For Paula Chmiel, Thanksgiving traditions often come in the form of cooking up those tried-and-true favorites that make it such a special holiday.
The South Orange resident is a professional chef. In her family, pumpkin cheescake is one of those recipes that people talk about for weeks both before and after the holiday, so give this one a try if you want to impress!
Originally published in Gourmet in 1990, it was a recipe Paula noticed on the magazine cover while at college and she just had to make it. Jump ahead 21 years and the same recipe is still alive and well both in the Chmiel house and online (epicurious.com), though she has changed it up a bit here and there.
While Paula isn't working in a restaurant kitchen these days—she's a busy stay-at-home mom chasing around sons Zach, 12, and Luke, 9—she is much more than a home cook. After college, she graduated from the New York Restaurant School (for awhile she was the face of the school's TV ads), which led to an internship and a subsequent job at La Colombe d'or, a landmark white-linen Provencal restaurant in New York City. La Colombe d'or routinely was called "the most romantic restaurant in New York" by various media outlets. Paula made the pumpkin cheesecake a Thanksgiving staple in the restaurant, even having her version highlighted in a review of the restaurant. In addition, she also worked stints at Matthew's and March, two high-end dining spots (which sadly have closed), as well as a jazz club called Prohibition.
Paula's passion in the kitchen and her commitment to jump into any dish—soup, salad, dessert or whatever needed cooking—contributed to her accomplishments. Yet, as she honed her culinary skills, she never stopped making that pumpkin cheesecake. She actually makes more than a few for friends who need to impress at their own Thanksgiving celebrations.
I was excited to give it a try. I followed the recipe just as it's posted on Epicurious and re-printed below. Surprise, surprise! I was a little short on time, so I threw all the graham cracker crust ingredients in the food processor (I didn't cool the melted butter) and pressed it into my pan. Then, I put the pan in the freezer to cool while I made the filling.
The recipe calls for a more loving approach in mixing all the ingredients; one at a time, a few by had and a few in a mixer. I took the semi clean food processor which still had a few crumbs left and put all the filling ingredients in at the same time. Minutes later, it was finished. I poured the pumpkin cream cheese mixture into the now cooled crust and popped it in the oven. I felt a little guilty about cutting corners but then I remembered something Paula told me:
"I love this recipe but I cut back on the spices because I like the full flavor of the pumpkin," she said. Even trained chefs are home cooks at heart and allow us to change even the most polished recipes so they fit into our tastes and cooking styles. I am sure we can get her to contribute with some of her favorite recipes for Local Flavor in the future!
The result: a beautiful dessert in both flavor and tradition. It will surely be at my Thanksgiving table as well as at the Chmiel's house. If that name sounds familiar, her husband is our fearless leader, Dave Chmiel, Regional Editor at Patch whom I'm positive will be well fed next Thursday.
Pumpkin Cheesecake with Bourbon Sour Cream Topping
For the crust
- 3/4 cup graham cracker crumbs
- 1/2 cup finely chopped pecans
- 1/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
For the filling
- 1 1/2 cups solid pack pumpkin
- 3 large eggs
- 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
- three 8-ounce packages cream cheese, cut into bits and softened
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons heavy cream
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 tablespoon bourbon liqueur or bourbon if desired
For the topping
- 2 cups sour cream
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 1 tablespoon bourbon liqueur or bourbon, or to taste
- 16 pecan halves for garnish
Make the crust:
In a bowl combine the cracker crumbs, the pecans, and the sugars, stir in the butter, and press the mixture into the bottom and 1/2 inch up the side of a buttered 9-inch springform pan. Chill the crust for 1 hour.
Make the filling:
In a bowl whisk together the pumpkin, the egg, the cinnamon, the nutmeg, the ginger, the salt, and the brown sugar. In a large bowl with an electric mixer cream together the cream cheese and the granulated sugar, beat in the cream, the cornstarch, the vanilla, the bourbon liqueur, and the pumpkin mixture, and beat the filling until it is smooth.
Pour the filling into the crust, bake the cheesecake in the middle of a preheated 350°F. oven for 50 to 55 minutes, or until the center is just set, and let it cool in the pan on a rack for 5 minutes.
Make the topping:
In a bowl whisk together the sour cream, the sugar, and the bourbon liqueur.
Spread the sour cream mixture over the top of the cheesecake and bake the cheesecake for 5 minutes more. Let the cheesecake cool in the pan on a rack and chill it, covered, overnight. Remove the side of the pan and garnish the top of the cheesecake with the pecans.