Pumpkin Apple Cheesecake
with Apple Caramel and an Oat Crust
Share this Recipe
This recipe for pumpkin apple cheesecake is brought to you in collaboration with BC Egg, who have financially compensated me to develop it.
All opinions are my own.
A perfect autumn cheesecake with pumpkin, apple, spices, and a simple oat-based gluten-free crust, all topped off with a decadent caramel apple sauce. It’s basically fall in dessert form.
If you head over to a search engine and type in “is pumpkin” there’s a pretty solid chance that the autofill is going to suggest “is pumpkin a fruit” right away. You’ll get the same thing right off the bat if you do the same thing for tomato and rhubarb. The confusion is understandable, though the particulars vary between examples, so I’m going to address pumpkin on its own here. We get confused about pumpkin because we regularly use it in both sweet and savoury ways. It straddles the line between fruit and vegetable in our minds, and so we struggle to classify it.
But here’s the thing: the struggle is meaningless. ‘Fruit’ and ‘vegetable’ are categories that come from completely different worlds, and they don’t play by the same rules.
Our conceptions (or misconceptions) about fruits and vegetables are planted (sorry) at a young age, and they seem logical enough to begin with. Broccoli? A vegetable, clearly! Apple? A fruit! But identification and organization always looks easy when you look at the simplest cases. It’s in the murky, muddy, middle ground where things start to get interesting, and it’s there that we see that the fruit/vegetable system isn’t a system at all, but a slapped-together convenience based on language.
Fruit, you see, is both a culinary term and a scientific one. The culinary definition is loose and confusing at times, which is why we get into these debates about pumpkins, tomatoes, rhubarb, avocados, etc. Generally speaking, ‘fruit’ in the culinary sense refers to various sweet or sour plant products, though there’s plenty of wiggle room to be found. But the scientific meaning of the word fruit is much more clearly defined. As far as botany is concerned, a fruit is the mature, ripened ovary of a plant, complete with the contents of said ovary (i.e. seeds and associated tissues). This definition includes most of the typical fruits you’d think of like apples, berries, bananas, etc., but it also includes a wide variety of “vegetables” like peppers, squash, cucumbers, corn kernels, green beans, and even wheat (interesting side note: botanically speaking, wheat berries are fruit, but not berries). Strawberries, on the other hand, are not only not berries, but aren’t even what we’d consider to be ‘standard’ fruits; the seeds on the surface are the true fruits, while the red part is derived from a part of the flower called the receptacle. This means that a strawberry is actually something called a receptacle-derived accessory fruit. The same is true of figs and pineapples.
Because the botanical definition of fruit doesn’t always line up with the culinary one, we tend to jump back and forth when it suits us. Unfortunately, this gets really confusing thanks to the word vegetable. Vegetable is a purely culinary term, with no real botanical meaning at all. Things are vegetables because we use them like vegetables, and that’s about it. If we tried to use botanical terms we’d be in a real mess; cauliflower is an inflorescence meristem, celery is a petiole, peas are seeds, lettuce is a leaf, and eggplant is a fruit. It’s easy to see why vegetable is a much more convenient, and much less confusing term. But when we ask ourselves questions like “is pumpkin a fruit” the problem is that the answer depends on which ‘game’ you’re playing. The science game has clear rules, while the culinary game is a little bit more make-it-up-as-you-go. Like Calvin-Ball. Botanically? Absolutely, pumpkin is a fruit. Culinarily? Well, it can be – it really depends on what you’re doing with it. Rhubarb? Botanically, not a fruit, but a petiole. Culinarily? Uhh… fruit? Ish?
I think we get hung up on this stuff because we’re used to using words in specific ways, and it’s difficult to dissect your own use of language, especially across different cultural realms. But the confusion is hardly limited to the culinary world. Imagine, for example, that you’ve been tasked with teaching a visiting alien about human culture, and you’ve decided to introduce them to some popular Earth sports. First, you go bowling, where they learn about strikes and spares. Then you go to play baseball, where you realize that you have to explain that the word ‘strike’ is also used, albeit in a different way. Your alien friend watches as the batter swings and misses. Strike. On the next pitch, the ball is hit, but it goes backwards behind the plate
“Is that a spare?” your alien friend asks.
