Pumpkin Cheesecake Pie

For the third year in a row I am fortunate enough to have two Thanksgivings: one with my family and one with my in-laws. I am going to be meeting my cousin’s son Joshua for the first time at our celebration on Thursday and going ice skating with my niece’s on Saturday after celebrating with my in-laws on Friday. I love Thanksgiving for the family, friends, and food. Once I became interested in cooking I always wanted to help with Thanksgiving and this year my aunt (who is hosting), my mom, and I are splitting the cooking duties. I’ve been assigned to several dishes, including a squash dish, a pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce, a loaf of my cinnamon carrot bread, and a few dipping sauces to go with sweet potato fries to be served as an appetizer.

The pumpkin pie is to be my biggest achievement from this list for two reasons: one, I’ve never made one before and two, it is seen as the essential Thanksgiving item. After doing a little bit of poking around online, I’ve decided to do a twist on the regular pie and do a cheesecake pie instead, which is basically a lighter version of a cheesecake. I’m also using fresh pumpkin instead of canned and making my own gingersnap cookies for the crust. I thought of going as far as making my own cream cheese, but I have not started experimenting with cheese-making yet and I did not feel this was the appropriate place to start (but stay tuned, home cheese-making will show up in future posts).

I planned on doing all of my cooking on Wednesday, but since I was using fresh pumpkin I started that piece of the recipe on Tuesday. I bought a medium-sized, locally grown sugar pie pumpkin from my local co-op. If you choose to go this route, make sure you use a pie pumpkin. Not all pumpkins are pie pumpkins (i.e. you cannot use the pumpkin you carved for Halloween), so be sure you get the right kind or the results could be some bad-tasting pumpkin pie. I cut the pumpkin in half and scooped out the seeds. (I saved the seeds to roast with salt, pepper, and oil for a crunchy snack.) I placed the pumpkin halves cut-side down on a cookie sheet with a non-stick mat on it (wax or parchment paper works fine too) and baked for about one hour until the flesh was fork tender. I let the pumpkins cool to room temperature and then scooped out the soft flesh into a bowl. This happened late in the evening, so I placed it in the fridge for use the next day.

The next morning I made a cup of tea and got started on my crust. I made the gingersnap cookies the night before, overcooking slightly so they were dry but not burned. Today I placed the cookies in a plastic bag and smashed them with a rolling pin. You can also do this with a food processor, but I don’t have one so this method is a good but manual replacement. I mixed the cookie crumbs with a little melted butter and some sugar, then put the mixture in a 10-inch pie pan, pressing it on the bottom and up the sides of the pan. I then baked the crust until it was crisp and not too dark. I then left the crust to cool while completing the filling.

To finish the pumpkin, I placed it in a saucepan over low heat with a little bit of water. Using a potato masher, I mashed the pumpkin until it was a smooth, mashed-potato consistency. If you have a blender, you can use that to puree the pumpkin, which is much faster than my method (alas, my blender broke and I have yet to replace it).

To make the filling I mixed sugar, ground ginger, and softened cream cheese together. I added the ginger so I could taste it but not so that it was overpowering the rest of the flavor (if you really like ginger, consider adding finely chopped crystallized ginger in place of the ground ginger). I also used fresh nutmeg; if you can find it, I highly recommend using it over the pre-ground version. If not, just use the same amount of pre-ground nutmeg.

After adding the remaining ingredients, I pulled out about ¾ of a cup of the mixture without the pumpkin, then added the pumpkin to what remained in the bowl. I poured the pumpkin mixture into the pan and then added what I had reserved, using the opposite end of a wooden spoon to swirl the reserved mixture into a pretty pattern.

I placed the pie pan on a cookie sheet (to prevent the bottom of the crust from burning) and baked for about 40 minutes or until the filling was set. To find out of the filling is set, gently shake the cookie sheet that the pie is on. When it is baked to a slight wiggle, it is done. The center is always the last to be baked, so make sure it is not moving too much before you take it out. If you start to get dark spots on the top, tent with aluminum foil, being sure that it does not touch the pie filling. Cool it for two hours (or until it is at room temperature) and then chill until about 30-45 minutes before you serve to allow it to return to room temperature.

