For me, the “most wonderful time of the year” isn’t that dreaded, overly-commercialized holiday that looms at the end of December. Not to be a complete Scrooge – because there are some lovely things, indeed, about Christmas – but you can keep those holidays.
I’m talking about “sweater weather” and the onset of my favorite season: autumn. There’s just something about the cool, crisp nip in the air that sweeps in as the hot, humid summer air saunters out… and the glorious, awe-inspiring color-burst from trees as they hesitatingly surrender their green from warmer days past. I love putting on comfy sweaters and jeans and taking walks. Fall feels like a season of new beginnings to me, even though it begins at the tail-end of September. This feeling may harken back to when I started a new school year in September as a kid. There’s a particular line in the film You’ve Got Mail, in which Tom Hanks rhapsodizes about fall to Meg Ryan via one of his anonymous emails. He mentions that, if he could, he would send her a bouquet of “newly-sharpened pencils” because that’s what the start of fall symbolizes to him. I totally get it. It’s fresh, it’s new – even though nature is bidding a fond farewell to sunny days and hunkering down for the dark winter ahead.
I know I’m not alone in this love for fall, just as I know I also share my love for an especially autumnal flavor that suddenly explodes around this time of year: pumpkin. Baked Sunday Mornings has made a timely selection for this week’s assignment: delectable Pumpkin Cheesecake Bars from Baked Elements. There couldn’t be a more perfect way to say hello to the season.
I should probably make my viewpoint on pumpkin pretty clear from the get-go. Saying “I love pumpkin” is an understatement of sorts, because – like the guys from Baked, apparently (they’ve dedicated a whole chapter to pumpkin, after all) – I practically go nuts over it, in any dessert. However, we have a weird kind of pumpkin gluttony here in America that goes a touch overboard. I’m not about to go as crazy as lots of people over Pumpkin Spice Lattes from Starbucks. Ewww. Pumpkin Spice vodka? Pumpkin spice Bailey’s? Pumpkin Spice non-dairy coffee creamer???!!! Yikes! What’s wrong with this picture? Let’s get real for a moment. If it doesn’t actually have pumpkin in it, I’m not about to consume it. I’m a bit of a pumpkin snob that way. Not to mention, I have some concern for my health and what I’m putting into my body. I’d rather have the real thing – not chemicals.
While there are several wonderful brands of canned pumpkin – and organic pumpkin – puree out there, why not make your own? Baked offers wonderful pointers for making your own pumpkin puree in Baked Elements and – surprise! – it’s honestly quite simple. Just split a pie pumpkin in half, scoop out the seeds (reserve for toasting and snacking on later, if you so desire), place the pumpkin halves face-down on a foil or parchment-lined sheet pan, and roast for an hour or so at 350 degrees. When they’re comfortable enough to handle, scoop out the flesh of the pumpkin and whizz it all in a food processor. Voila! You’re done. Make sure you purchase pie pumpkins specifically for your puree. Those huge pumpkins you carve Jack-o-lanterns out of won’t do, as they are too thick, tough, watery, and filled with stringy seeds. Pie pumpkins are smaller, creamier, less grainy, easier to handle, and basically grown with the intent to be used in recipes.
A buttery, slightly sweet crust – almost reminiscent of pie crust – is the start for these cheesecake bars. Take care to chill your dough as suggested, rolling it out and handling it as gently as possible. I had a few troubles maneuvering mine into the parchment-lined pan, as it tore in spots – but you can gently tear off pieces of excess dough to lightly press into any cracked or torn areas in the pan. Chill the crust layer briefly before baking it off, with the aid of pie weights and aluminum foil, in the oven.
Before proceeding with this recipe, understand that – like any cheesecake recipe – you are going to be dealing with a hefty amount of cream cheese. 3 bricks, to be exact, between the filling and frosting. Make sure you have these ready to go and softened to room temperature. You’ll be amazed that only 3/4 cup of pumpkin puree goes into the filling. It doesn’t seem like enough, especially when combined with a full pound of cream cheese – but trust me, it’s really just right. The result is a wonderful, harmonious flavor pairing of cream cheese and pumpkin, without one overpowering the other. Warm autumn spices (cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice) are mixed into the filling along with a touch of real maple syrup and vanilla bean paste for the perfect fall flavor palate. Take care not to overbeat your filling, as you want to prevent air bubbles from forming and subsequently popping as it bakes. Your intent is to maintain a smooth, air-pocket-free mixture that will emerge from the oven without cracks. As beautiful as “cheesecake crack” can be for ornamental purposes, keep in mind that you will be icing these bars, so a smooth, crack-free surface is preferable.
A hearty slathering of cream cheese frosting (yes, MORE cream cheese) finishes the cheesecake bars. Make sure your cream cheese and butter are at close to – if not the same – room temperature so they blend together smoothly, and it might be a good idea to sift your confectioners’ sugar. Now, I adore cream cheese frosting, but I actually felt the recipe could have been halved. Though I loved this crowning touch to the bars, I wanted the pumpkin cheesecake filling to shine through more, and the frosting seemed a touch thick at first taste. There was also a slight weepy/watery effect at the interface of the cheesecake layer and the frosting layer, which I especially noticed as I cut and served the bars. In some spots, this caused the frosting to almost slide off the cheesecake layer, rather than adhering to it, which was disappointing. My only thought was that the bars may still have been a tad bit warm when I frosted them with the cream cheese frosting. That being said, make sure you completely cool your bars before icing them – maybe even pop them in the fridge for a bit first. I will certainly remember this the next time I make these – and oh yes, I will make them again.
Baked suggests sprinkling the top of the cream cheese frosting with toasted pecans, which I am sure would be delicious and provide a perfect crunchy contrast to the creamy smoothness of the cheesecake. For my first batch, I decided to leave them off. Bear in mind that if you opt to use the pecans, you may want to add them to the bars as you serve them. There is a lot of moisture in this dessert, and they may soften up if left on the bars in the refrigerator.
This is a recipe you’ll definitely want to earmark to usher in fall every year. The serving is just enough to make you feel like you’re sinking your teeth into a decadent pumpkin cheesecake without eating a huge piece. The cream cheese frosting adds a soft, vanilla-laced counterpoint to the slightly spicy pumpkin filling, and the crust provides a perfect buttery, tender base for all the autumn lusciousness. I won’t lie – these are rich, but trust me, you’ll be tempted to eat more than one. I guarantee it.
Join me in welcoming fall by making your own Pumpkin Cheesecake Bars! Simply follow this link for the recipe:
… and don’t be frightened about making your own pumpkin puree! It’s easier than you think, and you’ll have enough left to make another batch of these! Make sure to visit the blogs of my fellow BSM bakers to see how they fared with these!
Happy Fall, everyone!