“No, that’s a foul.” You say between bites of your $6 hot dog. “It’s also… uh, also a strike actually.”
Your alien friend sighs. Another pitch comes in, this time hitting the dirt. Nobody swings.
“What was that?” Your alien friend asks.
“A ball? Aren’t… aren’t they all balls?”
“Well yes, but we call that one a ball when it misses. It’s… I mean, the ball is always a ball but we call that thing he just did… a ball.”
“When we missed at the other game… it was… a ball?” They ask, making notes on a small advanced computer.
“It was a gutter ball, because it went in the gutter. And before you ask, no, that pitch wasn’t a ground ball. A ground ball is when the batter hits the ball, and it goes on the ground.”
Your alien friend sighs again, entering more information, before picking up their own hot dog and regarding it curiously.
“So… this thing… is made from-“
“No! No no, it’s made from, uh, from a different animal.”
– – –
So remember, pumpkin is a fruit. Or a vegetable. Or both. It’s only confusing until you realize that you’re trying to play by two sets of rules at the same time. There are no spares in baseball, and there are no vegetables in botany.
There are quite a few notes here, but don’t be intimidated – they’re included to help you best figure out what ingredients to work with, and how to get the best results in terms of techniques. I’ve split the Recipe Notes into two sections accordingly, so feel free to jump ahead depending on what you’re looking for.
This dessert is really three recipes in one – the crust, the cheesecake filling, and the caramel. You can easily swap out this crust for a graham cracker crust if you’re so inclined. The filling was designed with the caramel in mind, and I do recommend that you try the recipe out with both components. That being said, if you do decide to omit the caramel, please make sure you read the notes below about adjusting the sweetness of the filling.
None of the ingredients used in this recipe are particularly obscure or hard to come by, but it will be a little easier to work completely from scratch if you take a bit of time to explore some of the key components.
The oat crust is very easy to make, and there are a few different options depending on what type of oats you have available. Do note that some of these variations are dependent on the kitchen gear you have, so take a peek at the relevant equipment section in the Technique Notes below.
I made the crust with rolled oats, which are going to be easy for most readers to find. You can use quick oats as well, and you may actually find them a little easier to use if you don’t have a food processor or high speed blender, as they’re already cut into smaller pieces than rolled oats. Note that quick oats are NOT the same as ‘instant’ oats, which are designed for ready-made breakfasts and generally have sugar and flavourings added. Do not use instant oats. In theory (and please note that I haven’t tested this myself), you should be able to use steel-cut oats if you have a high-speed blender/food processor that’s powerful enough to properly pulverize the oat pieces, though it’s probably more work than it’s worth. If you do try this option, please make sure to blend the oats long enough to avoid leaving behind any large pieces, as these will likely affect the texture of the crust.
If you don’t have any equipment necessary to blend oats, you can go in one of two directions. First, you can use oat flour. This will result in an even crust with a fine, soft texture. Second, you can use quick oats, which (as I mentioned above) are already broken down into smallish pieces. This version will be much more crumbly and textural than the oat flour version, and somewhat ‘chunkier’ than the version made with a blender, but still fine enough to work nicely with a cheesecake.
Finally, it’s worth noting that you may need to scale the crust quantities up a bit depending on what kind of dish or pan you’re baking in. The recipe as-given covers the bottom of a large (10 inch/25 cm) springform pan, but you may find that you need more (~1.5 x) if you’re using a pie dish, as the crust will need to extend up the sides.
Pumpkin vs. Squash
(and Canned vs. Fresh)
I personally prefer to make pumpkin puree from scratch as needed, but you can certainly use store-bought pumpkin puree as well. I do find that fresh pumpkin puree tends to be a bit more flavourful and often more brightly coloured, but the difference is not so huge as to make or break your baking. If you’re using store-bought puree, feel free to jump ahead to the next section, but if you want to make your own, keep reading.
