future experimentation.

pumpkin cheesecake

Pumpkin Cheesecake with a Pecan Shortbread Crust

Makes: 1 8-inch cake


1/2 cup softened unsalted butter
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 cup flour
1/3 cup chopped pecans

Pumpkin Cheesecake Filling
1 8-oz package cream cheese
1/4 cup granulated sugar
4 large eggs
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 15-oz can pureed pumpkin or 2 cups cooked pumpkin
3/4 cups brown sugar
3/4 cup whipping cream
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp cloves
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp salt

1/2 cup sour cream
2 Tbsp maple syrup
2 Tbsp chopped pecans


1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
2. Mix together all ingredients using either the paddle of a mixer or your hands.
3. Press crust into a 9-inch spring-form pan, being sure to make the bottom even and also pressing the edges of the dough about a 1/4 to 1/2 way up the sides of the pan. Set the pan in the refrigerator.
4. In a medium bowl, whip together the pumpkin puree, cream, 2 eggs, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger and salt until fully incorporated.
5. Using a the paddle attachment on your mixer, combine the softened cream cheese, 2 eggs, granulated sugar and vanilla until creamy.
6. Gently add the pumpkin mixture to the cream cheese, being sure not to over mix.
7. Take the crust out of the refrigerator and set the pan on a large baking sheet. Pour the filling into the pan.
8. Place the filled pan (which should still be on the large baking sheet) into the oven for 45 minutes or until the center only slightly jiggles. If the middle shakes like jell-o, leave it in until it sets further.
9. Once the cake has cooled down, mix the sour cream and maple syrup together. Spread the mixture on top of the cake and then sprinkle on the chopped pecans.
10. Refrigerate at least 2 hours or overnight and serve.

Related Posts
Pumpkin Bread
Fuyu Persimmon and Date Upside-Down-Cake
How to Save a Fruitcake


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Lasagna Illuminated

lasagna with raviolis

Lots of things can go wrong in the kitchen. Anyone who has spent any time cooking has burnt a finger, added too much salt to the sauce, or maybe even dropped an entire pan of food on the floor. Accidents are common and unavoidable and even those competitive souls on Top Chef can completely blow it every once in a while (which really helps ratings). Yet errors can also be illuminating. A few years ago when I added too much salt to a tomato pasta sauce I threw in some leftover mashed potatoes to help soak up the salt. Normally I would never (ever) add mashed potatoes to a pasta sauce, but was desperate. So I was surprised to find that those potatoes gave the dish a uniquely creamy and lustrous texture. It was an enlightening moment.

I was confronted with a similar situation last Saturday. My friend Christina decided it would be fun to have a ravioli-making party with the Italian ladies in her life. What a great idea. So on Saturday morning at 10:00 a.m., Christina, her friend Laura and I congregated in Christina’s kitchen to make homemade pasta dough. After comparing methods, we set to work using Laura’s grandmother’s tried and true pasta recipe (use one egg per person plus a half egg shell of water for each two people and then add semolina and flour “l’occhio” (by eye) — brilliant!). Laura had also brought over her Kitchen Aid pasta-making attachment, which had Christina and me oohing and aahing as those strips of pasta beautifully rolled through the press, perfect every time.

Once all the dough was made and laid out on the counter, one of us looked at the clock to discover it was noon. Laura had to take her two-year old home for a nap, Christina had to take her son to a friend’s house, and I had to dash off to my daughters’ soccer game nearby. After a few kisses on the cheeks and promises to be back by four, we all rushed out the door — our morning’s labor deserted.

dried pasta

Dried pasta

After a few hours, we met up again to fill those raviolis, but were horrified to find none of us had actually covered the pasta — which was still sitting on the counter, most of it dry as crackers and not fit to shape around a filling to make raviolis. After staring in horror at the pasta, we laughed at our mistake. I mean, honestly, what else could we do? Thankfully Christina’s husband Marhsall is handy with a shaker and he made us some Manhattans to ease the pain while we put our heads together to find a solution.

Although some of the dough was still pliable enough to make raviolis, most wouldn’t make the cut. We quickly used the most supple pasta pieces to make a butternut squash ravioli, but it seemed obvious we would need to abandon our meat ravioli plans as we quickly ran out of dough that could be shaped. The most logical and natural answer was to just make lasagna out of the dry pieces.

