While pomegranate desserts have always allured me, the harvest comes along and I find myself gleefully breaking open the fruit — red splatters and all — and immediately devouring every last juicy morsel. But this time I was determined to be different: I brought home several extra pomegranates from the market, and a bit of self-discipline to boot.
This recipe started with my familiar dream of a fruity, creamy treat (a craving which has also had me making multiple batches of this lately). Most recently, I envisioned something with complexity in both texture and taste, and I craved a whole lot of seasonal flavor packed into each bite — so pomegranates would be perfect. Once I settled on making a cheesecake, I decided I wanted to keep it from being too towering or too heavy, compared to traditional versions; it would be compact, less dense, and crust-free.
I found that a layer of crisp, tangy pomegranate arils made a lovely replacement for traditional crust, with an unexpected but welcome juiciness (and the added bonus of being gluten-free). Reaching for orange zest and some pumpkin felt like a given, and together they proved to sing of the season. Meanwhile, the molasses-rich sugar and scoop of spices offer a warmth that balances the subtle tartness of both the cream cheese and pomegranate. The final result is an easy, rustic dessert that boasts an array of complementary flavors.
Pomegranate pumpkin cheesecake
Note: If you use a pan larger than 8 inches across, as many springforms are, it will require more pomegranate to cover the bottom and will result in a shallower cheesecake needing a shorter baking time.
1 tablespoon softened butter
1 cup (6 ounces) fresh pomegranate arils, plus more for decoration
4 teaspoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 pound cream cheese at room temperature
2/3 cup packed brown sugar or muscovado sugar
3 large eggs, at room temperature
3/4 cup canned pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling)
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
Fresh peppermint leaves, for decoration
Begin by setting the pomegranate arils in a colander to strain any excess juice. Wash, dry and zest the orange; set zest aside. Use the butter to generously grease the inner sides and bottom of a standard 8-inch cake pan. Then line the bottom with two 8-inch circles of parchment paper, layered one on top of the other, being sure they cover the bottom of the pan completely. Alternatively, lightly grease an 8-inch springform pan.
Preheat the oven to 350ºF. In a bowl, toss the strained pomegranate arils with the orange zest. Sift the granulated sugar and cornstarch over the bowl, then toss until all the fruit is coated. Transfer to the prepared pan and spread the fruit in an even layer to the edges, with minimal open space. Set aside.
In a separate bowl, beat the cream cheese and brown sugar until smooth. Add the eggs one at a time, completely incorporating each one, but not over-beating. (You do not want to add too much air.) Scoop out 1 3/4 cup of the cream cheese mixture and carefully pour it on top of the pomegranate arils without moving them. Be sure the cream cheese mixture reaches edges of the pan and is even. (This layer of batter is a bit thicker than its pumpkin counterpart, which helps hold the fruit in place while offering pleasant flavor.)
By hand, fold 3/4 cup pumpkin into the remaining cream cheese mixture, stirring until just incorporated. Sift the ginger, nutmeg and cloves over the mixture and stir until dispersed. Gently spoon the pumpkin mixture on top of the cream cheese layer, completely covering it. Bake until the top of the cheesecake begins to brown and the center is set, 55 to 60 minutes. (Note: While a water bath is recommended in many cheesecake recipes, I discourage using one here — this recipe doesn’t need more moisture.) The cheesecake will puff up while baking and then settle when cooling.
Remove the cheesecake from the oven, let cool completely on the counter, then cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or until ready to serve. When nearing serving time, run a knife around the side of the cheesecake to loosen it. Invert it onto a plate; this can require a vigorous whack. Carefully remove both layers of parchment, and re-invert cake onto your serving plate. (Or if using a springform pan, simply remove the sides of the pan.)
Decorate with extra pomegranate arils and mint leaves, covering any imperfections. Slice with a sharp knife, and enjoy. This cheesecake tastes best within 24 hours of baking, but it can be covered and stored in the refrigerator for up to two days.
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