Magic and Salted Caramel Pecan Cheesecakes
“Aunt Bobbi, is it done yet?”
I walked to the stove and peaked over my niece Bailey’s shoulder while she dutifully stirred the contents of the copper sauce pan. The short answer to her question was “no,” but I wanted her to figure it out on her own. Her question smacked slightly of impatience, that exuberant Christmas morning kind of impatience. Bailey and I had been baking together all day, yet it was one of the few times that I was reminded of our near thirty year age gap. Fond memories of childhood road trips to Sea World rushed at me, “Mom, are we there yet?”
“What’s the recipe say?” I prompted.
Bailey poked at the white mass with her spatula and glanced at the recipe next to her on the counter. “Let boil until amber in color.”
“So what do you think?” I asked.
“It’s all lumpy. And it’s not really boiling,” she said with a giggle and a wide, bright smile that somehow made her brilliant burnt orange hair glisten more than usual.
Judging from the white lumps in her pan, Bailey had a few more minutes of stirring before her sugar would be transformed into caramel. I’ve made caramel countless times over the years. Each and every time I marvel at the alchemy of a dry white solid becoming a silky liquid. This was Bailey’s first-ever batch of caramel, and I couldn’t wait to see the magic through her wide eyes.
Sharing the kitchen with Bailey felt more like baking with a girlfriend than with any twelve-year-old. For hours we’d whisked, stirred, tasted, and sang. Jason Aldean’s “country rap.” Lady Gaga. Pitbull. We had the Moves Like Jagger. Baby we were Fireworks. Together we rocked out a chocolate truffle cake, a pumpkin pie, and a walnut crostata. But this caramel and the petite pecan cheesecakes standing at attention awaiting their caramel caps were all Bailey’s.
“Aunt Bobbi, look! Look, it’s melting. The sugar is melting.”
“Keep stirring Bailey. You’re almost there.” Before our eyes the clear syrup began to gently bubble at the edges of the pan.
“It’s getting dark fast,” Bailey said. “Does that look like amber to you?”
“Yep, I think you’re there.”
Bailey turned off the heat under the pan. Relishing the rare occasion of being a sous chef in my own kitchen, I handed her the butter and cream that I’d measured out for her while she’d been patiently watching her bubbling pan. More whisking. More singing. Perhaps for Bailey the magic was fleeting though I knew it was a moment she’d not soon forget. For me, watching my niece thoughtfully drizzling her tiny cakes with gleaming caramel, the magic continued.
Salted Caramel Pecan Cheesecakes
2 cups pecans, lightly toasted and finely chopped
1/3 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
16 oz cream cheese
2/3 c. granulated sugar
1/4 cup heavy whipping cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large egg yolks
1 whole large egg
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon water
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1/2″ cubes
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
24 pecan halves, lightly toasted
Flaky sea salt for finishing (I used my favorite Maldon.)
2 mini cheesecake pans (If you only have one pan, bake the cakes in two batches. You can also bake some now; refrigerate the remaining ingredients; and bake the rest tomorrow. The filling will keep for a couple days in the refrigerator.)
- Preheat oven to 325°F.
- Combine the ingredients.
- Spoon a heaping tablespoon of the crust crumbs into the bottom of each mini cheesecake cell.
- Using the blunt end of a wooden spoon or similar, tamp the crumbs until firmly and evenly compacted.
- Bake for 8 minutes.
- Place the cream cheese and sugar in a large bowl and mix on medium/high speed until fluffy, about 2-3 minutes.
- Add the whipping cream and vanilla extract and beat until thoroughly blended. Add the egg yolks and egg and mix on low until just combined.
- Spoon the mixture on top of the crumb crusts leaving about a 1/2″ between the top of the filling and the top of the pan.
- Bake for 25 minutes or until the cheesecakes are firm to the touch. (They will puff up above the top of the pan. Don’t fret, they will sink as they cool, and the caramel will hide any and all imperfections.)
- Allow the cakes to completely cool on a wire rack before removing them from the pans.
- Combine the sugar and water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Let boil until amber in color, about 3 minutes.
- Remove from heat and stir in the butter until melted and fully incorporated. Then stir in cream. Let cool to room temperature.
- Drizzle caramel over cooled cheesecakes.
- Top with a toasted pecan half and a light sprinkle of sea salt.
Makes 24 mini (2″ diameter) cheesecakes.
*Note: If you lack the pans or the patience for the minis, you can make a single cheesecake using an 8″ springform pan.