Is it possible to have a craving for something you've never eaten before?
I suppose it is, if you think about bizarre pregnancy cravings. Soap, coal, chalk, cigarette butts and laundry detergent are, apparently, not uncommon cravings for women with child. They're not items you're likely to have tasted before in life. I didn't eat pasta until I was around fourteen years old (shocking, I know). The first time I did, it was because I suddenly had an overwhelming urge to make myself a bowl of pasta (with oodles of grated cheese and a bit of crispy bacon, in fact). I can't really explain this; I just knew I'd like it.
So it is really quite plausible that over the last few weeks I've had a huge craving for pumpkin pie.
Being an American dessert, associated with Thanksgiving and this festive time of year, it's unsurprising that I, living in the practically provincial locale of Cambridge (UK), have never tried such a thing. However, Tastespotting and Foodgawker keep festooning my eyes lately with images of luscious-looking pumpkin pies when I'm trawling through their images during my daily food porn fix. Fluffy and creamy and delightfully marigold, they whisper sweet promises of sugar and spice and nutty, caramel undertones. Although I have never been near a real-life pumpkin pie, I can practically taste one as I ogle those gorgeous images.
Baking with pumpkin really isn't that odd. It's no different to making carrot cake, which we love over here in the UK - they're both orange root vegetables with a natural sweetness and moisture that makes them perfectly suited to baking. I first tried using pumpkin here, when I made some delicious little cake squares using butternut squash. I love the complex flavour of cooked pumpkin, sweet and nutty and buttery all at the same time, so I knew I'd love it when combined with other sweet things.
What I've made here is not really authentic, in that it's more of a cheesecake than a pie. There's no pastry involved. However, there is pumpkin, sugar and lots of autumnal spice, so I think it counts. It's also utterly delicious. The base is a simple mix of ginger nut biscuits and butter (can't really go wrong there - quite a lot of it ended up in my tummy before it ended up in the tin), with a filling of pumpkin and cream cheese bound together with egg and flavoured with orange zest, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and vanilla. Oh my, it is good.
I think, in terms of texture and appearance, this is the best cheesecake I've ever made.
The filling was the absolute perfect consistency, soft and almost mousse-like but still substantially creamy. I wonder if this is down to the fact that I put a tray of water in the oven while it cooked, to create a sort of steam bath for the cake. It didn't stop a couple of cracks appearing on the top, but it definitely gave it a wonderful texture far superior to any cheesecake I've made before. Instead of being a little dry and crumbly, it was perfectly moist and indulgent. This could, of course, be due to the addition of the pumpkin purée.
Because a) I was too lazy to make my own and b) I wanted something vaguely authentic, I used a can of pumpkin purée (you can get it in Waitrose or Ocado). I've never worked with this stuff before - it's just pure pumpkin, so it saves the faff of peeling and roasting your own. I'm sure you get a better flavour if you make your own (as I did for this delicious butternut squash cake), but I quite liked the look of this stuff - fluffy, smooth and orange, it turned the cheesecake mix a lovely golden colour. The use of spices, vanilla and orange zest really bring out the sweetness of the pumpkin, but you can't really taste it that much - you'd never guess it was in there if you didn't know. Instead, you just get a lovely sweet, slightly caramelly flavour.
(I almost wish I hadn't used orange zest, though - not because of the flavour, but because I grated most of my knuckle off while trying to get the zest off the orange. Fortunately I managed not to bleed into the cake, but it was a close thing. Those microplane graters are highly effective, but damn are they sharp.)
The combination of creamy, sweet, festively spiced filling against the crunchy gingerbread base is wonderful, but even better when you get the crunch of a pecan nut. I was going to grind these up and put them in the base mixture, but was worried their flavour would be masked. Instead I just toasted them whole and used them to decorate the cake. In future I'd use more, or grind them coarsely and scatter them all over the top, as they really lift the cake from being something special to something truly wonderful.
Pumpkin, pecan and ginger - a fabulous and scrumptious combination. Thank you, America.
Incidentally, if you haven't yet come to see/follow my new Facebook page, please do!
Spiced pumpkin, ginger and pecan cheesecake (serves 6):
(Adapted from 'Iowa Girl Eats', here)
- 12 ginger nut biscuits, blitzed to crumbs in a blender
- 50g butter, melted
- 600g light cream cheese
- 400g pumpkin puree (homemade or from a can)
- 130g light brown sugar
- Zest of 1 orange, very finely grated
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 3/4 tsp each of ground ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg
- 1/8 tsp ground cloves
- 2 eggs
- A large handful of pecan nuts
- Extra nutmeg, to decorate
- Icing sugar, to decorate
Pre-heat the oven to 180C (fan oven). Grease and line the bottom of a 20cm springform cake tin. Mix the biscuits with the melted butter and press into the bottom of the cake tin. Bake for 10 minutes, until golden and crisp. Remove from the oven. Turn the heat down to 160C.
Meanwhile, using an electric whisk, mix together the cream cheese and pumpkin puree. Add the sugar, zest, vanilla and spices, then finally add the eggs and beat to incorporate. Pour into the prepared tin.
Place an oven tray of water at the bottom of the oven, then put the cake in. Bake for about an hour, until it has mostly set but still wobbles a little in the middle. Remember that it will set more as it cools, so you don't want it to be completely solid.
Leave the cake to cool in the oven with the door ajar (this helps to stop it cracking), then remove to a plate. Toast the pecans in a dry pan or the oven, then scatter over the surface of the cake, or decorate neatly as I did. Grate over a little fresh nutmeg and sprinkle over some icing sugar, then put in the fridge until you need it (if it's been in the fridge for a long time, remove 20 minutes or so before serving).