A number of years ago, I very briefly worked at a fancy Chinese restaurant at which Pichet Ong was the pastry chef. I absolutely loved, and to this day, still do love, his Asian-inspired desserts. About a year after that, the New York Times printed a wonderful recipe of his a few weeks before Thanksgiving for a twist on the classic pumpkin pie: a Kabocha squash pie. Kabocha squash is among the sweetest varieties of squash (see this NYT article if you don’t believe me), so it lends itself perfectly to dessert. My favorite thing about it is its vibrant orange color - it's very Day-Glo-esqsue. Pichet's pie's filling contains the standard pumpkin pie spices, but is heavier on the ginger than the standard. The crust is perhaps the best part – it’s a graham cracker crust that’s perked up with ginger, lime, and walnuts. The addition of nuts make the crust rich and almost candy-like, and the flavor is just outstanding. Overall, it's a nice little Thai twist.
Back to my point - I made the pie that year for Thanksgiving and my family absolutely loved it, so it became our standard Thanksgiving dessert.
This year, after having made the same pie for four years in a row, I decided to ditch it. Well, not entirely. I always did like it, but I wasn’t completely satisfied with it. I felt like it straddled the line between cheesecake and pie, and for some reason, that really annoyed me. So this year, I decided to just go ahead and turn it into a cheesecake. Because the crust is just so good, I left it mostly the same, but the filling is, I think, an improvement upon the original. It’s slightly sweet and has a complex flavor, and texture is silky and creamy, but not too dense, as sometimes cheesecake can be. I ended up loving this version, and, judging by how little of it was left, I think everyone else kinda liked it, too.
Kabocha Squash (Pumpkin) Cheesecake with Graham-Lime-Walnut Crust
makes one 9” cheesecake
¾ cup graham cracker crumbs (from about 7 crackers)
2 ounces walnuts (about ¾ cup)
½ cup packed light brown sugar
½ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp salt
1/8 tsp ground ginger
Zest of 1 lime
3 tablespoons butter, melted
3 8-ounce packages of cream cheese, at room temperature
1 cup minus 1 tablespoon packed light brown sugar
1 ¼ teaspoons cinnamon
¾ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon allspice
2 cups pureed kabocha squash (either from a 2 ½ - 3 pound kabocha squash or 1 15-ounce can of pumpkin)*
2 tablespoons bourbon
If using kabocha squash, prepare squash
Cut the squash in half and scoop out and discard the seeds.
Bring 2" of water to a boil in a large pot and set a steamer basket in the pot. Place the squash halves, cut side down, in the basket and cover the pot. Steam until the squash is very tender and easily pierced with a fork, about 35 minutes. Make sure to replenish the water in the steamer if necessary to prevent scorching.
Let the squash cool, then remove the skin. Transfer the squash flesh to a food processor and puree until very smooth. Set aside.
Invert bottom of a 9-inch springform pan (this creates a flat bottom, which will make it easier to remove the cake from the pan), then lock on side.
Heat oven to 325 degrees. Place the walnuts on a baking sheet and bake until fragrant, 12-15 minutes. (Make sure to stir the walnuts every 3-4 minutes to ensure even toasting.) Transfer to a plate and cool.
In a food processor, combine the walnuts with a few tablespoons of the brown sugar and pulse a few times until the nuts are coarsely ground (you want some texture – do not grind too finely). Transfer the nut mixture to a large bowl and whisk in the graham cracker crumbs, remaining brown sugar, lime zest, spices, and salt. Pour the melted butter over the crumb mixture and use your fingers to mix until the butter is evenly distributed.
Press the crumb mixture evenly onto the bottom and 1” up the side of the pan. Chill the crust in the freezer for 15-20 minutes, then bake the crust until very lightly browned, about 12 minutes. Let the crust cool on a wire rack. Increase the oven temperature to 350 degrees.
Make filling and bake cheesecake
Line a large baking sheet with foil and set aside.
Add the cream cheese, sugar, spices, and salt to the bowl of a food processor and process until very smooth. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, add the squash puree, and process until smooth. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing until just incorporated. Add the bourbon and mix to combine.
Scrape the filling into the prepared crust and smooth out the top. Place the pan onto the baking sheet and bake until the edges are firm but the center is still slightly wobbly, about 70 minutes. Let the cheesecake cool completely on a wire rack, then cover and refrigerate until firm, at least 6 hours, preferably overnight.
Let the cheesecake come to room temperature before serving.