Surprisingly Controversial Individual Pumpkin Cheesecakes Donna Zuckerberg

This pumpkin cheesecake is not only rich and delicious and seasonally appropriate; it was also the cause of a heated debate about baking, feminism and academia. Before I give you the recipe, here’s the story.

When I was a young, energetic, bright-eyed first-year PhD student five years ago, a friend and I offered to co-host a departmental coffee hour. Every week, she and I would get together and bake something fun and delicious. Not only did my baking skills improve dramatically, but we also became inexplicably popular among my fellow students and professors. (Maybe it wasn’t that inexplicable.) Within weeks of starting my PhD program, everyone in the department knew my name. Every Thursday afternoon, our reading room was packed with Classicists jockeying for the last piece of pie. The coffee hours were stunningly well attended, and, by all accounts, a huge success.

So when the time came to publish the yearly departmental newsletter, my co-baker and I were asked to submit a recipe from coffee hour. It was a little outside of usual range of newsletter content, which typically features faculty biographies, recent publications, and dissertation summaries. But the editor thought that the recipe would add some personality, and we were happy to contribute. We polled the department, and the almost universal favorite was the pumpkin cheesecake (in case you need proof that this recipe is awesome). We sent the recipe in.

A few weeks later, we were pulled aside by a faculty member and told that the newsletter would NOT, in fact, be featuring our recipe. Apparently, much to our surprise, our cheesecake was controversial. Several professors felt that having a recipe alongside the usual newsletter content was inappropriate and ill befit our department’s dignity. One person said that she would judge another Ivy League school Classics department if they had a cake recipe in their newsletter. Feminist concerns were also raised – how did it look to have two female graduate students submit a cake recipe? I’ve sat in on some faculty meetings, and having any debate about the newsletter at all is pretty remarkable. Anyway, the cheesecake got cut.

I don’t necessarily disagree with all of the concerns. After all, the cheesecake recipe wasn’t directly relevant to either Classics or our department. Its inclusion was a nice idea, if unnecessary. But I couldn’t help feeling rankled by the tone of the objections. Why couldn’t I be a feminist, a scholar, and a baker? Why should any of those labels have to be mutually exclusive? Why did people think that the fact that we gathered on a weekly basis over coffee and baked goods would make my department seem less professional? Plenty of serious academic discussions occurred at those coffee hours, although honesty compels me to admit that the discussion wasn’t always academic and the beverage wasn’t always coffee. Besides, other academic departments have coffee hours too.

Recently, when the urge struck me to make pumpkin cheesecake, I remembered this incident from five years ago. The passage of time has not completely erased my concerns: I still wonder if I can be taken seriously as an academic while simultaneously running a baking blog. Fortunately, I work in a fantastic department and have never had to deal with the mansplaining that other women in academia are sometimes subjected to. But it’s a little bit concerning to me that in 2007 there were still people who thought that feminist scholars shouldn’t advertise that they enjoyed baking.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go eat one of these while working on my dissertation.

A note on the recipe: this isn’t the exact cheesecake from five years ago, but it’s pretty close and has the benefit of being individually sized. I have determined that mini cheesecakes are superior for the following reasons:

  1. Everyone loves individual desserts! Especially at parties.
  2. Drastically decreased baking time
  3. No need to make a crust – just use a whole cookie
  4. Significantly less chance that I will accidentally eat an entire cheesecake

It should also be easy to make this recipe gluten-free – just use gluten-free gingersnaps.

Ingredients:

  • 16 gingersnap cookies
  • 16 oz (1 lb) cream cheese, at room temperature (do NOT use nonfat cream cheese, but if you must, the reduced-fat kind is okay)
  • ½ cup maple syrup
  • 2 eggs
  • ¾ cup pumpkin puree (NOT pumpkin pie mix)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon nutmeg
  • ½ teaspoon ginger
  • ¼ teaspoon cloves
  • ¼ teaspoon allspice
  • pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 300. Line a cupcake tin with liners. Place a gingersnap upside-down in the bottom of each cup.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, beat the cream cheese and maple syrup on medium-high until smooth, about 2 minutes. Beat in the eggs until smooth. Set aside a few tablespoonfuls to make your ‘swirl’. Add the pumpkin, vanilla, spices, and salt to the bowl of the stand mixer and beat until smooth, about 2 minutes. Divide batter among cupcake cups, filling almost to the top. Add a little bit of the pumpkin-less batter and swirl decoratively with a chopstick.

Bake, rotating the pan halfway through, for 25-7 minutes, or until the filling is set. It may have puffed slightly, but it will collapse as it cools. Let cool for at least 30 minutes at room temperature, then refrigerate at least 4 hours before serving.

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  1. So, I really appreciate this recipe. Recently I have been experiencing some health stuff that doesn’t allow me to eat gluten…and I’ve been looking for an easy pumpkin pie recipe that doesn’t call for 500 different types of flour. Since this uses individual cookies, it would be easy to swap with gluten-free ginersnaps, making it gluten-safe! Yay! =)

  2. Great article! I’m an investment specialist, musician and baker AND I will be making these for thanksgiving!!! Thanks!

  3. I’ve been re-watching the West Wing lately, and this post reminds me of the episode I watched last night in which Ainsley Hayes talks about her idea of feminism. Clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lpcBWA1K9Xw

    Love it. Want to try this recipe, too… Sometimes I think we’re going backwards. Trying so hard to break free from the 1950s forced housewife idea that we’ve dug ourselves into another hole. I like baking. Don’t see how that affects me as an academic, a teacher, a student, anything…

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