Whether for Thanksgiving or Christmas, this dessert is—to put it bluntly– drop-dead gorgeous! More importantly, the flavor and texture combination of the creamy pumpkin custard, the bittersweet chocolate ganache topping and the cookie crumb crust is just sensational. And just to guild the lily, the top border is sprinkled with crunchy pepita (pumpkin-seed) praline and the top center is decorated with overlapping, life-like chocolate leaves. Although this recipe is “involved,” every single component of the torte is completely do-ahead, making it unusually easy to pull this truly impressive dessert together.
Yield: One 10-inch torte, serving 10 to 12
- 10 inch cake pan, 2-inches deep
- Parchment paper
- Electric mixer with a paddle attachment
- Nutmeg grater (optional)
- Small pastry brush or feather brush for making chocolate leaves
For the cookie crust:
- Vegetable oil spray, as needed
- 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- One 9-ounce box Nabisco chocolate wafer cookies (less about 5 cookies)
- 1/2 cup walnuts or pecans, finely chopped
For the pumpkin custard filling:
- One 8-ounce block cream cheese, softened and at room temperature (not at all chilled)
- 1/2 cup (packed) light brown sugar
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1/3 cup maple syrup (pure or pancake syrup)
- 2 cups fresh pumpkin puree or use a 1-pound can of solid-pack pumpkin
- 1 tablespoon plus 1/4 teaspoon homemade Cookie Spice Blend (See the end of this recipe.)
- 6 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
- 1/2 teaspoon natural maple extract (omit if unavailable)
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract (Increase to 1 1/2 teaspoons, if not using maple extract.)
- 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
For the chocolate leaves:
- 16 ounces chopped chocolate (Use any combination of bittersweet and semisweet.)
- 2 generous teaspoons solid vegetable shortening
- 20 to 30 lemon leaves (in a variety of sizes), from your local flower shop
For the pepita praline:
- 1 cup hulled raw pumpkin seeds
- 2 teaspoons clarified butter
- flavorless vegetable oil, as needed, for brushing
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
For the ganache top:
- 8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1/2 teaspoon flavorless vegetable oil
To set up:
Line the bottom of a 10-inch cake pan (2 inches deep) with a round of parchment paper, and spray the paper and the sides of the pan with vegetable oil spray. Preheat the oven to 350°F, with the rack in the center shelf position. Fill a tea kettle and turn it on. When the water boils, turn it to a simmer, until needed.
To prepare the crust:
Finely grind the chocolate wafer cookies either in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade, or place the cookies in an unsealed heavy-duty plastic bag, and roll over them with a rolling pin. Combine 2 cups of the cookie crumbs with the chopped nuts in a medium-sized bowl. Stir in the melted butter until the crumbs are evenly moistened. Turn the crumbs into the prepared cake pan and press them down firmly, covering the bottom evenly, without extending up the sides. Refrigerate the pan while you prepare the custard filling.
To make the filling:
Using an electric mixer, fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese until very smooth. Add the brown and white sugars, and mix well. Add the maple syrup, and, when well combined, add the pumpkin and the spice blend. When smooth, add the eggs, one at a time, combining well after each addition. Add the maple and vanilla extracts along with the heavy cream. When mixed, remove the cookie crust from the refrigerator and push the custard mixture through a medium-mesh wire sieve directly into the crust using a rubber spatula, leaving behind any stray bits of cream cheese in the sieve.
Fill a roasting pan with a scant 1-inch of simmering water from the kettle and transfer the pan to the preheated oven. Carefully carry the custard-filled cake pan to the oven and place it into the roasting pan. The water should come one-half to two-thirds up the sides of the pan, so pour in more simmering water, if needed. Bake the torte for 1-hour and check for doneness by inserting a knife into the top-center. When done, the blade should come out almost clean. The custard should jiggle a little bit, since it will set further when refrigerated, but, if very loose, bake longer, checking after every 5-minute interval. When done, carefully lift the cake pan out of the water, and place it on a wire rack to cool. Lay a doubled sheet of paper towel, pulled taut, over the torte, and then cover it with aluminum foil. Refrigerate the torte for 6 hours, or up to 2 days, before continuing.
To prepare the garnishes:
While the custard chills, prepare the garnishes. (Be sure to check out my “Timing Tips” to make these garnishes way ahead of time so final assembly is a snap!)
For the chocolate leaves:
Line a tray with wax paper and place it in the freezer. Pick out about 20 lemon leaves, in a variety of sizes, and wipe each one clean with a dampened paper towel. Use a dry paper towel to dry the leaves meticulously and lay them on your work surface. Melt the chocolate with the shortening in the top of a double boiler, or in a bowl that sits in a larger pan of barely simmering water, stirring constantly until smooth. Be careful not to allow any water to enter the bowl of chocolate, which would cause it to quickly stiffen, a process called “seizing.” When smooth, remove the melted chocolate from the stove and dry the bottom of the bowl.
Working with one leaf at a time, turn it so the visibly raised veins (the under-side) are facing up. Using a small paint brush, designated specifically for food purposes, carefully paint only the veined side with a generous layer of melted chocolate. Apply a slightly thicker layer of chocolate at the stem end, which will make it easier to unmold the leaves later. Use your finger to carefully wipe off the outer edges of the leaf and lay it, chocolate-side up, in the freezer, on the tray. Continue with the remaining leaves and allow them to remain in the freezer for 30 minutes to 1 hour before unmolding them.
