I envy those organized folks who have their Thanksgiving menus planned weeks in advance. Turkeys ordered, Parker House rolls made and frozen, pantries stocked with cans of pumpkin purée. Truth is, I’m usually deciding on dishes up until the last minute.
My husband, wise man that he is, is a big fan of “tradition,” which to him means making many of the same tried and true — and loved — holiday dishes every year. I’m a lot less decisive than he is (and by “a lot,” I really and truly mean a LOT). Tradition could certainly help us avoid the “ew, yucks” with the two young kids in the house. I mean, who, really, could turn their nose up at a big bowl of creamed corn? But every year I’m tempted to try something new. Personally, I think it’s because I like food so much that I just can’t commit to any one dish. And I think the family is patiently waiting to see what dish that will be this year.
If you’re like me, one of the few areas of the meal where you can spread your culinary wings is dessert. Sure, pumpkin pie is a staple on our table (tradition!), but the girls and I made a wonderful dessert this week that they both declared a winner. These were fun to make, fun to eat (they are so small that portion control is automatically built in!), and I could easily see us serving these along with the pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving…leaving our more “traditional” side dishes alone for once.
Several notes on ingredients: this was yet another opportunity for us to highlight the fresh ricotta cheese from Fulper’s Farm that we picked up at the West Windsor Community Farmer’s Market. It’s a creamy, moist ricotta which needs to be drained for several hours in a cheesecloth-lined colander set over a bowl before using. You don’t want watery cheesecakes, believe me. For the gingersnap crust, I’m partial to using Sweetzels Spiced Wafers, a regional Philadelphia cookie that my sister and I remember having with warm apple cider when we were kids. To me, they are the epitome of fall.
And speaking of all things apple, we picked the apples for the compote at Terhune Orchards in Lawrenceville, NJ. You’ll want firm-fleshed apples for this recipe so that they hold some shape and texture when cooked. I even thought about using the last of our Asian Pears from Stultz Farm (also picked up at the farmer’s market) in this recipe, which would have been just as good. Maybe next time. And finally, do yourself a favor and use local honey for the compote if you can — nothing too fancy, either. Clover honey works just fine, but there is something special about fresh honey when it comes from a few miles, vs. a few states, away. It just tastes better.
Oh – you’ll want a mini muffin tin for this as well, though I suppose you could use a regular muffin tin and just be careful not to fill the cups up too much. Ours is non-stick, which really helped us when it came time to un-mold these babies. This recipe made 12 mini-cheesecakes so portion accordingly.
So, if you’re feeling stuck in your menu planning and want to add something new onto your holiday dessert table give these a try. Who knows — you just might start a whole new tradition in your house!
Mini Ricotta Cheesecakes with Gingersnap Crusts and Apple-Walnut-Dried Fruit Compote
8 gingersnap cookies, crushed to a medium-fine crumb
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 cup fresh ricotta cheese, drained for at least 3 hours and preferably overnight
1 egg, separated
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 ounce dark rum
1 quarter-sized slice of fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Pinch of Kosher salt
Apple Compote ingredients:
1/2 cup walnut pieces, toasted
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 large or 3 medium firm-fleshed apples, cored but NOT peeled, and cut into medium (1/2 inch) dice
1/4 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup raisins
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/16 teaspoon ground cardamom (if you don’t have a 1/16 teaspoon measure, eyeball it by only filling half of a 1/8 teaspoon measure
1/4 cup honey
Pinch of Kosher salt
Begin by preheating your oven to 325 degrees.
Mix together the gingersnap crumbs and 1 tablespoon of the melted butter until the mixture resembles moist sand. When you squeeze a handful together in your palm it should just barely hold together.
Using half of the remaining melted butter, grease the bottoms and sides of the cups in a non-stick mini muffin tin (one dozen capacity). Pack about a teaspoon to a teaspoon-and-a-half of the cookie crumbs into the bottom of each muffin cup, packing them down gently. The bottoms of each should be covered, but not too deeply.
Bake the crusts in the 325 degree oven for 10 minutes and remove to cool. Leave the oven on at 325 degrees.
Combine the 1/2 ounce rum and ginger slice in a small sauce pan over medium-low heat. Bring to a simmer and then reduce heat to low for another minute before taking the mixture off heat. Add the vanilla and allow ginger to infuse the rum/vanilla mixture for at least another 10 minutes. Remove the ginger and discard.
Put the ricotta into the small bowl of a food processor and process for about one minute, until the cheese is quite creamy and smooth. Add the egg yolk, granulated sugar, the infused rum/vanilla mixture and a pinch of salt and process until all ingredients are very well incorporated.
In a separate medium bowl, whip the egg white using a hand mixer until it holds soft peaks. Carefully fold in the ricotta mixture.
Using the remaining melted butter, grease the sides of the muffin cups one more time and pour the ricotta mixture onto the crusts, leaving about 1/4 inch of space at the top. Be careful not to over-fill the cups even if you have a little ricotta batter left or they will run over. Believe me. Salvageable, but messy.
Place the muffin tin on a larger rimmed baking sheet and fill it 1/2 full with water to create a water bath around the cheesecakes. Cook the cheesecakes at 325 for 45 minutes, until they are set but the center is just barely cooked through. They shouldn’t be too jiggly, but you don’t want them to dry out and crack either. Take a peek through the oven window about 35 minutes into baking to gauge progress. The tops may develop a bit of a skin, and that’s OK.
Remove from oven and allow to cool completely before covering with plastic wrap and refrigerating for at least another 3 – 4 hours and preferably overnight.
While cheesecakes are cooling make the compote. Begin by toasting the walnuts in a medium sauté pan over medium heat. Stir frequently so they will not burn. When they are toasted, remove to a deep-sided bowl and crush into slightly smaller pieces. Do not pulverize — you’re looking for walnut chunks, not crumbs.
Wipe the sauté pan clean and bring to medium-high heat. Melt butter until it is foaming and add the apples, cranberries and raisins. Sauté for one minute until the apples are slightly soft and add the vanilla, cinnamon, and cardamom. Stir well and add the honey. Stir again and continue to cook over medium heat until the honey begins to bubble vigorously and thicken, coating all the other ingredients. When the honey is thick and has cooked down a bit, turn off the heat, add a pinch of salt and stir well, and allow the compote to cool completely.
To serve the cheesecakes, run a sharp knife around the edges of each cheesecake and carefully un-mold (if you’re using a non-stick muffin tin, try not to scratch it with the knife!). Top each cheesecake with a tablespoon or so of the compote. Keep the cheesecakes cool until ready to serve.
Makes: 12 mini cheesecakes.
Parent rating: four-and-a-half stars. These are really good — almost too cute to eat. Almost. They are a great way to end a holiday meal. Next time I make them I may add just a little more cardamom. Cardamom is, in my opinion, an under-used spice but it has a very specific flavor. It’s rich and perfume-y but pairs quite nicely with cinnamon and ginger and gives a great autumnal flavor to these cheesecakes. By the way, if you’ve gotten this far and just don’t think you have the time to make these, do yourself a favor and make just the compote. Spoon it over a wedge of softened brie cheese and serve with crackers. Delish.
Kid rating: it’s unanimous: four-and-a-half stars from the kids as well. Both girls gobbled these up (turkey pun intended). I actually held out a small portion of the apple compote before adding nuts, and Daughter 1 had the no-nut version (no allergies, but she isn’t a fan). Daughter 2 had the walnut version. Both were delighted. Dessert dilemma, solved!