I have been lucky to have a steady stream of local apples coming in my CSA boxes this fall; Honeycrisp, Ginger Gold, Pazazz and Pink Lady varieties all made appearances at one point or another. We quickly realized that the quantity typically on hand was far beyond that comfortably snacked on by two people, so I started cooking and baking. I made my favorite apple crisp and apple jam, a lovely bread pudding and some waffles, even savory chicken and cabbage dishes. (Stay tuned for the braised chicken dish, one of the best meals I have made this fall.) In the course of researching more apple recipes, I kept running into one thing that I really wanted to make: cheesecake with apple topping. It just sounds so good! I couldn’t justify making an entire cheesecake for two people, so I played around with my recipe for cheesecake bars and came up with this version, featuring apple cider caramel sauce and the last of my Honeycrisps. The bars now join the ranks of apple recipes I will look forward to making this time of year.
So, let’s talk about the crust for a minute. I have a soft spot for Anna’s brand Swedish cookies, particularly the almond and ginger thins. I had a box of almond thins in the cupboard I bought for an icebox cake idea that never materialized, and no graham crackers in sight– and so the crust for these was made with cookies, and it was delicious. Grahams, store-bought or homemade, would work just as well. As for the caramel, I had apple cider caramel sauce left over from a batch I made to barter, so you could make some of that to use (it’s worth it– the cider flavor in the caramel amplifies the apple flavor of the topping beautifully) or substitute any sauce of your preference. Light or dark, salted or not, cider-based or traditional– it will all work. (If you’re in Seattle, I highly recommend the sea salt caramel sauce from Hot Cakes, which I have seen for sale at Sur La Table and PCC as well as the HC shop in Ballard. It’s stellar stuff.) I guess what I am trying to get at is that these bars are a lovely shortcut to a more complicated dessert (a full cheesecake) and I would hate for them to become tedious for you. They’re supposed to be a treat, not lots of work. Use what you have or what you like to simplify an already simplified recipe.
As a treat, they rank pretty high on my list of new favorites. They are sweet but not overly so and a small square goes a long way. The apple provides some texture and is a nice contrast to the creamy, dreamy cheesecake part. As I mentioned above, the crust and caramel sauce can be adapted to your pantry or preferences, to some degree. And, perhaps most important, they taste very good. If your Thanksgiving meal includes a dessert buffet, as many do, these caramel apple cheesecake bars would be right at home. They turned out just how I wanted and I think you will like them, too.
Caramel Apple Cheesecake Bars (makes 16-20 bars)
For the crust:
- 1 package of Anna’s almond cookies, crushed OR 1 package of graham crackers, crushed (about 1 1/2 c. crumbs)*
- 3 T. unsalted butter, melted
For the filling:
- 8 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature
- 3 T. sugar
- 2 eggs, whisked slightly
- 1 tsp. vanilla
- 1/8 tsp. cinnamon
For the topping:
- 1 T. unsalted butter
- 2 c. diced apples, from 1 – 2 peeled, cored apples (Honeycrisp or Cameo work well)
- 1 tsp. cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp. ginger
- 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
- dash of salt
- 1/4 – 1/3 c. caramel sauce, at room temperature
Preheat your oven to 325 degrees. Line an 8″ x 8″ ceramic or Pyrex baking dish with foil and set aside.
In a medium bowl, combine the crushed cookies or grahams with 3 T. melted butter; use a fork to mash until the mixture is slightly crumbly but starting to hold together when you press on it. Transfer the crust mixture into the foil-lined pan and use a spoon, your hand or the bottom of a drinking glass to carefully press it into an even layer. It may be necessary to lightly oil the spoon/hand/glass so it does not get coated with the crumbs you want in your crust. Set aside.
Make the topping next so it cools while you make the filling. In a small skillet, melt the remaining 1 T. butter over medium heat and add the apples; cook for 7-10 mins. over medium heat until the apples start to soften. Mix in the cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and pinch of salt and cook for another minute or two. Remember that the apples will soften further in the oven, so you’re not looking for them to be completely “done”. Remove the skillet from the heat and set aside to cool slightly; 10 mins. is sufficient.
In another medium bowl, stir together the cream cheese and sugar. Use a whisk to incorporate the eggs, just until combined, and then fold in the vanilla and cinnamon. The mixture will be on the soupy side and should pour fairly easily. Use a spatula, or simply tilt the pan back and forth, to even out your cheesecake layer over the crust and get into the corners. Gently dollop the apples over the top of the cheesecake; they won’t cover completely, so make sure you get some into the edges and across the surface in an even layer. Pour any juice/sauce from the bottom of the skillet over the top.
Bake for 25-30 mins., until a toothpick inserted into the cheesecake layer comes out clean and the filling doesn’t jiggle when you rock the pan gently. Cool for 15 mins. If your caramel sauce is not at room temperature at this time, microwave it in 10 second increments or place in a pan of warm water until it can be poured. (Don’t allow it to become molten! You are liable to get burned and sometimes can change the consistency of the caramel with overcooking.) Drizzle the caramel sauce over the still-warm bars and then tilt the pan (which may still be warm, so be careful) gently to spread the caramel. Allow the cheesecake bars to cool to room temperature; once at room temperature, cover with plastic wrap or tin foil and chill thoroughly in the refrigerator, for at least 2 hours. The caramel sauce will seep into the filling around the apples; this is why it’s not necessary to sweeten the apples in the skillet. Your bars can be served as-is or with a small extra drizzle of caramel sauce. Enjoy!
*This is fairly forgiving, plus or minus about a half cup. Don’t sweat over a small amount of extra crumbs, or a few short. You can also use homemade grahams.