Dulce de Leche Cheesecake Bars

Okay, so I know a whole bunch of us are probably just starting out on some crazy New Year's diets or are giving up sugar or just generally trying to be "good" lately (what does that even mean, anyway?). Perhaps you even found one of my more virtuous recipes speaking to you earlier this week. But like a smoking hot Ryan Gosling sidling up to a nun at a lonely, desolate airport bar, it's just so FUN to walk on the edge sometimes, isn't it?

So I don't want to hear about what you're trying to avoid these days, my darlings. Don't think about what you shouldn't be eating. Think about the snap of a buttery shortbread crust and a creamy cheesecake layer swirled with milky caramel. Just--shh-shhhh, my love. Don't speak. Dulce de Leche Cheesecake Bars. Just let it happen.

This recipe is from the ever-seductive Alice Medrich. Her recipe calls for store-bought or homemade caramel sauce, either of which sounds a-ok to me, particularly when coupled with cheesecake. But I happened to get my hot little hands on a big ol' jar of artisan dulce de leche, and the whole thing felt so right I just couldn't say no.

It all started with the world's simplest shortbread crust, which was an absolutely joy to throw together. Even though the whole thing came together so quickly, I still can't stop flipping out at the incredible snap this crust had, days after the bars had been baked.

And yes, that's right, I said days. This is one of those amazing recipes that only get better in the days after you bake it--the cheesecake texture improves, the caramel flavors meld into the creamy layer, the crust becomes even more divine beneath it all. They go down waaaay too easy. Especially considering that this recipe yields enough cheesecake bars to feed an army and one is expected to revamp one's diet on January 1st. Aw, well. There's always next year.

Dulce de Leche Cheesecake Bars
Adapted from Alice Medrich's Chewy, Gooey, Crispy, Crunchy, Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cookies

For the cheesecake layer, I found it needed more sugar to suit my taste than the original recipe called for, so I added another 2 tablespoons and have made the change in this adapted recipe.

I used dulce le leche here, but any good store-bought caramel sauce (or homemade, for that matter) will work just fine.
If at all possible, make these the day before you're going to serve them--the texture of the cheesecake just keeps getting better and better as it sits in the fridge.

Makes 2-3 dozen, depending on size

For the crust:

14 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and still warm
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups all-purpose flour

For the dulce de leche swirl:

1/2 cup dulce de leche (see note)
1/8 teaspoon salt

For the cheesecake layer:

1 1/2 pounds cream cheese, at room temperature
6 tablespoons sugar
1 1 /2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs, at room temperature

Being by making the crust: Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat it to 350 degrees. Line a 9x13-inch baking pan completely with foil, folding the excess over the sides.

In a medium bowl, mix together the melted butter, sugar, vanilla and salt. Add the flour and mix just to combine--the dough will be soft, and might be somewhat oily, that's okay. Press the dough evenly across the bottom of the prepared pan. Bake for about 20-25 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown, with the edges being slightly darker than the center. Let cool on a wire rack.

While the crust is cooling, prepare the rest of the recipe. Lower the oven temperature to 325 degrees. Stir together the dulce de leche with the salt and set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese until smooth and creamy on medium speed. Beat in the sugar and vanilla. Beat in the eggs one at a time. Scrape down the bowl well and give it a final beating until the batter is completely smooth and well-blended. Stir 2 tablespoons of the cheesecake batter into the salted dulce de leche.

Pour the remaining cheesecake batter over the cooled crust. Dollop the dulce de leche mixture over the cheesecake batter, leaving plenty of cheesecake batter in between. Using a butter knife, and being careful not to scrape the crust, swirl the dulce de leche into the cheesecake batter in small loopy circles until the surface is nicely marbled. Bake for 20-30 minutes, or until the filling is puffed but still jiggles like Jell-O when the pan is nudged.

Set the pan on a cooling rack and let cool completely. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours but preferably 24 hours before cutting into squares and serving. Keep any leftovers refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 4 days.

BarsShauna Sever