One of my favorite things about winter is as simple as this: eating a mandarin orange. In the darkest days of the year, the little fruit comes into peak season like a timely gift. With a burst of vibrant color and juicy sweetness, a mandarin can provide much needed refreshment, at once quenching physical thirst and a longing for brighter days.
I most often choose the seedless and easy-to-peel varieties—Satsumas first, Clementines second—both of which I’ve devoured vast amounts of over time. I’ve long wanted to celebrate their wonder by turning them into a dessert, and now I finally mustered the restraint to save enough of them for the endeavor. Here’s what I made in their honor.
Mandarin Orange Filled Cheesecake (makes a 9” cheesecake; serves 12)
- 3 cups crushed graham crackers, loosely packed (about 18 crackers; two sleeves)
- ½ cup crushed pecans or almonds
- ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
- ½ cup butter, melted
- 1.5 pounds cream cheese at very soft room temperature
- ¾ cup powdered sugar*
- 3 eggs
- ¼ teaspoon pure orange oil
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- 10 seedless mandarins (about 1.5 – 2 pounds)
- See below for more ingredients if decorating the top (optional but pretty!)
Preheat oven to 350 F. Lightly grease sides and bottom of 9” springform pan. Peel and split the mandarins into segments, tasting a few to make sure you have a sweet batch. Discard any easy-to-pull white strands (no need to be too finicky); set oranges aside. Stir together the first four ingredients well, then push mixture into pan evenly and very firmly. You should have enough to cover the bottom and about ¾ of the way up the sides. Bake crust for 8-10 minutes, until fragrant and edges are just starting to brown; set aside to cool. Separately, on low speed, beat the softened cream cheese, orange oil, and vanilla just until smooth, adding eggs one at a time while beating. Sift the powdered sugar over the batter and mix until just even and incorporated. Spread half of the batter into the cooled crust. Top with half of the orange segments (about 40-50), then spread remaining batter over oranges to the edges of the pan. Bake for 50-55 minutes, until center is set. Cheesecake will be golden brown and domed around sides; it will flatten a bit as it cools. Let cool for at least 3 or 4 hours before removing from pan.
At this point, you can serve each slice chilled or at room temperature, topped with a generous handful of the remaining orange segments. Or, if you’re like me and have the urge to decorate your cheesecake (let alone any dessert), then reach for:
- 8 ounces cream cheese at soft room temperature
- ½ cup powdered sugar, sifted
- ½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- ¼ teaspoon pure orange oil
- 1 dash ground cloves
- ½ cup apricot preserves
- 2 tablespoons water
On high speed, beat together the first five ingredients until fluffy and well beaten. Spread onto top of cooled cheesecake, then use a pastry bag to pipe a border if desired. In a small saucepan, heat the preserves and water until bubbling. Reduce heat to simmer and whisk well for about 30 seconds, then turn heat off. Let the apricot glaze cool a bit while you arrange the remaining mandarins on your cheesecake. Whisk glaze again and use a pastry brush to coat the oranges with shiny sweetness. If desired, use the extra apricot glaze to brush the sides of the crust, or serve your cheesecake with a drizzle to temper its tartness.
Creamy, rich and satisfying, mandarin orange cheesecake is a successful salute to the fabulous fruit that inspired it. Studded with bits of baked citrus that offer both tartness and texture, each dense slice is enveloped with nutty, flavorful crust. The trace of cloves within offers a hint of complementary spice, while the topping of fresh, juicy oranges reminds us that mandarins are perhaps most delicious and beautiful in their purest state.
*Maybe next time… Like apricots, oranges get tangier as they cook, and with the small amount of sugar in this recipe, the result here is a quite tart, not-too-sweet dessert. If you want a sweeter cheesecake, try reducing the amount of orange segments you embed in it, and add another 1/4 cup sugar. (I chose powdered sugar for its texture and the corn starch in it, creating a smooth, firm cheesecake — but if you add more sugar, I suggest using granulated sugar for the extra portion; this cheesecake doesn’t need the additional firmness that more corn starch would add.) The scraped seeds of a few vanilla beans would be a delectable addition to both the crust and batter of this dessert, and if you like the idea of more than a trace of spice, another dash or two of cloves would also add some welcome flavor. Likewise, the addition of finely grated orange zest always bumps up the citrus scrumptiousness.