The dirty little secret about pumpkin-vs-squash is that there’s actually a ton of overlap, and the two terms are used pretty arbitrarily. The big jack-o-lantern pumpkins (called ‘field pumpkins’) that are so prevalent in North America around Halloween are the first thing that comes to mind for many of us when we hear the word pumpkin, but these are generally pretty terrible to cook or bake with, as they’ve got a weak flavour and a very high water content. Commercial pumpkin puree is often made with Dickinson pumpkin, which is very closely related to butternut squash. Dickinson pumpkins and butternut squash are both varieties of the species Cucurbita moschata, while field pumpkins are part of of the species Cucurbita pepo – the same species that zucchini and acorn squash belong to. The giant pumpkin varieties grown for competitions (and sometimes turned into boats by us crazy Canadians), along with the very pumpkin-esque red kuri squash (shown below) and the closely related kabocha squash are all part of a third species – Cucurbita maxima. The three ‘pumpkins’ are not as closely related to each other as they are to their respective squash siblings.
So, does it matter what kind of squash or pumpkin you use? Well, yes – but not because of the names. Various types of orange-fleshed, flavourful squash/pumpkin make excellent purees for pies, and you can use any of them in this recipe. I used the beautiful aforementioned red kuri squash, which is thin-skinned and very flavourful. The closely related kabocha squash also makes excellent pumpkin pies, though you’ll want to peel the thin green skin for appearance’s sake. Butternut squash is an excellent choice as well, and has the added advantage of being very easy to find. Small pumpkins advertised as ‘pie pumpkins’ can often be found in the fall, and they’ll work nicely too. A number of very large squash varieties (e.g. banana squash and hubbard squash) also make great pies, but their considerable size is best suited to those who need to make a whole lot of puree.
Now, if you know what exactly you need in terms of a ‘pumpkin,’ feel free to keep right on scrolling down the Technique Notes for a few tips of turning it into puree.
Red Kuri squash – delicious, thin-skinned, and perfect for pie.
Apple Varieties & Sauce
Pumpkin (or squash) may play the dominant role in this dessert, but the apples are awfully important too! As with the pumpkin puree, you can either work from scratch or go with something pre-made. If you use a pre-made applesauce, try to choose one that’s got little or no added sugar. You’ll still need diced apple to make the caramel sauce, so do keep this in mind.
I elected to make a very simple scratch applesauce for this recipe for three reasons: 1) doing so afforded me the opportunity to choose an apple variety that’s particularly suited to this recipe, 2) it lets me add to my apple-a-day series, and 3) it’s just kind of my thing.
I used a lovely yellow-skinned apple called Ginger Gold (shown below) to make this recipe. It’s a good, somewhat soft table apple that also holds its shape relatively well when cooked, which is nice for both the applesauce and the caramel components. It’s also got a lovely spice-like quality that works really well with cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and other pie spices. While it’s not usually a super-common grocery store staple, Ginger Gold is still fairly popular with a number of American and Canadian commercial apple growers. It ripens in late summer/early fall, so you may or may not be able to find it depending on where you are and what time of the year it is. The early availability makes it a great apple to bake with for Canadian Thanksgiving (which is in early October), but my neighbours to the south may find that they have to turn to a different variety in order to make this for American Thanksgiving in late November.
Of course I realize that you may not have access to the exact same apple varieties that I do, but there are a few key features you can look for. Any good cooking apple can be used here; commonly available varieties include Cortland, Braeburn, Jonagold, Red Rome, Mutsu (Crispin) and Granny Smith. There are certainly dozens, if not hundreds of rare/heirloom varieties you could use too – and if you do, I’d love to hear from you! Granny Smith is likely to be the easiest variety for most people to find, and it will work nicely, though the apple sauce it produces might need a bit of added sugar to even out the tart flavour. You could also try a mix of Honeycrisp and Granny Smith for both the sauce and the caramel.
Ginger Gold – a lovely, early season apple with a bright flavour and delicate spice notes.