Pumpkin Cheesecake Pie
Makes 1 10-inch pie

1 gingersnap crumb crust for a 10-inch pie, cooled (you can find this on most cooking websites)
3/4 c sugar
1 heaping tbsp ground ginger
8 oz cream cheese, softened
2 eggs
1/4 c heavy whipping cream
1 tbsp flour
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 tsp salt
1 c fresh pumpkin puree (or mashed fresh pumpkin)

Make gingersnap crumb crust and set it aside to cool.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Combine the sugar and ginger in a large bowl, then add cream cheese and mix with a electric mixer until smooth. Add eggs, milk, flour, nutmeg, and salt and mix until smooth.

Reserve about 3/4 cup cream cheese mixture in a bowl or glass measuring cup. Add the pumpkin to the remaining cream cheese mixture and mix with an electric mixer until blended.

Pour pumpkin mixture into gingersnap crumb crust. Stir reserved cream cheese mixture and drizzle over top of pumpkin mixture. Using the opposite end of a wooden spoon, swirl the cream cheese mixture to make a pretty design. Place the pie on a baking sheet and bake until center is just set, about 35 to 45 minutes. Transfer to a rack and cool to room temperature, about 2 hours. Chill, loosely covered with foil, for at least 4 hours. Remove from the fridge 30-45 minutes before serving to allow pie to reach room temperature. If any moisture appears on the top of the pie, blot with a paper towel prior to serving.

Adapted from Epicurious.com


Ford's Chicken Chili

You can feel the change that happens when deer hunting season rolls around in Wisconsin. Visitors come from out of town and don’t know how to get anywhere, there is way too much blaze orange walking around, and all the businesses change their signs to read “Good Luck Hunters!”

For me, it means shopping. Ever since I was little my mom and I have gone shopping together while the guys are out hunting. For the past three years, however, we haven’t been able to since I was in California. I am so excited to go this year. Other than shopping, the weekend also means that I’m cooking up something delicious for the hunters. My favorite is a chicken chili recipe my family has been making for years. I’m not sure where it came from, but it’s delicious every time I make it. With jalapeños, carrots, onions, peppers, and mushrooms (local as much as possible, of course), it requires a lot of chopping, but the end result it more than worth it. The recipe below creates a very mild chili, so if you like it hotter, add more chili powder or another jalapeño. This year, I made a double recipe in a big stock pot and am sending it along in a crock pot so they can plug it in before they leave in the morning and have warm chili when they get back. I also made a loaf of cast-iron pot bread and a lot of chocolate chip cookies. If you do this for your hunters, make sure to send along a brick of sharp cheddar or pepper jack cheese for them to shred on top of the warm chili. To everyone going hunting, good luck and be safe! For those who aren’t, have a great weekend!

Ford’s Chicken Chili

2 lbs boneless skinless chicken breast, cut into 1-inch chunks
2 cloves garlic
4-5 tsp chili powder
4 tsp cumin
2 green bell peppers, chopped into large chunks
2 medium yellow onions, chopped
8 oz fresh mushrooms, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
½ stick of butter
28 oz can diced tomatoes
28 oz can tomato puree
1 can kidney beans
1 can black beans
2 tbsp brown sugar

In a large stock pot, heat enough oil to cover the bottom of the pan. Add the chicken, 1 clove of garlic, 1 tsp chili powder, and 1 tsp cumin. Sauté just until cooked through. Remove from the stock pot and set aside. In the same pot, add the butter, 2 tsp of chili powder, and 2 tsp cumin. Add the green peppers, onions, remaining garlic, mushrooms, and carrots and sauté about 5 minutes. Add remaining ingredients: tomatoes, tomato puree, beans, brown sugar, and rest of spices. Simmer for 3 hours. Season with salt, pepper, and additional chili powder and cumin to taste.


Vanilla Pear Muffins

I find cooking and baking to be extremely therapeutic. If I am having a bad day there is nothing more calming to me than whipping up something in my kitchen. The warm smell of baking cookies and simmering sauces is incredibly centering for me.

This morning I found myself missing California more than usual and was feeling generally down. I went into the kitchen, still in my pajamas, and remembered that I had some pears that my mom had brought over the weekend before that had gone uneaten. What could I do with pears? I went to one of my favorite all-around cookbooks: The Bride and Groom Cookbook by Gayle Pirie and John Clark. I opened the book to the first recipe, which was a simple recipe for vanilla pear muffins. Perfect! The recipe called for warm spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, perfect for a fall day, and was topped with a sugar-cinnamon-walnut topping for just a little bit of crunch.