Now the three of us are all from Neapolitan or Sicilian families, so are used to preparing lasagna with fresh ricotta cheese and mozzarella (two ingredients we did not have on hand). The situation, however, demanded that we abandon those traditions. So instead of creating the usual cheesy lasagna, we decided to make the most of the perfectly seasoned and slow-roasted short rib ragù Christina had cooked and then pureed the night before as a ravioli filling, along with the light marinara sauce Laura had made earlier that day. We also chose to make a béchamel sauce to round out the flavors and finally added some aged Parmesan cheese. That’s it.

layering the lasagna

Layering the lasagna

So there we were, making béchamel, lining the dish with sauce and dried pasta, grating cheese, and drinking Manhattans. The lasagna went into the oven and we all sighed, wishing those ingredients had become raviolis instead. When the lasagna came out of the oven a while later, we set the table for the feast and then sat down with the other diners, laughing again about our pasta dough disaster.

But once we started cutting into the lasagna we knew something wonderful had happened in the kitchen that day. We had thought the butternut squash raviolis in a brown butter sauce with fresh sage would be the highlight of the meal, and although they were lovely, they were no match for the cobbled together and impromptu lasagna. Those once-dried noodles, ragù, marinara sauce and béchamel had melded themselves perfectly together. The raviolis were ignored as each person first smelled and then tasted the lasagna. Very few words were spoken — mostly “Wow!” and “Oh!” interspersed with the noise of forks touching plates. Finally one of the husbands said “Boy I’m glad you guys messed up the ravioli dough.” And so was I.

Never in my life had I experienced such perfect lasagna. The once-forgotten dough that had languished on the counter all day was transformed into a thing of beauty when combined with the meat filling and sauces. And that ragù! If we had used ricotta and mozzarella with it, the cheeses would have blanketed our taste buds with their creamy flavors and textures. Without them, the ragù was the diva of the dish — capturing our attention and mesmerizing us.

So remember that although some kitchen disasters lead to burned fingers, others lead to superlative lasagna.

lasagna in a pan


Superlative Lasagna

Makes: One 9×13 pan

Homemade pasta dough rolled out into sheets
Christina’s Short Rib Ragù (recipe below)
Béchamel sauce (recipe below)
Marinara sauce (here is Mario Batali’s Marinara recipe if you don’t have a favorite of your own)
Parmesan cheese (enough to thinly coat each layer of the lasagna, about 1 cup)

1. Make and short ribs and marinara sauce ahead of time and then refrigerate. You can do this the morning you’ll make the lasagna or the day before.

2. Make the pasta dough. You can make it a couple of hours ahead of time, but should cover it with waxed paper or dish towels to avoid curling.

3. When ready to assemble the lasagna, make the béchamel sauce.

4. In a large 9 x 13 pan, assemble your lasagna by lightly layering the bottom of the pan with marinara sauce, followed by a layer each of pasta, ragù, béchamel sauce and grated Parmesan cheese.

5. Continue layering until you are out of ingredients, being sure to leave enough marinara sauce to coat the top of the lasagna. Sprinkle on a final coating of Parmesan cheese.

6. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 30-40 minutes or until cooked through.

7. Serve.

Béchamel Sauce

Makes: 1 1/2 cups

1 stick unsalted butter
3/4 cup all purpose flour (or enough to create a thick roux with the flour)
3 cups whole milk
Salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste

1. In a medium sauce pan, melt the butter on medium low heat.

2. Once the butter is melted, slowly whisk in the flour until the sauce has a smooth consistency.

3. Slowly add in the milk, whisking to avoid lumps.

4. Simmer sauce for a few minutes and season with salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste (I only use a sprinkling of nutmeg, but you can add more of you like a heartier nutmeg flavor).


Christina’s Short Rib Ragù

Adapted from: Faux Babbo Ravioli recipe; Originally published with THE CHEAT; So You Still Can’t Get a Reservation at Babbo? By Sam Sifton, May 8, 2005

Makes: Enough ragù for one lasagna


2 lbs short ribs
3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion chopped
2 celery stalks chopped
2 carrots chopped
2 1/2 cup red wine
1 cup tomatoes diced drained
2 Tbsp chopped fresh rosemary or oregano


1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

2. Heat a large ovenproof skillet (such as a cast-iron pan) on medium-high heat.

3. Add the oil and then mix in the chopped onion, celery and carrots and sauté for five minutes.

4. Remove the vegetables and turn the heat up to medium-high heat. Brown the short ribs (being sure not to crowd the pan.