If you’ve made cheesecake AND caramel before, you can probably skim through this section, but if you’re new to either technique, I recommend reading through the tips below before jumping into the baking process.
A number of kitchen appliances and tools make this recipe quite a bit easier to make. I’ve given alternatives wherever possible. Note that I’m not going to mention every piece of equipment that you might need, but rather those that might not be common in every kitchen.
- Stand mixer – set to a low speed with a paddle attachment, this is the easiest way to mix the cheesecake filling. You can use a hand mixer too, though be sure not to over-whip the ingredients. The ingredients can be mixed by hand in a pinch, but be prepared to spend a while doing it.
- High-speed blender or food processor – perfect for pulverizing the oats for the crust, but if you don’t have these devices you can use oat flour or quick oats (see Ingredient Notes on oats above).
- Instant Pot – quick and handy if you’re making your own pumpkin/squash puree, but there are a number of other options, including baking, steaming, and microwaving. See the Ingredient Notes above.
- Springform pan or removable-bottom cake pan – while you can make a cheesecake in a regular cake pan, it’s difficult (and stressful) to get it out in one piece. Springform pans are the most common choice for making cheesecake, but I personally prefer pans with solid sides and a removable bottom, as I find them a lot less likely to leak. I used my anodized aluminum Vardagen cake pan from Ikea, which functions as both a bundt cake pan and regular cake pan. A 10-11 inch pan is a good size for this recipe, but you can use bigger or smaller pans – you’ll just have to adjust the baking time to compensate for the thicker or thinner cake. Regardless of the pan you use, lining the sides and bottom with parchment paper makes things extra foolproof. If you do have to use a regular cake pan, make sure to line it with parchment paper, and add a couple of extra long strips in an x-shape beneath the main lining. Hang these strips out over the edges of the cake and use them (carefully!) to pull your cake out of the pan. You can also make this in (and serve directly from) a pie dish, but you may need to make more crust and/or a little less filling because of the different dimensions.
- Roasting pan – while this isn’t exactly specialty equipment, it’s worth making note of, as a lot of people neglect to plan ahead on this one. In order to bake your cheesecake in a hot water bath, you need a pan that’s large enough to accommodate the pan and submerge it in water to about the half-way mark. A large heavy-bottomed oven safe frying pan (e.g. cast iron) should work in a pinch.
If you’re making your own pumpkin puree you’ll obviously need to do so before you start making the cheesecake. I make pumpkin puree by halving my squash (or pumpkin), scooping out the seeds and stringy bits, placing it in my Instant Pot on the rack insert, adding 1 cup of water, and pressure cooking for 15 minutes, followed by a natural release. The amount of time you need to cook a squash may vary depending on the size and/or type of squash you use, so try doing a little research first. When in doubt, start with a lower time, and add more as necessary.
Cooked squash can be frustratingly hard to peel, but I didn’t bother as red kuri skin is soft, edible, and a beautiful orange when cooked. If you don’t want to fuss with the skin, I recommend peeling your squash/pumpkin before cooking.
There are plenty of other options for cooking squash too, including baking, microwaving, and steaming. If you plan to use one of these, I recommend searching the web for tips based on both the mehod and the type of squash you’re using.
Once you’ve got cooked squash, turn it into puree with blender or food processor. Add just enough water to the mixture (a little at a time) to allow it to blend well. Excess puree can be stored in the fridge for 3-5 days, or frozen for 6 months to a year.
Cheesecake isn’t all that tricky to make, but it definitely helps if you know a few very handy tips before you dive in.
There are plenty of good general guides to making cheesecake – I like this one from the Kitchn and this one from Bakestarters. For brevity’s sake, I won’t cover all of the points here, but I will address a few that are particularly important here.
