Big Little Recipes

No-Bake Pumpkin Cheesecake Bars for Thanksgiving & Beyond

October 29, 2019

A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big everything else: flavor, creativity, wow factor. Psst—we don't count water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (specifically, 1/2 cup or less of olive oil, vegetable oil, and butter), since we're guessing you have those covered. Today, we’re making a pumpkin dessert that’s chill as can be.

Photo by Ty Mecham. Prop stylist: Amanda Widis. Food stylist: Amelia Rampe.

Picture this: It's Thanksgiving. You're wearing a sweater and drinking spiced cider and the kitchen is all roasty-toasty from the oven running for five hours straight. Phew. Whose idea was this sweater?

Every November, it's the same riddle—how to fit the number of recipes that need to be baked (turkey, green bean casserole, sweet potato casserole, roasted vegetables, stuffing, macaroni and cheese, dinner rolls, apple pie, pumpkin pie, pecan pie) in the number of ovens most people have at home (one).

A raw or stovetop adaptation would certainly come in handy (have you met my Big Little green bean casserole?), but a lot of these simply can’t be reimagined as such—including but not limited to a whole-roast turkey, which typically hogs the most time and space in the oven.

But dessert is happy to help.

Photo by Ty Mecham. Prop stylist: Amanda Widis. Food stylist: Amelia Rampe.

Instead of pumpkin pie or even pumpkin cheesecake (which begs to be cooked in a water bath), you could and should make a no-bake pumpkin cheesecake. This involves little more than pressing a crumb crust (blitzed graham crackers, melted butter, sugar, and an unshy amount of salt) in a pan, pouring a food-processed pumpkin custard on top, then sticking the pan in the fridge until you’re ready to serve.

I do have one bone to pick, though: Many no-bake pumpkin cheesecakes aren’t very pumpkiny—they’re cream cheesy. This makes sense, since cheesecake relies on cream cheese as much for flavor as it does for structure (thanks to various stabilizers, such as carob bean gum or carrageenan). So in the case of pumpkin cheesecake, the more actual pumpkin puree you add, the less structurally sound and sliceable it becomes.

I tested cheesecake after cheesecake to find the sweet spot—big pumpkin flavor, sliceable squares—only to defeatedly tell my editor, “It’s hopeless.” That’s when she mentioned unflavored gelatin. In desserts like Italian panna cotta, this invisible ingredient creates a thick, custardy consistency without the distracting addition of egg yolks.

But apparently, not everyone’s a fan. On the recipe page for my no-bake ricotta cheesecake from this past summer, several commenters applauded its lack of gelatin: “Thank you so much for a recipe without gelatin!” In that case (a cheesecake that was all about cream cheese and ricotta), it was entirely unnecessary. In this case (a cheesecake that’s supposed to be all about the pumpkin), it’s a total game-changer.

A sprinkle of gelatin means you can use an entire can of pumpkin puree and totally get away with it. Since this flavorless ingredient sets the cheesecake, you can lower the quantity of cream cheese and skip the oven altogether, both of which result in a more vivacious (yes, vivacious!) pumpkin flavor. Similarly, skipping the pumpkin pie spice (I know, I know) lets your tastebuds focus on the squash, not on cinnamon and company (but yes, you can add some if you want).

Bonus: You can make these bars a day (or two!) in advance. Your turkey—and green bean casserole and roasted sweet potatoes and stuffing—can thank you later.

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Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.