Palo Alto Weekly

- November 18, 2011

Not just pumpkin pie

Chefs offer less-traditional alternatives for Thanksgiving dinner

by Cyrus Hedayati

Chef Brendy Monsada has loved the taste of pumpkin since he was a kid growing up on a farm in the Philippines. Now executive chef at the Left Bank in Menlo Park, Monsada acknowledges that not everyone is a fan of the autumnal fruit — even when it comes in the classic Thanksgiving dessert, pumpkin pie.

"I think pumpkin's something that people should give a chance because they might like it. They just have to teach their palette," said the chef. "You have to mix it with something though, because by itself it's not that great."

Monsada is one of several Bay Area chefs offering an alternative to the standard Thanksgiving pumpkin pie. With his pumpkin cheesecake, Monsada is hoping to convert some of those critics to liking the fruit.

"I just wanted to change people's thinking about the pumpkin," he said. "Now that I'm a chef I have a little bit of freedom so I thought I'd do something different."

While pumpkin pie may be a holiday staple, Monsada said that he likes to challenge his patrons' expectations. He's been perfecting the pumpkin cheesecake recipe since he started cooking at 17.

"I always see pumpkin pie this time of year, so I think it's fun to mix it up," he said. "I like to change it every year."

For those who would rather pass on the pumpkin entirely this Thanksgiving, chefs have come up with plenty of alternative desserts to enjoy after the turkey and stuffing are finished.

Rob Fischer — who called his motto "simple food done well" — has been serving his Chocolate Pecan Pie ever since he bought the Palo Alto Creamery in 1988. It's still a favorite at his restaurants, including Gravity and Reposado in Palo Alto and Scratch in Mountain View.

"It's been something that we've been doing for over 23 years at the Palo Alto Creamery and it's always been a popular dish this time of year," Fischer said. "All the way through Christmas it's just nutty."

The chef and restaurant owner has seen plenty of culinary trends come and go during his more than two decades of running Bay Area restaurants, he said. The one constant is that people never stop searching for new foods to try — including alternatives to pumpkin pie.

"I think that people are always looking for something a little different and let's face it: When you're younger everything's new to you," Fischer said. "We grow tired of things as we grow older and we're always looking for the next new thing."

The search for new flavors is a cycle, he said. Eventually the new hits become the standards, making the old standards new again.

"I think what it comes down to is that variety is the spice of life," he said. "Just like everything I think pumpkin pie will eventually make a turnaround and go back to the main menu."

Chef Thomas Mitchell is also creating a unique variation on a traditional desert, he said. His Okinawan sweet potato pie fuses Japanese and American comfort food.

Now executive chef at Trader Vic's in Palo Alto, Mitchell's exploration of Japanese and French cuisine has led him from Europe to Sausalito, where he worked at Sushi Ran.

"It shows some of my culinary background," Mitchell said of his pie recipe.

Named for the province of feudal Japan where they originate, Okinawan sweet potatoes are a bright purple color, as opposed to the more typical, orange sweet potato. However, Thomas said, they also offer a more starchy flavor that should go well with turkey.

"It's not your average sweet potato pie," said the chef.

Pumpkin Cheesecake

Yield: 10-12 servings

Prep time: 20 minutes

Crust cook time: 7 minutes

Cheesecake cook time: 45 minutes

Ingredients:

CRUST:

2 C. graham cracker crumbs

1/2 C. sugar, granulated

4 oz. unsalted butter (at room temperature)

1/8 tsp. toasted ground clove

1.Pre-heat oven at 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, mix all ingredients well with hands and spread it on baking sheet pan with parchment paper. Bake for 7 minutes, set aside and cool.

FILLING:

1 lb. cream cheese (softened)

1/4 C. crème fraiche(substitute sour cream)

3/4 C. sugar, granulated

10 oz. roasted pumpkin puree (either canned or homemade)

1 1/4 tsp. toasted cinnamon powder

1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg

1 tsp. fresh grated ginger

1/4 tsp. kosher sea salt

1 tsp. pure vanilla extract

3 eggs

2. Place all the ingredients in the food processor and blend for 30 seconds or until all ingredients are combined. Do not over blend.

3. In 4-oz.-aluminum foil cups, spray with non-stick spray and add 3/4 oz. of graham cracker crust, then flatten with thumb until even. Pour in 3 oz. of pumpkin and cream-cheese mixture and place it in a baking dish with 1/2 in. warm water bath.

Bake in 350 degrees pre-heated oven for 25 minutes then rotate and bake again for 20 minutes. Pull out of the oven and cool for 20 minutes before serving.

Chocolate Pecan Pie

Ingredients

1 unbaked 9-inch pie shell

1 C.bittersweet chocolate chips

2 1/2 C. pecan halves

1 1/2 C. sugar

1 C. dark corn syrup

1 tsp. vanilla

1 T. melted butter

5 eggs

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Spread the chocolate chips evenly over the bottom of an unbaked 9-inch pie shell.

3. Place the pecan halves on top of the chocolate chips in an even layer.

4. Place the sugar, dark corn syrup, vanilla, melted butter and eggs in a large mixing bowl and whisk together until smooth.

5. Pour the mixture from the bowl through a strainer over the pecans in the pie shell.

6. Bake on the center rack of the preheated oven for 50 minutes or until the filling is set and the bottom of the crust is golden brown. The pie will begin to puff when almost done. (We bake ours in glass pie dishes so we can see when the bottom crust is just right.)

7. Remove from the oven and cool on a wire rack.

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