These cheesecake bars were inspired by Dad. No, not my Dads (yes, I have two), but Dad. You know, the archetypal, everyman version of Dad. He’s that guy in ads manning the grill, fixing the car, and riding the lawn mower. You’ve seen him around, right? In my mind, he’s a man’s man who can be gruff yet distinguished and he has a distinct habit, like smoking cigars or drinking whiskey neat. And, like most every other man I know, he loves cheesecake. So, this dessert is for him because it’s got all those flavors and I just know he’d approve. It’s a cheesecake bar made with all those Dad elements — a base of toasty pecan shortbread that gets topped with a whiskey caramel and a good dash of smoked sea salt.
toasted and finely chopped
For the shortbread: Heat the oven to 350°F and arrange a rack in middle. Butter an 8 by 8-inch baking dish then line with parchement paper or aluminum foil, leaving a few inches of overhang on each side. Combine 3/4 cup of the pecans with the 1/2 cup of sugar, and 1 teaspoon of the kosher salt in a food processor. Pulse until the nuts are a coarse meal. Add the flour and process until it's a fine meal and evenly mixed. Cut 8 tablespoons of the butter into small cubes, add it, and pulse until the mixture comes together in a clump. Press the mixture evenly into the prepared baking dish and bake until lightly golden, about 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool at least 25 to 30 minutes before continuing. Meanwhile, make the filling.
Shortbread can be made up to 4 days ahead of time.
For the cheesecake: Combine the cream cheese and 1 cup of the sugar in in bowl of a food processor and process until the mixture is smooth. Scrape down the sides of the processor then add the eggs and the yolk one at a time. Add the vanilla extract and 1/2 teaspon of the kosher salt and pulse until blended.
Pour the mixture over the shortbread and bake until a toothpick or cake tester inserted into the cake comes out clean and the center of the cheesecake is just set (it will look like custard), about 40 minutes. Turn off the oven, leave the door slightly ajar, and let the cheesecake cool for 15 minutes.
Remove cheesecake from the oven and set on a rack to cool. Coat a butter knife with oil or butter (or run it under very hot water) and then run it around the perimeter of the cheesecake. Let the cheesecake cool completely, about 1 hour
For the caramel sauce: Once the cheesecake is cool, make the caramel. Stir together the remaining 1 cup of the sugar and water in a small saucepan until the sugar is completely moistened. Brush the insides of the saucepan with a wet pastry brush to remove any sugar granules then place the pan over medium-high heat and bring to a boil.
Without stirring but swirling the pan occasionally, let the sugar boil until it turns turns amber in color, about 5 minutes. Give the pan a few good swirls to make sure it’s evenly cooking, remove from heat, and carefully add the whiskey. (The caramel will seize but just keep swirling the pan until the alcohol smell is cooked off.) Immediately add the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and cream, and swirl until the caramel is smooth and uniform in color. Set aside to cool to room temperature, at least out 15 minutes.
Use a good-quality (but not super top) whiskey and something with a bit of smokiness.
To assemble: Pour the lukewarm caramel over the cooled cheesecake, then place in the refrigerator to chill for a minimum of 2 hours. When ready to serve, cut into slabs or squares using a sharp knife dipped in hot water. Garnish with sea salt and serve.
The bars can be tricky to cut since it’s so many different textures. The keys are: working in a cold room, use a sharp knife, and dip it in very hot water. To do so, fill a shallow dish or glass with very hot water, dip the knife, then quickly wipe it clean, and cut away. I found using a slicing or serrated knife and a gently sawing motion works best.
Food styling by Aida Mollenkamp // Photography by Christopher Kalima