As a self-described and devoted food snob, I nonetheless have a healthy list of “guilty pleasure” foods. Perched securely and deliciously atop this list is cake-mix cake. Give me Funfetti any day; I can hardly restrain myself. Somewhere in the top five, however, is Jell-O instant pudding. It helps that I am a sucker for anything creamy that I can eat with a spoon, but there’s something especially fun and lighthearted about Jell-O pudding in its simplicity. And it does remind me of my childhood, when the pistachio variety was a periodic dessert treat, thanks to my father’s soft spot for it.
Back in December, I stocked up on pumpkin spice, a seasonal flavor that was on offloading markdown at my local grocery store, and last week I finally decided to make some. Unfortunately, I tried to get creative, using almond milk (my latest favorite) instead of regular milk. I have made this error once before, that time with soy. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, I have an experiment on my hands. I now consider it scientifically proven that something in Jell-O pudding reacts specifically with something in dairy milk (I’m guessing it’s the protein) to allow the gelatin to kick in and the mixture to set. Instead of pudding, what I ended up with was a thoroughly unappetizing, brownish-orange milky liquid. So down the drain it went, right? Hah, that’s what you may think, but you don’t know me too well. No, I returned the container to the fridge in a mixture of denial and naïve hope it actually just needed more time.
Cut to a couple of days later when I happened upon a rather old box of graham crackers which had been open in one of my parents’ cupboards for . . . well let’s just say too long. The crackers were just stale and tasteless enough to not be edible on their own, but I assessed them as worthy of crust. This meant, of course, that I had to make cheesecake. To fuel the fire, about the same time that I found the crackers, I also found an old issue of Fine Cooking magazine with a special section on cheesecake and all the myriad variations on it that you could create by messing with crusts, fillings, flavors, and toppings. The wheels were turning; I couldn’t just make any old cheesecake; I had to maximize the potential of this baking venture. And at some point, I hit on the idea: maybe I could mix in the failed pudding and create pumpkin spice cheesecake! To be completely honest, I didn’t have a lot of faith in the idea (actually I never do in my more adventurous cooking efforts; I’m a natural pessimist). I saw multiple ways in which it could go wrong: too liquid, not enough flavor, too sweet. But what the hell, two of my key ingredients would otherwise have been junk, so how much did I have to lose? I’m not all that attached to cream cheese.
I looked at a few basic cheesecake recipes (including the one in Fine Cooking as well as a Pumpkin Cheesecake from Martha Stewart Everyday Food) to get an idea of proportions and got to work. Into the Cuisinart went the graham crackers with three tablespoons of sugar. I was worried that the tastelessness of the crackers would come through in the crust so I brought in reinforcements: a tiny pinch of cloves, a slightly larger pinch of nutmeg, and a decent shake of cinnamon and ginger. Whirl it all up and pour in melted butter. Voila, I had my crust! Into the pan it went and into the oven. Meanwhile, the cream cheese went into the bowl of the mixer and with it, the pudding-milk. Now this, admittedly, was a mistake. I should have beat the cream cheese on its own first until it was smooth; instead, it left little lumps in the filling mixture and I had to throw the whole thing in the Cuisinart. Needless work and lost filling; shame on me (but thank god for the Cuisinart). Anyway, eggs went in, and vanilla, a little flour, and more spices (the same ones as in the crust). When it came to the sugar, I adjusted the amount, starting with ¾ of a cup instead of the called-for 1¼, because I knew that the pudding would make it already sweet. I tasted, tweaked, and got it just right. You know the drill, filling over the crust and back in the oven.
I tried to resist the urge to watch it like a hawk as the minutes tick on, knowing that cheesecake bakes slowly and only sets at the very end. Nonetheless, every time I gave in and checked and found it still liquid, a little voice said “ehhhh, it’s not gonna work; I’m just going to end up throwing it out, probably after eating half of it myself with a spoon.” And then, finally, miraculously, it did. I opened the oven, shook the pan, and watched the center jiggle just oh so slightly. Ta da, success! Oven off, leave it in just to let it finish setting that last little bit. Fifteen minutes (or so) later, out it came, looking gorgeous. And it tasted damn good too, if I do say so myself.
2 cups graham cracker or gingersnap crumbs (about ten full-sized graham crackers)
3 tablespoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger
7 Tbsp butter, melted
Mix first six ingredients in a bowl or Cuisinart. Add butter and mix evenly. Pour mixture into a 10-inch round spring form pan (it’s a good idea to coat the sides of the pan with butter if the pan is not nonstick). Press down firmly into the pan and up about ½ inch along the sides. Bake in a 300 degree oven for about 12 minutes.
½ package Jell-O instant pudding mix (I realize that it is annoying to have to measure out half the package; it came to just slightly under 1/3 cup when I did it if that helps. Of course you can eyeball it, but don’t hold me responsible for your visual inaccuracy)
1 cup almond, soy, or other non-dairy milk (do not use lactose-free milk; I’ve tried it; you’ll end up with pudding)
3 8-oz packages regular cream cheese
4 large eggs
3 Tbsp flour
1 tsp vanilla extract
Spices, in same amounts as above
~3/4 cup sugar (but taste and adjust to desired sweetness level)
Mix pudding mix and milk in a small bowl and let sit for 5-10 minutes (can be done ahead of time and kept in the fridge). Beat cream cheese in a bowl until smooth. Slowly add milk mixture (careful of splashing). Add eggs, vanilla, flour, spices, and sugar. Mix thoroughly, taste, and add more sugar if necessary. If the mixture is lumpy at this point, you can use a Cuisinart or a blender to make it smooth. Pour filling over prebaked crust. Return pan to oven and bake until center is just a little bit wiggly. For me this took about 40 minutes, but it will really depend on your oven so start checking after about 30. Turn oven off and allow cake to rest in oven for about 15 minutes. Remove and cool to room temperature. Refrigerate several hours or overnight. When ready to serve, slide a knife along the inside edge of the pan to loosen before you try to remove the sides. Then slice it up and enjoy!