My uncle’s special Thanksgiving dessert is sweet potato pie. My brother’s special Thanksgiving dessert is pumpkin cheesecake. And since I’m going to see both of them on Thanksgiving, I decided to make a hybrid of the two—sweet potato cheesecake.
Growing up, cheesecake was a rare treat—considered extremely fancy and not something you ate at home. Mom instead made a berry yogurt pie with a granola crust, which while not as rich and dense as cheesecake but was still a creamy sweet treat. But still, it wasn’t quite the same.
One day our next-door neighbor made a cheesecake from scratch. It was a plain cheesecake with tall sturdy sides topped with a thin-layer of sour cream. Each bite was luscious and I thought she must have some special skills to make something so satisfying. A few years ago my dad gave me a generous Williams-Sonoma gift certificate. I raided the store, splurging on items I wouldn’t ordinarily buy and one of those was a spring-form pan. I had decided it was time to teach myself how to make cheesecake.
I went through a myriad of recipes, and some were super complicated, insisting you separate your eggs, folding in the yolks and whites at different times. Some called for baking it for an hour and then leaving it in the turned-off oven to cool for another half hour. Some used crusts while others didn’t. What I soon learned, however, was that cheesecake doesn’t have to be a lot of work—given the right circumstances you could whip one every night, which I practically did when I lived with a guy who was on a low-carb diet.
The basic formula is simple, 1 egg per 1/2 pound of cream cheese. If you don’t have time to get your cream cheese and eggs to room temperature (as every recipe will recommend), then just rest them on top of the oven as you preheat—they’ll soon be warm enough. Then just throw your eggs, cream cheese, sweetener, some vanilla, some spices and some lemon juice into the blender, and in minutes you’ll have a batter. If you’re forgoing a crust, you’re pretty much done save for baking it for a half hour or so, and then chilling (though warm cheese cake is just as appealing as cold). Sometimes they’ll crack on top, and I reckon the experts would say that I pulled it out of the oven too fast or over beat the batter. But an ugly cheesecake isn’t a problem because I always spread on top some sour cream mixed with a bit of sugar, lemon juice and vanilla, which deliciously masks all imperfections.
When I was as at the farmer’s market recently, they had mountains of sweet potatoes in several varieties for only a dollar a pound. That was a third of the price they were at the grocery store, so I grabbed a few. My original intention was to make sweet potato pie, but since my uncle already does that, and I had a ton of cream cheese on hand, I decided to make the cheesecake instead. After baking one of the sweet potatoes for about an hour, I threw the mashed vegetable into my blender with some eggs, some cream cheese and some spices. In no time I had a batter. I had some ginger snaps and pecans, and even though I’m lazy and usually do without a crust, I decided that a ginger snap cookie and pecan crust would go well with the spicy, earthy sweet potato. My hunch proved correct.
So Thanksgiving’s still a week or so away, and there won’t be any of this cheesecake left by the time I head to Texas, but it was such a snap I may just whip it up again—if my uncle and brother don’t mind.
For the crust:
35 ginger snaps, crushed
1/4 cup pecans, finely chopped
1 stick unsalted butter, melted
For the cheesecake:
3 (8-ounce) packages of cream cheese, room temperature
3 large eggs, room temperature
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 cup cooked, mashed sweet potato
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon allspice
Pinch kosher salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
For the topping:
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1 cup sour cream
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons of maple syrup
1 tablespoon of brown sugar
Preheat the oven to 325° F.
To make the crust, mix together the crushed ginger snaps, chopped pecans, and melted butter.
Press the crust into a 9-inch spring-form pan, evenly covering the bottom and going up the sides about 1/4 of an inch.
Place in the fridge or in near an open window with a cold breeze.
To make the batter, using a mixer or a strong blender, throw in the softened cream cheese and eggs. Mix until smooth and combined.
Add the sugar, the maple syrup, the sweet potato, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, salt, vanilla, lemon juice, and the flour, and blend until smooth. (Don’t mix it too long or too many cracks will appear on top when it bakes.)
Pour into spring-form pan, and bake for 45 minutes. Cheesecake will be done when the sides are set and the center is still a big jiggly. Turn off the oven, and then leave the cheesecake in the oven with the door open for about half an hour.
To make the topping while the cheesecake bakes, place the chopped pecans in a heated dry iron skillet, and toast for about 3 to 5 minutes or until warm and fragrant.
Mix the sour cream, vanilla, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, syrup, and sugar together. Add the pecans.
Take cheesecake out of the oven, spread on the topping, and let sit for another half hour. Chill in the refrigerator for 4 to 8 hours and then serve.
Yield: 8 servings
Note: A 1-pound sweet potato cooked in the oven at 425 degrees for a little over an hour will yield enough for the recipe. Alternatively, you can use canned sweet potato. The topping and crust are purely optional. If you bake without a crust, baking time will be about 35 minutes.