I rarely crave pumpkin out of season; although I quite like it, it’s not generally one of my overarching favorite flavors per se– it does not keep me up at night with recipe ideas or stark, raving mad obsession like chocolate or caramel. (That’s normal, right?!) However, almost like clockwork, on the Autumnal Equinox, all of a sudden I crave pumpkin bread, pumpkin muffins, pumpkin cupcakes, pumpkin whoopie pies, pumpkin bagels… Not so much pumpkin pie, but you get the picture. And then, the day after Thanksgiving… I’m done. Every year, I’m maxed out right after the big turkey feast; at that point, I don’t want to eat, or even look at, pumpkin-y foods for another 10 months!
But we’re not there yet– it’s only mid-October, which means I am in the throes of autumnal pumpkin lust! Now, let me say that there is little in the baking world that is more repugnant to me than plain pumpkin purée. In my opinion, it just stinks like nobody’s business! For this reason, I chose not to make my own homemade purée– in this case, I’ll take the can, thanks. It’s hard to imagine that it could taste so good, but when you combine it with things like cream cheese and spices, it magically transforms into that perfect holiday ingredient that embodies the warmth and deliciousness of the season! Yes, people– it is the optimal time to make Pumpkin Cheesecake Bars from the Pumpkin chapter of Baked Elements for Baked Sunday Mornings– a lovely inauguration of the upcoming abundance of holiday baking!
These scrumptious bars consist of three components: pastry crust, pumpkin cheesecake filling, and cream cheese frosting, each of which is tasty on its own, but together they are utterly dreamy. The crust dough comes together very quickly and easily by first pulsing the dry ingredients in a food processor, then adding butter and an egg. I had initially imagined that it would be like a pie crust, but you do not need to have visible chunks of butter for flakiness here, plus the presence of an egg is decidedly unpie-like. I wasn’t sure how much to pulse the mixture in the food processor, as I didn’t want to overwork the dough– the recipe says “just until the dough begins to hold together”. Adding the suggested 1 teaspoon of water did the trick perfectly, as it stuck together pretty quickly after that. Into the fridge it went, overnight.
Because the dough needed to chill, this was a 2-evening project for me, though if you have a stretch of a few hours, you can certainly make it in one sitting. The recipe instructs to roll the dough out into a rectangle, then to nestle it carefully into the parchment-lined cake pan. I found said rolling and nestling to be a hassle, and I ended up with a very awkward dough situation in my pan, requiring the patching of small pieces into the edges and corners. By this point, I presumed that my dough had, indeed, been overworked; I will probably try to just press it right into the pan next time, and then chill the dough.
The crust-baking requires 2 stages: blind baking with pie weights, then finishing and browning, uncovered. I didn’t have enough pie weights to really weigh it down properly (and no dried beans in the house), but I hoped for the best… Regrettably, I didn’t watch my oven carefully enough towards the end and overbaked the crust by a few minutes; it had over-browned on the edges and shrunken away from the sides of the pan quite a bit. I was not at all pleased by this turn of events! Shrinkage is so unfortunate. *sigh* I don’t know if this problem was due to mishandling the dough, or if it shrank because I didn’t have enough pie weights to hold it in place during the first phase of baking. Nevertheless, I proceeded to the next steps, as I didn’t have time to re-make the dough.
The pumpkin cheesecake filling came together in a snap. First combine the pumpkin purée with maple syrup, vanilla bean paste, and those beautiful, transformative spices: cinnamon (Penzey’s Vietnamese all the way), freshly grated nutmeg, ginger, and allspice. By the way, I highly recommend not skipping the fresh nutmeg– it is vastly more flavorful than ground nutmeg.
Whip your cream cheese with sugar, then add the pumpkin-spice mixture, and finally a couple of eggs; just make sure to scrape the sides and *bottom* of the bowl a few times to avoid those pesky cream cheese lumps. I was careful not to overmix my batter (which could result in surface cracks), and the baked cheesecake layer came out perfectly smooth and flat, erasing my crust woes.
I feel like a broken record here– the cream cheese frosting layer is also super easy and quick to make. This involves nothing more than beating butter, whipping in the cream cheese, then adding confectioners’ sugar, vanilla extract, and a touch of salt. The color is a little beige-y, and therefore not so pretty due to the full tablespoon of vanilla, but it’s totally worth the slightly compromised color, as the ramped-up vanilla flavor is SUPER.
It took a lot of willpower not to dive right into that frosting bowl face-first; or at least eat it in a marginally more civilized way, with a spoon. Sorry, BAKED’s cream cheese frosting turns me into a frosting animal… Don’t judge me. But, I managed to restrain myself. (Does that mean I can have a cookie for good behavior?) Anyway, spread this frosting loveliness gently across your pumpkin cheesecake layer with an offset spatula and chill the pan for at least an hour. My cream cheese frosting never firms up quite the way I’d like it to, but a little extra fridge time helps.
Now, the recipe intro in the book says that these bars are really addictive, but I didn’t imagine them being that amazing, due to the absence of, well, chocolate. However, I could not have been more wrong– I couldn’t.stop.eating.them. They are a luscious combination of sweet, creamy, spicy, and crisp, filling up your whole mouth with wonderful flavor and texture; they are at once light and rich. Luckily I brought them to a family dinner, so I didn’t have the option of hoarding them all for myself. All tasters agreed that these bars make a fabulous Fall dessert!
As great as they were, there are two small changes that I would make: First, I may make them with a graham cracker, speculoos cookie, or gingersnap crust next time– that might make my mouth explode with Fall goodness, plus it would eliminate the need for chilling and rolling dough. Better yet– brown butter?! After our last BSM recipe for Brown Butter Snickerdoodles, I’m sort of looking desperately for reasons to use more brown buttah! Secondly, the recipe note in the book suggests topping these bars with caramel or pecans, and I simply ran out of time, but I think a drizzle of caramel would be diviiiiiine….
Basically, in case I haven’t been explicit enough, you need these in your life sometime between now and Thanksgiving, maybe even Christmas for those of you with higher pumpkin thresholds than me. (Actually, don’t wait until then– it just means you should make them multiple times.) Head over to Baked Sunday Mornings for the Pumpkin Cheesecake Bars recipe, and check out my fellow BSMers’ blogs while you’re visiting. Happy October!
© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2013.