Keep all the leaves in the freezer while working with one at a time. Lay a piece of paper towel on the palm of your non-working hand. Lay the chocolate coated leaf on the paper towel, chocolate-side up, and, using the thumb and forefinger of your working hand, grasp the small exposed tip of the stem. Invert the leaf, chocolate-side down, and carefully lift and peel back the stem tip, separating the leaf from the chocolate. (The chocolate should be resting on the paper towel to keep the warmth of your hand from melting it.) Immediately place the leaf back in the freezer and continue unmolding the remaining leaves. (Although you won’t need all of the leaves for the torte, it’s best to make extra to allow for some breakage.)
To make the praline:
Sauté the hulled pumpkin seeds in the melted clarified butter over medium heat, stirring constantly, until nicely toasted, about 3 minutes. Drain the seeds on paper towels, then place them in a bowl and toss them with the salt. Brush the interior of a shallow (preferably nonstick) baking sheet well, with flavorless vegetable oil and set it near the stove. Brush the blade of a long metal icing spatula or a table knife with some oil, as well, and place this next to the baking sheet. Place the sugar and 1/4 cup water into a small heavy-bottomed saucepan, preferably with a light-colored interior. Stir the mixture, just to help liquefy the sugar, without getting any sugar crystals on the side of the pan. Place a small cup of boiling water next to the stove and insert a pastry brush. Bring the sugar to a boil, uncovered, over medium-high heat, and let it bubble until it turns a deep amber color. If, as the mixture bubbles, any sugar jumps to the side of the saucepan, use the wet pastry brush to wash this away. When the correct color is achieved (it should look like a well-brewed cup of regular tea), remove the pan from the heat and stir in the pepitas and the vanilla.
Immediately, pour the mixture onto the prepared baking sheet, and, using the oiled spatula or knife, spread the praline so it has an even thickness. Place the pan on a wire rack, and let the praline cool and harden completely, about 1 hour. When cool, lift off the praline and break it into irregular pieces. Place these pieces into a doubled, heavy-duty freezer bag and, using a heavy mallet or a hammer, bust up the praline into very small pieces without pulverizing it. Alternatively, pulse the praline in a food processor, fitted with the steel blade, being careful not to turn it into dust. Transfer the praline to a bowl and set it aside.
When ready to fully assemble the torte, make the ganache topping:
Position a medium-mesh sieve over a mixing bowl and set it aside. Place the chopped chocolate in a small bowl. Heat 1/2 cup cream in a small saucepan over low heat and, when it comes to a boil, remove it from the heat and pour it over the chocolate. Let it sit for 1 minute, then stir the mixture until it’s very smooth. Stir in the vanilla and vegetable oil, and then force the ganache through the sieve, using a rubber spatula. Set it aside, until just warm.
To assemble the torte:
If very chilled, remove the torte from the refrigerator 10 to 20 minutes before ready to unmold. Run the blade of a sharp knife around the circumference of the pan, and place the bottom of the pan on a kitchen towel that’s been soaked in very hot water and wrung out. Leave it this way for 3 to 5 minutes. Place a piece of wax paper on top of the torte and place a flat cookie sheet or a tray over the paper. Invert the pan onto the tray and lift off the cake pan. (If stubborn, place the pan on the stove, over low heat, for only a few seconds.) Remove and discard the parchment paper. Carefully center your serving platter on top of the exposed cookie crust and invert it, so the custard is facing up. Discard the wax paper.
If the ganache has become too stiff to pour, rewarm it briefly, either by placing the bowl in a skillet of hot water, or, for several seconds, in the microwave. Pour the ganache onto the center of the baked custard. Using a long, metal icing spatula, spread the ganache over the custard, just shy of the edge of the torte, without letting the chocolate drip down the sides. Using either the jagged edge of a decorating comb or the tines of a fork, make decorative ridges or lines over the entire top, starting at the outer rim. As you do this, the ganache will naturally move toward the outer edge of custard. If the ganache starts to fall over the edge, use your icing spatula to push it back up, while smoothing the sides. Decorate the top rim with a border of crushed praline, and then lay several of the chocolate leaves, slightly overlapping, in the center, in the shape of a flower. Place a small mound of crushed praline in the eye of the flower, then cover the torte with a domed cake cover and refrigerate it, until 10 to 20 minutes before serving.
- Present the torte whole, and then slice it into individual wedges, each accompanied by a chocolate leaf.
- If you don’t have the pre-assembled spice blend:
- Use 1 teaspoon each: ground cinnamon, ginger, and freshly grated nutmeg. Add 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves.
Timing is Everything:
The pumpkin custard torte can be baked up to two days ahead and, once cool, covered well and refrigerated.
The praline can be made two weeks ahead and stored in the refrigerator in a sealed heavy-duty plastic container.
The chocolate leaves can be made one month ahead and kept in the freezer, in an airtight tin, separated by sheets of wax paper.
Apply the praline and leaves to the top of the torte no more than 3 hours ahead and keep it refrigerated until 10 to 20 minutes before serving. Don’t keep the assembled torte in a hot kitchen, however, or the leaves can start to soften and lose their shape.
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