A pumpkin spice celebration for cheesecake lovers

Two words: caramel streusel. Here's three more: sign me up. (Amy Drew Thompson/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)
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By Amy Drew Thompson Orlando Sentinel (TNS)

Each of us has experienced regret in varying degrees.

If only I’d traveled across Europe that summer in college when I had the chance.

I should have asked her out before my best friend did.

Or, if you’re me:

I wish I hadn’t set down that pan of pumpkin cheesecake bars — which I was just about to take pictures of — to hang over the edge of the counter, which surely would have prevented it from falling, face-down, onto the kitchen floor. [Face palm.3/8

Yeah. Good choices can be hard.

I did make one, though: I baked two different recipes for the story!

I decided early on that I wanted to do bars for National Pumpkin Cheesecake Day ( Oct. 21). They’re handsier, for Halloweengatherings (not that we’re letting anyone into our houses these days, but they’re also easier eating as you enjoy AMC’s inevitable classic horror marathon — the more Vincent Price, the better) but even this take offers an array of options.

Eventually, you just have to throw a dart. I threw two. These bars are both really tasty, their flavor profiles similar — fall-seasonal spices and scents paired with creamy fillings and each with a nice, thick, buttery crust.

First, the crunchy, creamy, gooey version from Chelsea’s Messy Apron. What was pretty cool was that she offered versions for both 9×9 and 9×13 pans (I went with the smaller). Baking is math. Math is not my friend. I’m grateful for all the conversion tools available in 2020, but really, I just want the recipe to tell me what to do.

What was also pretty cool? This recipe features two words no food pornographer can resist: caramel and streusel.

Her photos were gorgeous and thickly layered. Mine didn’t come out so impressive, but the layering is there. The unholy trinity of buttery-crunchy topping, buttery-salty caramel sauce and buttery-spicy cinnamon graham crust does a lot to make up for looks if necessary. The ugly ones would look great hot in a mug with vanilla ice cream before catching the express train to Tummy Town.

More sophisticated in appearance are the marbled bars from this New York Times recipe.

Mine didn’t come out with as lovely a color contrast, but the recipe was simple. I loved its light, fluffy texture, possibly the product of too high a setting on my mixer, incorporating more air into the filling than perhaps intended. Keep your setting low if you’re looking for results with more density.

What I especially loved was the ginger snap crust. The recipe notes a preference for “the thin, Swedish variety,” and lo and behold, my Publix had them!

They are delicious, light, crispy and created a delicious, slightly zingy crust. A few folks mentioned in the comments that these cookies are infinitely better than more run-of-the-mill ginger cookies. I’d be inclined to agree. (Recipe posts are the only place I ever dare to read comment threads. There’s often great advice in there!) There’s some good opportunity for a candied ginger add-in here if that sounds good to you.

Also, try not to drop yours on the floor.

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PUMPKIN CARAMEL CHEESECAKE BARS WITH A STREUSEL TOPPING

Courtesy of Chelseasmessyapron.com

Crust

1 1/2 cups (10-11 sheets) cinnamon graham cracker crumbs (I pulverized them in the food processor)

1/4 cup white sugar

1 tablespoon brown sugar

6 tablespoons melted butter

Cheesecake

2 8-ounce packages full-fat cream cheese, room temperature (leave out at least one hour)

1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons white sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt

2 large eggs

1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons canned pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling)

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice

Streusel & Topping

1/2 cup brown sugar, packed

1/4 cup quick-cooking oats

1/2 cup white flour

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 cup butter, softened (not melted)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Salted or plain caramel sauce for topping the bars

Instructions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line 9-by-9-inch baking pan with parchment paper (leave an overhang to be able to pull out bars easily) and set aside.

In a bowl, combine crust ingredients and mix until “dough” forms. Press evenly into the bottom of the pan. Bake 8 minutes.

For streusel, using the same bowl as the crust, stir together brown sugar, white flour, oats and cinnamon. Add in butter and vanilla. Mix until combined. Set aside.

In another bowl, combine cream cheese, (room temperature is important for smoothness, microwaving will give it a bumpy texture) sugar, vanilla and salt. Beat with mixer until smooth and creamy. Add in eggs one at a time. Beat until combined.

Remove 1 1/2 cups of mixture. Pour over prepared crust.

Add canned pumpkin, cinnamon and pumpkin pie spice to remaining cheesecake mixture and stir until combined.

Being careful not to combine layers, gently pour the pumpkin layer on top of the plain layer. Top with streusel. Bake 30 minutes or until cake is set. (ADT note: It took about 40 minutes in my oven.)

Allow to cool for about an hour. Refrigerate an additional 1-2 hours minimum before serving. Top each bar with caramel.

PUMPKIN CHEESECAKE BARS

Recipe courtesy NYT Cooking

Crust ingredients

10 1/2 ounces gingersnap cookies (preferably the thin, Swedish variety, in which case that’s two boxes)

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick), melted

Filling ingredients

1 1/2 pounds cream cheese, at room temperature

1 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup light brown sugar

6 large eggs

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1 1/2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice

1 15-ounce can pumpkin puree (not pumpkin pie filling)

Directions

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly grease 9-by-13-inch pan, line with parchment paper, leaving a 2-inch overhang on two sides.

Make the crust: In the food processor, pulse cookies until fine crumbs form (you will have about 2 1/2 cups of crumbs). Transfer crumbs to medium bowl, stir in sugar and salt. Add melted butter and mix until evenly incorporated. Press crust into even layer in the base of prepared pan.

Bake until the crust has browned slightly and appears set, 10-12 minutes. Cool completely. Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees.

Make the filling: Clean food processor bowl and place cream cheese, sugar and brown sugar inside. Pulse until fully combined. Add eggs one at a time, pulsing ’til incorporated, scraping down sides of bowl as needed.

Add vanilla and pumpkin pie spice. Pulse until combined. If desired, reserve 1 cup cheesecake batter in small bowl for making a swirl effect later.

Add pumpkin to remaining cheesecake batter, pulse until fully incorporated. Pour pumpkin cheesecake batter into cooled crust. If using, pour reserved white cheesecake batter over the pan in a slow, thin stream. Use a toothpick or wooden skewer to swirl. (If you pour too quickly, the white batter will sink inside the pumpkin.)

Bake until edges appear set and center appears slightly jiggly (ADT note: only very slightly!), 35-40 minutes. Cool at room temperature for 45 minutes, then refrigerate until firm (at least 2 hours, up to overnight). Use a sharp knife to release edges and use parchment paper to carefully lift cheesecake from pan. Transfer to cutting board. Slice into 15 even pieces, wiping knife between cuts for the cleanest edges.

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