5. Remove the meat and deglaze the pan with the wine; add in the tomatoes and herbs as well as salt and pepper to taste.

6. Add in the meat and vegetables and then bring mixture to a boil.

7. Set the pan in the oven and bake for 2 hours or until the short ribs are falling apart.

8. Let mixture cool and then refrigerate overnight or at least two hours. Puree or chop until mixture is fairly smooth.

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Fuyu Persimmon and Date Upside-Down Cake

persimmon and date upside-down cake

Once the weather starts to cool down a little, and the leaves begin to turn various shades of gold and red, I reconcile myself to the fact that the time for peaches and watermelons is over. Yet as much as I love summer fruits, I shed no tears at their passing season. By this time I’ve eaten my fill of all those lovely stone fruits and melons bursting with juices and flavors. I’ve eaten plenty of peach tarts, cherry pies, and apricots fresh and delicious. Sure, I’ll miss them at times during the year (and I even have a stash of frozen cherries in the freezer for a holiday trifle I’ll make in about a month), but it is now time to move on. So instead of mourning the summer crops I have thoroughly enjoyed for months, I am embracing the amazing fall harvest. At the top of this list is the Fuyu persimmon — hands down my absolute favorite fall fruit.

As I mentioned in my Fuyu persimmon post last year, Fuyus should not be confused with Hachiya persimmons. Unlike the naturally astringent Hachiya, which needs to be so ripe it should look like a bag full of goop by the time you can eat it, Fuyus are sweet and firm when they’re ready. With Fuyus, you can just peel and eat. They’re amazing served fresh in salads or cooked in couscous and tarts. My favorite new fall dessert, however, is a Fuyu and Date Upside-Down Cake.

fuyu persimmons

I came up with the idea for this cake after eyeing a pineapple upside down cake recently. I loved how pretty the pineapples looked on the cake and then began to imagine how slices of Fuyu persimmons, with their natural star inlay, would look. As I had some fresh dates on hand, I decided to throw those in as well, along with some cinnamon and nutmeg to give the cake some spice.

After setting the lovely sliced Fuyus — which look like orange sand dollars — in butter and sugar, I added some chopped Fuyus and dates to the cake batter. And of course I used my trusty cast-iron pan so I could cook the persimmons in the butter and sugar first on the stove top and then just add the batter and place the whole thing in the oven. The result was truly something you could only get in the fall months: the chopped persimmons and dates inside the cake gave the dessert a wonderful sweetness while the whole persimmon slices looked quite pretty on top.

Raw or cooked, Fuyu persimmons are a special fall treat that will only be available for a short while. So take advantage of them up while you can.

piece of cake

Fuyu and Date Upside-Down Cake

Makes: one 8-inch round cake


1 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup butter (1/2 of one stick) softened
1 egg
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup milk (preferably whole milk)
1 1/4 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp each cinnamon and nutmeg
3 persimmons (2 sliced into 1/4-inch slices and one chopped into cubes
1 cup fresh dates pitted and chopped
1/2 cup chopped walnut or almonds (optional)
2 Tbsp butter
2 Tbsp sugar or brown sugar


1. In a medium sauce pan (an 8-inch round cast-iron pan if you have one), heat the 2 Tbsp butter until melted and bubbling. Add the sugar and caramelize until a light golden brown if using regular sugar or until melted if using brown sugar.
2. Lay the persimmon slices in the pan. Turn off the heat and set aside. If using a separate pan for baking the cake, pour the caramelized sugar and butter into the baking pan first and then lay the persimmon slices on top.
3. Beat sugar into butter using a stand mixer or by hand until fluffy.
4. Whisk in the egg and vanilla until fully incorporated.
5. Add the milk, mixing it in thoroughly.
6. Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and nutmeg in a separate bowl.
7. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and mix until just barely incorporated.
8. Mix in the chopped dates and Fuyu persimmons (and nuts if using) until the batter is combined, but do not over mix.
9. Gently lay the batter on top of the persimmon slices in your baking pan, being sure not to disturb the pattern you made earlier.
10. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 20-25 minutes or until it is baked through.
11. With a thin sharp knife, separate the cake from the edge of the inside of the pan. Lay a flat plate over the pan and then, using an oven mitt, flip the plate over so the cake falls onto the plate.
12. Let cool and then top with powdered sugar.

Related Posts

Fuyu Persimmons

Hachiya Persimmons

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