- Room temperature ingredients – Leave yourself some time to let your butter, cream cheese, ricotta, and eggs reach room temperature. Everything will mix, melt, and blend more easily, which will help you to avoid overmixing. On that note…
- Air is the enemy – Cheesecake batter becomes airy when whipped or mixed too long. The resulting air bubbles negatively impact the texture of your cheesecake, and make it much more likely to rise and fall significantly, which can lead to big cracks. Mixing slowly with a paddle attachment in a stand mixer is ideal, but you can use a hand mixer too. Make sure you scrape down the sides of the bowls regularly and stop mixing once the ingredients are just combined.
- Line that pan – Even with a springform or removable bottom pan, I like to line the entire thing with parchment paper. This makes it much easier to remove the cake from the pan, and easier to move the cake to a plate or platter (which is nice if you don’t want to cut against the bottom of your springform pan).
- Bath time – Cooking a cheesecake in a hot water bath is ideal, as it allows the cake to cook slowly and evenly. This gives you a great, creamy, uniform texture and helps avoid cracks.
- Chill out – Let the finished cake set in the fridge! I know it’s hard to wait, but letting your cheesecake chill overnight is the best way to go, in my opinion. Make sure to let it cool on the counter for a while before it goes into the fridge, as this will help keep it from cooling too quickly, which can lead to cracks and/or a lot of condensation building up on the top of the cake.
I forgot to warm up my ingredients!
No worries. Carefully and gently warm the cream cheese in the microwave in 10-20 second increments. Repeat until it’s soft and easily worked. Let the eggs and ricotta warm up as much as you can, but the cream cheese is the really important part!
My mixture is overwhipped/airy.
Let the mixture stand on the counter for an hour or so, and tap the sides with mixing spoon (etc.) to help let the air bubbles rise to the top.
My cheesecake is cracking!
Even with the best of techniques, it’s tough to guarantee no cracks. If you followed all the instructions but still had trouble with cracking, try reducing the cooking time just a bit, then let the cake sit in the turned-off but still-warm oven for an hour or so. This will help it finish cooking gently while reducing the rapid contraction that can lead to cracks. And if all else fills, top that cake with caramel and whipped cream. Voilà – your cracks are now Caramel Catchers™ and you clearly meant for them to be there.
Making caramel can seem a little intimidating, but this recipe (a variation on a ‘wet’ caramel) is actually pretty foolproof. The main key to success is preparation; the window between uncooked sugar, caramel, and burnt sugar is surprisingly brief, and you need to make sure that you have all of your ingredients and equipment ready to go so that you don’t miss it.
Wet caramels are made by caramelizing a syrup (in this case, sugar dissolved in a little water), making them much easier to heat evenly than dry caramels (which are made by melting crystalline sugar in a hot pan). Wet caramels bypass the risk of hot-spots in your pan, and generally make things much simpler. They do pose somewhat more of a splatter risk, but given that all caramels involve sugar cooked to well above the temperature of boiling water, you want to be careful regardless. If you want to read more about making wet caramel, I recommend this handy article from the Tough Cookie.
I won’t repeat the entire technique here, as it is detailed in the actual recipe below, but I will highlight two steps. First, make sure to whisk the caramel vigorously, both when adding the butter and the cream. Second, add the cream slowly, but steadily.
The caramel can be made a full day or more in advance, and will keep very well in the fridge for a week or more. Cold caramel can be gently heated in the microwave, or used as-is. I like to use a somewhat warm caramel, as it flows quite nicely and it looks gorgeous. If refrigerated, the caramel will thicken quite a bit (as shown in the picture above), which some may prefer. Cold caramel is also quite nice for coating apple slices for an alternative garnish (or chef’s treat).
Sweetness & Omitting the Caramel
I love dessert, but I’ve never been big on over-the-top sweetness. Given that caramel is pretty sweet stuff, I compensated a little by using a bit less sugar in the the cheesecake filling. I found the balance perfect when the two parts were served together, but if you decide to make the cake minus the caramel you may want to consider adding a bit more sugar to the filling to compensate. The recipe calls for 1/2 cup sugar, which I would try increasing to 3/4 cup or 1 cup, depending on your tastes.
Alternatively, you can garnish the cake with more applesauce or sliced sweet apples (cooked or uncooked).
