Imbalanced Salted Caramel Cheesecake

At the core of yoga practice is the concept of balance. Take Warrior Ipose. Strength in the legs – “hugging muscles to the bones” and maintaining alignment – allow for the freedom to lift your arms and bend back with the top half of your body. In the space in between these complimentary actions, we find balance. The idea is you practice balance with your body and mind in class and some of that balance carries over into life outside the yoga studio.

What does this have to do with cooking? One word: salt. Salt has the ability to transform a dish into something sublime, but a few more grains can carry the same dish it into the territory of the inedible, the imbalanced. Salt can enhance or become an overwhelming flavor in and of itself. In my estimation, it is the most important ingredient in my kitchen. However, it is only useful if you can find balance – not too much, not too little.

Take, for example, the salted caramel cheesecake I made for Scott’s birthday this weekend. This recipe is part of a trend to add salt to desserts. Some flakes of sea salt on chocolate toffee cookies add another dimension of flavor; and salt on caramel brings out the subtle flavors of cream, butter and vanilla while tempering the sweetness. After much deliberation and taste testing, the cheesecake recipe needs more balanced use of salt. The crust is overly salty. The filling could use a little less salt as well. I love the concept. I love caramel. The idea of using dulce de leche in a cheesecake filling is brilliant. It just needs more balance in the salt department.  I am not sure what that is, however. I am more than happy to keep experimenting because, even though I think the flavor needs some work, it is still a rich and decadent cheesecake.

Salted Caramel Cheesecake with less salt and a vanilla variation

Serves serves about 10-12 people
For the crust:
About 15 graham crackers
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 stick unsalted butter, melted
1 1/4 teaspoons sea salt (I used this amount. When I make this again, I will try 1/2 teaspoon instead. You must use sea salt or kosher salt, NOT table salt.)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. In a food processor, grind graham crackers to crumbs. (If you’re using premade crumbs, you want about 8 oz or 2 cups, and you’ll want to do all these steps in a bowl.) Add sugar and salt and pulse to combine. With motor running, add butter through feed tube. Process for another few seconds until combined.
Transfer the mixture to a 9” – 10” (I used a 9 1/2″) springform pan sprayed with cooking spray. Pat crumb mixture into the bottom of the pan, and up the sides about 2”. Don’t worry if it’s not perfectly even around the top; you just want to be sure it’s deep enough to hold all the cheesecake mixture.
Bake crust until slightly brown. You’ll just be able to smell it. This will take anywhere from 8-10 minutes. Remove crust from the oven and allow to cool on a rack. Reduce oven temperature to 300 degrees F.
For the cheesecake:
3 8oz packages cream cheese, at room temperature (I used Neufchatel cream cheese)
1 13.4 oz. can dulce de leche (I found this in the baking aisle with the evaporated milk)
2 tablespoons all purpose flour
3 teaspoons sea salt (I used this amount. When I making this again, I will try 2 teaspoons instead. You must use sea salt or kosher salt, NOT table salt.)
1 1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
4 large eggs, at room temperature
In a stand mixture fitted with the paddle attachment beat cream cheese until smooth, add dulce de leche and beat to combine.
Add flour and salt, beat to combine, stopping to scrape down the sides as necessary. Beat until smooth and fluffy, about 5 minutes. There should be no lumps.
Add the sugar and beat to combine.
Add the vanilla, and then beat in the eggs one at a time until just combined, about 30 seconds each. Don’t overbeat once the eggs are added; the cheesecake will puff up too much while baking, and the top will crack.
Pour the cream cheese mixture into the cooled crust and smooth the top.
Bake at 300 degrees F for 55 – 65 minutes. The center will seem to be only slightly set, and will be SLIGHTLY wobbly if you nudge it. The sides will puff slightly. (I baked mine for 1 hour and 15 minutes and it was still slightly runny at the very center).
Cool completely on a rack, then cover and refrigerate 8 hours or overnight (I have gotten away with a 5 hour cooling, but I was on edge that it wouldn’t turn out; overnight is really best). When I put it in the refrigerator to set up, I remove the ring from my springform, and put the cheesecake on a cake stand. You can leave it in the springform if you don’t have a cake stand.
For the caramel:
½ cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons water
½ cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons butter
pinch of salt
seeds scraped from 1/2 vanilla bean (The original recipe calls for vanilla extract which I was out of so I used the vanilla bean. With this change, this is the best caramel sauce I have made.)
In a large saucepan over medium heat, combine the sugar and water. Swirl to combine. All those warnings about stirring caramel and brushing down the sides of the pan with a wet pastry brush to avoid crystal formation? I avoid all that by just never stirring it at all. If I need to move it around the pan, I just swirl it.
Continue cooking until the sugar turns golden brown, swirling occasionally. You’re looking for something that’s about the color of dark honey. The problem with caramel is that it goes from perfect to burnt in the blink of an eye, so just when you find yourself thinking, “Any second now…” pull it off the heat. It should take 3-5 minutes.
Off the heat, carefully add the butter, then the cream. Don’t wait until the butter is melted; toss in the butter, give it a whisk, then pour in the cream. It will foam up, seize, and otherwise look like a total failure. Persevere! Add the vanilla seeds and salt and continue whisking.
Return to medium low heat and whisk until smooth. (Added note: if your caramel is too thin, let it cook for awhile over a low heat. I’ve actually let it boil a bit–unintentionally–and just when I thought I’d ruined it, it turned out to be perfect.) Allow to cool slightly, about 15 minutes.
Remove cheesecake from the refrigerator and pour caramel over the top. I try to encourage mine to pool in the middle, but if you’re more of a drip-down-the-sides type, you can go with that. I just think the drippy makes sort of a mess on my cake stand, but maybe that doesn’t bother you.
Sprinkle top of cheesecake with flakes of sea salt.
Return the cheesecake to the refrigerator to let the caramel set, about 30 minutes. To serve, cut in slices (it’s pretty rich) with a sharp knife, wiping the blade clean after every slice.