I mixed together the dry ingredients – the basics of flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, baking soda, and spices – and set that aside to prepare the wet ingredients. One of the ingredients listed was buttermilk, which I never have on hand. There is, however, a very easy way to make a buttermilk substitute with stuff you already have in your kitchen. Put one tablespoon of white vinegar or lemon juice into a liquid measuring cup, then fill it up to the one-cup line with milk and let it stand for five minutes. I added the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients all at once, mixed well, and then gently folded in the diced pears. (Be very careful with this step because the pears pieces need to remain intact.) Then I spooned the mixture into a large 6-cup muffin tin, coating it generously with the walnut topping. Baking took about twice as long as the recipe called for, but it is well worth the wait. After they were done baking, I placed them on a cooling rack and went for a run (another extremely therapeutic activity for me).

Upon returning home, I made a pot of coffee, warmed up one of the muffins, and sat down in my dining room to enjoy the warm morning sun. The muffins were soft and buttery. The cinnamon and nutmeg were a lovely compliment; not at all overpowering, and the pears provided a lovely flavor and moistness. Overall, the therapy session with my mixing bowl and my running shoes was very satisfying.

Vanilla Pear Muffins
Makes 6 large or 12 small muffins

3 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp finely chopped walnuts
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
2 c whole wheat flour
½ c sugar
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
2 large eggs
½ c melted butter
¾ c buttermilk
2 tsp vanilla extract
4 or 5 pears, peeled cored, and chopped (French Butter, Comice, Warren, or Bartlett work well)
1 c walnuts, coarsely chopped (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a large 6-cup muffin pan or regular 12-cup muffin pan with butter.

Combine the first three ingredients in a small bowl and set aside. This will be the topping.

Stir the flour, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a bowl. Add the eggs, melted butter, buttermilk, and vanilla and stir until blended (the batter will be slightly lumpy). Gently fold the pears and walnuts (if using) just until evenly distributed.

Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin pan, filling up to the rim. Sprinkle the muffins with the walnut topping. Bake until golden and springy to the tough - a wooden skewer should come out clean – about 40 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool for 5 minutes. Turn the muffins onto a wire rack to cool further. Serve warm.

Adapted from The Bride & Groom Cookbook by Gayle Pirie & John Clark, p. 42.


Cinnamon Carrot Bread

In an effort to become involved in the local sustainable agriculture community, I connected with two women who work at the local chapter of the Buy Fresh Buy Local initiative. Sipping on hot cider at a coffee shop, we discussed their projects, what I was interested in doing, and made some plans for me to start helping. I am scheduled to go in tomorrow morning to help out and thought I should bring something delicious. My mom bought a bunch of carrots last weekend that were still in my fridge, so I decided to take a run at some carrot bread (think banana bread, just made with carrots).

I started where I usually do, consulting my cookbooks and my favorite online cooking sites (see “My Favorite Places” for some of them). I was initially frustrated because the recipes contained things I do not usually have in my kitchen, like flaked coconut, applesauce, raisins, orange zest, and pecans. That and I was not really interested in adding stuff like that to my bread. I finally found a recipe with a focus on warm spice; perfect for this time of year. With the recipe up on my computer, I went to the kitchen and started baking to the tunes of Sandi Thom.

I creamed the sugars and butter, sifted the flour with salt, baking soda, baking powder, and the spices, and then blended everything with shredded carrot, eggs, sour cream, and milk. I got a beautiful brown dough flecked with spices and carrot. It reminded me of the brown trees outside my house that had just a few orange leaves left on them as the season continues to progress towards winter.

I spooned the dough into my loaf pan and baked it for about one hour, appreciating the increasing scent of delicious fall flavors rising from my kitchen.

After an hour and a quick toothpick test, the bread came out of the oven beautifully browned and soft. I let it sit for about 10 minutes in the pan before taking it out of the pan and putting it on a cooling rack. I had a little issue with bread removal; even with a silicone pan some of the bread stuck to the bottom of it. Regardless, it remained aesthetically pleasing and also gave me an opportunity to taste some before tomorrow morning. The cinnamon was subtle but provided excellent flavor and the texture was soft and light; a huge hit with those I shared it with. Perfect for a fall morning with a little bit of melted butter and a hot cup of coffee.

Cinnamon Carrot Bread
(Makes 1 loaf)

3/4 c sugar
1/4 c packed brown sugar
1/4 c butter (1/2 stick), softened
2 cups whole wheat flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1 pinch salt
2 eggs
1/4 c sour cream
3/4 c non-fat milk
1 cup grated carrots
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9x5 loaf pan.

