It’s officially December. Which means my brain-space is now fully occupied by Pinterest boards (Appetizers! Cocktails! Fancy breakfast!), a beat-up notebook full of half-written recipes and ideas, and a waist-high stack of old December food magazines, pages marked with sticky flags in every colour.
Because, of course, the holidays are all about the food, right?!
Casual, festive dinners are my favourite – a house full of friends and family who – no matter how cozy the sofas are – gather around the heart of the home, for what we New Brunswick-ers call “Maritime Kitchen Parties”. The comfort of home cooking and a warm kitchen bustling with loved ones is deeply a part of what moves me in life.
I spent a lovely day driving a Ford Edge around town gathering ingredients for one such kitchen party…
For me, holiday dinner parties mean hearty meals that simmer, roast, or braise themselves into submission while you enjoy a cozy drink with your guests; pretty little finger foods; lovely ice-cold, ruby-hued cocktails that teeter perfectly between sweet and tart…
And, most importantly: luxurious, show-stopping desserts.
Like, for example, this mascarpone cheesecake, smothered in cinnamon-laced apples that have bathed richly in vanilla-spiked caramel.
I want to bathe richly in caramel, don’t you?
Mascarpone is a decadence in and of itself with its luscious texture and milky, slightly sweet, subtly tangy flavour.
It gives cheesecake an incredible richness in flavour that feels light and creamy, rather than cloyingly creamy – as some can be.
Homemade caramel may sound a little daunting if you’re new to it, but it’s actually very easy to make.
For this one, you simply dissolve sugar in water within a large pan, then wait – the syrup will turn a gorgeous amber, and that’s when you toss in your apple slices. At that point, you just reduce the heat and let the apples bubble away until soft. The caramel will be diluted by the apple juices, preventing it from getting too dark.
The cheesecake batter is sweetened with brown sugar and a whiff of cinnamon, boosting the caramel and spice flavour theme from the topping. I used a traditional graham crust, but you could up the ante with by replacing the graham crackers with gingersnaps (just nix the sugar and proceed the same way).
Make sure to let the topping cool completely before piling it onto your cake.
The final touch is a brushing with maple syrup – don’t skip this step! Not only does it add a gorgeous sheen to the apples, it imparts an amazing depth of flavour to the caramel.
Plus, if you let it dribble a bit, your guests will want to lick their plates…
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- 1¼ cups graham cracker crumbs
- 2 tbsp granulated sugar
- ¼ cup melted butter
- 2 cups (two 8-oz packages/1 lb) cream cheese, room temperature
- 2 cups mascarpone, room temperature (or substitute 2 more cups cream cheese)
- 3 eggs
- 1 cup brown sugar
- ½ tsp cinnamon
- 1 cup sugar
- ½ cup water
- 6 firm apples (preferably Granny Smith, but Fuji or Gala work well, too), peeled, cored, and cut into ¼" slices
- ¼ cup butter, cubed
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 3 tbsp maple syrup
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Set a kettle of water to boil.
- In a medium bowl, stir together graham cracker crumbs, sugar and butter. Dump mixture into a 9" springform pan, and use the bottom of a dry measuring cup to press it evenly into the bottom and about 1" up the sides. Bake for 10 minutes, then remove from the oven and place inside a large baking dish.
- Meanwhile, in a stand mixer, beat the cream cheese and mascarpone with the sugar on medium speed until well combined, about a minute. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, and then the cinnamon. Scrape into the baked crust.
- Make a water bath for the cake by pouring boiling water into the large baking dish until it comes an inch up the side of the springform pan. Carefully transfer the whole thing to the oven and bake about 60 minutes, until the centre is set (it will still jiggle a little bit, but not much).
- Remove the springform pan from the water bath and place onto a wire rack to cool to room temperature, about 2 hours. Transfer to fridge until ready to serve (up to 48 hours in advance).
- Combine sugar and water in a 10" frying pan over medium heat. Whisk just until sugar dissolves, then stop. Gently tilt and swirl the pan occasionally until the mixture bubbles down to a syrup and turns amber in colour, about 10 minutes. If you're nervous, reduce the heat to low so you have more control - it'll just take a few minutes longer.
- Remove pan from heat and whisk in the butter and the cinnamon. Be extremely careful, as the caramel may sputter. Quickly add the apples and stir to coat in caramel. Return the pan to medium heat. The caramel may seize up a bit, but not to worry - keep stirring and it will melt back down. Cook, stirring often until the apples are tender, about 7 minutes. Stir in the vanilla. Use a spatula to scrape apples into to a shallow pan or bowl to cool then refrigerate until ready to serve.
- Just before serving, run a knife around the circumference of the springform pan to make the ring easier to remove. Pile the cooled topping onto the cheesecake. Use a pastry brush to brush the maple syrup over the apples (or you can drizzle it over with a teaspoon).