This was the first week in ages that we haven't had all kinds of sweet treats hanging around the house. I've baked very little recently and the things that have been made have all been wrapped up and out the door almost immediately. We keep a secret stash of Reese's for these dire dessert situations but they weren't cutting it. It was a situation that needed to be remedied, and for once, I didn't waffle for hours over the decision about what to make. I'd flagged these caramel cheesecake bars a while ago and thanks to a recent trip to BJ's and an impulse purchase of several pounds of cream cheese, I was good to go.
These salted caramel cheesecake bars were the perfect dessert to end the drought. The base is a crisp, buttery shortbread which is topped with a vanilla cheesecake batter marbled with salted caramel sauce. The bars satisfy just about every craving you might have - salty? check. sweet? check. creamy? check. What more could you ask for? Despite having several components they're actually pretty easy to put together too. I recommend making the caramel sauce before you get started on the crust or the filling so you won't be standing over a bowl of steaming hot caramel impatiently waiting for it cool enough to use in the filling (which definitely never happened here :) ). You could even make it a few days ahead of time that way and stick it in the fridge so it's ready to go when you are. Then the only thing you have to worry about is resisting the temptation to grab a spoonful every time you walk through the kitchen. An added bonus: the cheesecake bars improve as they age so no rush to eat them all the day they're made. Whip them up over the weekend and you've got dessert for the week!
Salted Caramel Cheesecake Bars
adapted from Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy by Alice Medrich
14 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and still warm
1/2 cup (3.5 oz) sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3/8 teaspoon salt
2 cups (9 oz) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup caramel sauce (recipe below) (or use store bought)
1 1/2 lbs cream cheese, at room temperature
1/4 cup (1.75 oz) sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 large eggs, at room temperature
To make the crust: Preheat oven to 350 F with a rack in the lower third of the oven. Line a 13x9 baking pan with foil, leaving an overhang so you can lift the bars out after they've baked. Spray the foil with nonstick cooking spray.
Combine the melted butter, sugar, vanilla and salt in a medium bowl. Stir in the flour until just incorporated - the mixture will be soft, that's fine. Transfer the mixture to the prepared baking pan and press into an even layer on the bottom of the pan. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown. Let cool completely. Turn the oven down to 325 F.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese on medium speed until smooth, about 30 seconds. Scrape down the sides of the bowl then add the sugar and vanilla, beating until smooth and creamy, about 1-2 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating just until incorporated and scraping down the sides of the bowl in between. Transfer 2 tablespoons of this batter to the 1/2 cup of caramel sauce and stir to incorporate. Pour the remaining cheesecake batter over the cooled crust and spread evenly.
Dollop the caramel sauce mixture over the filling (I didn't end up using all of the caramel). Use a toothpick to gently marble the caramel - be careful not to scrape the crust while you are doing it. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the edges are puffed and the center is just barely set.
Transfer the pan to a cooling rack and let come to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, but preferably 24. Use the foil sling to lift the bars out of the pan and transfer to a cutting board. Cut into squares with a long sharp knife. The bars can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 4 days.
Salted Caramel Sauce
adapted from Cook's Illustrated
2 cups sugar
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
1 teaspoon grey sea salt
Add 1 cup of water to a 2-qt saucepan. Gently add the sugar to the center of the pot - it will mound, that's fine. Cover the pot and bring to a boil over high heat. Once boiling, uncover the pot and insert a candy thermometer. Continue cooking until the mixture registers 300 F and is just starting to develop some color, about 15 minutes. Reduce heat under the pot to medium and cook until the syrup is amber and registers 350 F on the thermometer, about another 5 minutes. Meanwhile, pour the cream into a small saucepan and bring to a simmer. If it simmers before the syrup is ready, just take it off the heat and set aside.
Remove the caramel from the heat and add about 1/4 of the warm cream to the pot. It will bubble furiously so be careful. Once the bubbling subsides, add the remaining cream. When it stops bubbling, whisk gently to incorporate fully. Add the butter and the salt and whisk to combine.
Set aside 1/2 cup of the salted caramel sauce for the cheesecake bars. The remainder can be refrigerated for up to 1 month.
Makes about 2 cups