Krystle Swenson’s journey as a pastry chef has been an improbable one – launched by the unfamiliar smells of the kitchen – that took her away from her small hometown in Hawaii to one of Raleigh’s most acclaimed restaurants.
“I was in art class in school; it was right next to food service class,” Swenson said. “I got a whiff of baking and pastry, and I was hooked.”
Today, Swenson, 31, is the pastry chef at Crawford and Son, the downtown Raleigh restaurant owned by celebrated chef Scott Crawford.
She was reminded of this journey, and her early career beginnings, this fall when her parents traveled from Hawaii to visit their daughter in Raleigh.
“My parents ate at Crawford and Son every night,” she said with pride. “It was remarkable to have them experience what I do, and the fruit of their support.”
To mark the occasion, Swenson made pumpkin cheesecake, a dish layered with symbolism that showcases a staple of fall in North Carolina.
From a distance, it appears to be a familiar dessert injected with creative autumnal musings. But closer scrutiny reveals it’s a textured tribute to her formative home in Hawaii and her adopted home of Raleigh.
With roasted kabocha squash (bought from the State Farmers Market), caramel and pecans, the flavors of the season are on full display, yet Swenson uses vivid family tradition as her culinary guide post.
“Growing up in Hawaii, we would purchase a pumpkin cheesecake from Costco for Thanksgiving,” she said, a sense of nostalgia detected in her voice. “I don’t think my parents ever had a cheesecake that I’ve personally made for them.”
Her family’s constant encouragement, and how they supported her every career decision, made her move farther away from her home of Kaneohe in Oahu not only possible but also full of promise.
Because that first interaction with the culinary arts in high school birthed a curiosity in Swenson that never has waned. She describes being rapt by the methodologies of baking, how chemistry and creativity seamlessly came together, to produce the most delicious results. She also credits well-intentioned teachers who continuously prodded her professional interest.
After high school, she continued her education at Kapiolani Community College, where she landed a coveted spot on the Competition Team. Her chops in the kitchen and teachable nature stood out to one of the judges, and he offered her a job in his hotel, The Inn at Spanish Bay at Pebble Beach in Monterey, Calif.
After seven years in California, Swenson turned her sights to Chicago to work under the tutelage of enterprising pastry chef Dana Cree, a James Beard Award finalist, at Blackbird Restaurant. From there, in a series of fortuitous events – encompassing professional growth and newfound love – Swenson moved to Raleigh to work with Crawford at the new Standard Foods. She then moved with him when he opened Crawford and Son.
“When I decided to move to Raleigh and work for Chef Crawford, I also realized I was moving farther from Hawaii,” Swenson said.
“My parents were incredibly supportive,” Swenson said. “I would never have made it anywhere without them.”
To have them come to Raleigh and see how far Swenson has come, literally and figuratively, made that pumpkin cheesecake all the more special.
The creation underscores the effortlessness that comes when you create a showstopper of a dessert designed to please the people you love best in this world. All the elements work together, including a measured seductiveness coming from the smoked pecans, which is balanced by the crème fraîche.
Of all the dishes her family sampled at Crawford and Son, the pumpkin cheesecake emerged the victor.
“My parents crushed it,” Swenson said.
After Crawford sampled the dessert, there was no disputing its place on menu.
For in a cheesecake – one that could be replicated in any home kitchen – the diner not only gets an inspired taste of the season, but a front-row experience to how a close-knit family from Hawaii is brought even closer.
Brigid Washington is the Raleigh-based author of “Coconut. Ginger. Shrimp. Rum.” She can be found on Instagram at @withbrigid.
Kabocha Pumpkin Cheesecake
Allow all ingredients to come to room temperature before making the cheesecake batter to yield a smoother and more consistent batter. If you don’t have access to kabocha pumpkin, which can be found at the State Farmers Market, it can be substituted for butternut squash or canned pumpkin puree, not to be confused with canned pumpkin pie filling. Greek yogurt or sour cream can be substituted for the crème fraîche in the same amoung. Pair the cheesecake with your favorite ice cream or whipped cream.
For the crust:
1 1⁄2 cup graham cracker crumbs
1⁄4 cup dark brown sugar
1⁄2 teaspoon kosher salt
4 tablespoons butter, melted
For the kabocha cheesecake:
1 small kabocha pumpkin (see below to prep for puree)
1 pound (8 ounces) cream cheese, softened
1 cup dark brown sugar
1⁄4 cup sugar
1 cup kabocha puree
1⁄2 cup crème fraîche
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1⁄4 teaspoon ground allspice
To make the crust: In a medium bowl, combine all ingredients and toss to combine. Press the crumb mixture into a 9-inch spring-form cake pan. Bake at 325 degrees for 5 minutes and allow to cool.
To make the cheesecake: Cut the kabocha in half and place on a pan lined with parchment paper. Roast in a 350-degree oven for 1 hour or until tender.
Scoop out the pumpkin flesh, remove the skin and seeds. Process in a food processor until smooth.
Then, in an electric mixer, combine the cream cheese, dark brown sugar and sugar on medium speed with the paddle attachment until smooth and no lumps remain. Use a plastic spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl.
Add in the eggs one at a time until thoroughly combined. Add the kabocha puree, vanilla extract and the crème fraîche. Sift together the flour, salt and spices. Add them to the batter until combined, but be sure not to overmix the batter after the flour has been added.
Transfer the batter to the prepared cake pan. Place the cake pan in a larger pan, fill the larger pan with hot water until the water comes up to 1⁄3 the height of the cake pan. Bake at 325 degrees for 1 hour. The cheesecake should have a slight jiggle in the center and be slightly golden brown on top. Allow to completely cool before serving.