Note: Nutritional Information is given for a single slice of pie with caramel sauce (1/12th portion of the total recipe). See below for nutritional information for the pie alone.
Note: The Nutritional Information below is given for a single slice of pie (1/12th portion) WITHOUT caramel sauce, and with more sugar used in the filling (1 cup instead of 1/2 cup).
No ingredient pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
No pantry pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
Pumpkin Apple Cheesecake with Apple Caramel
- 1.5 cups rolled oats or oat flour (see note)
- 6 tbsp melted butter
- 1/3 cup brown sugar packed
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 15 oz pumpkin or squash puree (see note for canned vs. fresh)
- 2 medium apples or unsweetened apple sauce (see note)
- 16 oz cream cheese
- 16 oz ricotta
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar (see note on sweetness)
- 4 large eggs
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp ground ginger
- 1/4 tsp nutmeg
- 2 cloves crushed/ground
Apple Caramel Sauce
- 1 medium apple peeled and diced
- 1/4 cup water
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 3 ounces butter (3/4 of a stick)
- 1/2 cup whipping cream
- 1/8 tsp salt
- Preheat oven to 350°F (176°C).
- Line the bottom of a 10 inch (25 cm) springform pan (see note for other options) with parchment paper, or grease with a bit of butter.
- Place the oats and salt in food processor and pulse until most of the oats are broken down into small crumbs.
- Thoroughly combine the oats with the brown sugar and melted butter.
- Press the oat mixture into the bottom of the pan, and level the surface out with a spatula or other flat surface. Bake for 10 minutes, then remove from the oven and set aside to cool.
- For best results, let your eggs, cream cheese, and ricotta warm to room temperature.
- To make your own applesauce, first peel, core, and chop the apples. Cook them over low heat in a small covered pot with a few tablespoons of water until soft (you may need a little more or less water depending on the type of apple you use). Mash or blend the cooked apples to make a sauce. Set aside 1 cup of the resulting mixture and allow it to cool. Alternatively, you can use a prepared unsweetened applesauce.
- Preheat oven to 350°F (176°C) and boil a large kettle or pot of water.
- Line the inner walls of the pan with long strips of parchment paper. You can grease the surface with butter instead, but parchment paper is much more foolproof.
- Combine the pumpkin puree, cream cheese, ricotta, and sugar in a stand mixer equipped with a paddle, or in a large bowl with a hand mixer. Combine at moderate speed, taking care not to whip too much air into the mixture.
- Add the eggs one at a time, pausing to allow them to combine well with the remaining ingredients. Add 1 cup of applesauce and the spices, and mix until well combined.
- Wrap the bottom and sides of the pan in aluminum foil to create a relatively tight seal. Place the foil-wrapped pan into the center of a roasting pan or other large oven safe dish with high sides.
- Pour the filling into the crust carefully. Pour enough hot water into the roasting pan to submerge the foil-wrapped cake pan to about the half-way point. Bake at 350°F for about 90 minutes, or until just barely set in the center.
- Remove the cake from the oven and from the hot-water bath. Set aside to cool, then cover with foil and refrigerate for at least 8 hours.
- Combine sugar and water in a medium pot over high heat. Stir the mixture to dissolve the sugar (this will become much easier as it heats up).
- Cook the dissolved sugar until it starts to turn a pale yellow colour. Continue to cook the sugar for a few more seconds, until it turns a rich yellowish brown (this will happen very quickly, so don't take your eyes off the pot). Once it reaches this point, immediately add the butter and whisk thoroughly to combine (it will spatter fairly violently, so watch your hands).
- Bring the caramel back to a boil, whisking regularly. Add the cream a little at a time while whisking vigorously. Once the cream is incorporated, add the salt and cut apple pieces and remove the caramel from heat. The caramel will be quite hot at this stage, and this residual heat will lightly cook the apples.
- Set aside to cool. The caramel can be served slightly warm, or chilled. The former will be thinner and clearer while the latter will be thicker and more opaque. This sauce can be made several days in advance, if desired.