In a large bowl, beat together the sugars and butter. Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt into the bowl while stirring occasionally. Beat the eggs together, and gradually stir into the batter until everything is combined. Add sour cream and milk, stirring until combined. Mix in carrots and vanilla. Pour batter into prepared pan.
Bake on middle rack for 60 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool in pan for 10 minutes, and then turn out onto wire rack to cool completely.

Adapted from allrecipes.com


Cast-Iron Pot Bread

I awoke this morning to a beautiful fall sunrise streaming through my bedroom window. It was the first day in a while that I didn’t actually have to leave the house unless I wanted to, which meant it was the perfect day to make homemade bread.

In the past, given that I didn’t have a lot of time to spend on making bread, I depended on my bread machine to do the work for me. It was great because it required little time or energy, but still provided a homemade product. Unfortunately, it was never fantastic and I was getting tired of always making it in my bread machine. There is something very fulfilling about participating in the bread-making process: the waiting, the rising, the change from something simple to something wonderful. I was excited that I now had more time to dedicate, so I thought would be the perfect opportunity to try a new recipe that I had clipped out of the newspaper several months ago.

After making a warm pot of French-press coffee, I found the recipe in my horribly disorganized recipe book and set it up in the “prep area” in my kitchen - a counter space with a window that overlooks the woods; perfect for kneading, mixing, rolling, and all other sorts of delicious activities. I realized I hadn’t baked anything in my kitchen yet, and suddenly became very giddy. I put on my apron, turned on some music, and got to work.

The recipe is really basic: flour, yeast, salt, water, and a little oil. After mixing the first four ingredients, I covered the bowl in a clean dish towel and placed it in the oven (a warm, non-drafty place where I won’t bump it), where it has to rest for four hours. I spent the next four hours organizing my calendar, reading some new magazines, and taking a walk in the woods. I acknowledged that bread making, while seemingly time consuming, really gives us a chance to rest, relax, and appreciate the process by which food is created.

When the four-hour timer went off, I pulled the dough out of the oven, breathing in the yeasty smell that had taken over my oven. I then folded it a few times on an oiled cookie sheet and let it rest again. After the requisite resting time completed, I placed the dough in a heated cast-iron pot (which I find to be the coolest part of this recipe) and put it in the oven to bake. A friend came over and we enjoyed hot cider and fall cooking magazines on the couch, the house filled with the toasty warm smell of freshly baked bread.

Pulling it out of the oven, I was presented with a perfectly round, golden loaf. I let it rest just a few minutes before slicing off a piece for myself and my friend, taking in a deep breath of the steam released on the first slice. The first warm bite of a crusty outside and a soft, slightly salty inside took my breath away. That was when the chevre came out of the fridge and we went at the loaf, spreading thick layers of the soft cheese on the warm bread. Sharing the bread with a good friend and appreciating that the time when the bread is the freshest, I could not help but feel overjoyed at what I had made; that something made with a few simple ingredients became something so wonderful.

Speedy No-Knead Bread
(Makes 1 loaf)

2 cups bread flour
1 cup whole-wheat flour
2 ½ tsp (1 packet) of instant yeast
1 ½ tsp salt
Oil as needed

Combine flours, yeast, and salt in a large bowl. Add 1 ½ cups of warm water and stir until blended (dough will be shaggy). Cover bowl with a clean dish towel. Let the dough rest about 4 hours at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees (a non-heated oven is perfect for this).

After the four hours is up, lightly oil a work surface and place dough on it. Fold it over on itself once or twice. Cover loosely with the dish towel and let it rest 30 minutes more.

At least 30 minutes before the dough is done resting, heat the oven to 450 degrees. Put a heavy covered pot - cast-iron, enamel, Pyrex, or ceramic - in the oven as it heats (I used a 2 ½ quart Le Creuset, which fit the dough perfectly). When the dough is ready, carefully remove the pot from the oven. Slide your hand under the dough and place it in the pot, seam side up. Shake the pan a few times if the dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes.

Cover with the lid and bake for 30 minutes, then remove the lid and bake for 15-30 minutes more, until the loaf is golden brown. Cool on a rack.

Adapted from Mark Bittman’s (New York Times) adaptation of Jim Lahey’s recipe (Sullivan Street Bakery, New York), San Jose Mercury News