Why It Works
- Blending the sweet potato and cream cheese in a food processor for several minutes does more than just mix them, it guarantees a perfectly smooth texture.
- The addition of corn syrup or Lyle’s golden syrup to the maple-walnut caramel sauce ensures it won't crystallize as it cools.
Here in the northern hemisphere, the autumnal equinox marks the beginning of fall. Daylight wanes, the sun travels south for the winter, and pumpkin spice mania slowly descends upon all. Like pumpkins, sweet potatoes are another fixture on the holiday table: We enjoy them boiled, mashed, roasted, fried, and in the American South, in pie.
It’s hard to match a classic like sweet potato pie. Earthy, rich, fragrant, but surprisingly light in texture, it’s the perfect ending to otherwise heavy meals during Thanksgiving and Christmas. Still, sweet potatoes are great for more than just pie. Their sweet, caramel-like aroma and creamy texture lend themselves to desserts like pudding, fudge, cake, and even ice cream. So how about cheesecake? And not just your run-of-the-mill, paltry slice of cheesecake: A huge slab of cheesecake brimming with sweet potato flavor, drenched in caramel sauce just because you can.
The foundations of this cheesecake come from Stella Parks’s iconic recipes for Epic New York Style Cheesecake and Lemon-Ricotta Cheesecake. Instead of goat cheese or ricotta, I substitute fifty percent of the “cheese” in the cheesecake with roasted sweet potatoes. In fact, this is a great place to use frozen roasted sweet potatoes, which are sweeter and more intensely flavored than traditionally roasted or boiled sweet potatoes. In order to blend the cream cheese and sweet potatoes into a seamless mixture, I use a food processor, which keeps the texture uniform and well emulsified, and limits air pockets in the baked cheesecake.
Blending Sweet Potatoes for the Smoothest Texture
Because sweet potatoes are relatively starchy and grainy, it’s important to blend the mixture in the food processor for several minutes. This extended processing isn't just mixing; it results in a much smoother texture that's unachievable using a stand mixer. In addition, the bulk of the sweetness in this recipe comes from maple syrup, which improves that smoothness by thinning out the batter slightly as it blends. (The syrup also complements the earthiness of the sweet potatoes in a classic, seasonally appropriate way.)
As with Stella’s lemon-ricotta cheesecake, I found it was best to bake it low and slow at 225°F. This moderate temperature produces a dense cheesecake with a silky, more uniform texture. The cheesecake finishes baking when the center reaches an internal temperature of 155°F, at which point the edges are set but the center is still wobbly.
A Luxurious Finishing Touch
While this cheesecake is delicious in its own right, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to gild the lily, so I top the cheesecake with a generous helping of caramel sauce made with maple syrup and toasted walnuts, which cascades down the sides of the cheesecake. Because maple syrup is mostly sucrose, it has a tendency to recrystallize as it cools if you cook it, turning the sauce grainy and opaque. Using an invert sugar such as light corn syrup or Lyle’s golden syrup helps to curb that effect, and the sauce will stay smooth and glossy. Eaten together, this combination of sweet potato cheesecake and caramel lives up to the standards of any great holiday dessert: It’s comforting, it’s satisfying, it’s somehow nostalgic. And you’ll probably need to take a walk in your sweatpants after finishing it.
- For the Cookie Crust:
- 9 ounces (about 2 cups; 250g) fine cookie crumbs, store-bought or homemade, such as gingerbread, gingersnaps, Biscoff, or graham crackers
- 1 ounce (about 2 tablespoons; 30g) unsalted butter, melted
- Pinch of salt
- For the Cheesecake:
- 6 large eggs (about 10 1/2 ounces; 300g)
- 6 1/4 ounces (3/4 cup; 175g) heavy cream
- 24 ounces (about 3 cups; 680g) full-fat cream cheese, such as Philadelphia, brought to about 70°F (21°C)
- 24 ounces (about 3 cups; 680g) roasted sweet potato flesh (from about 2 to 3 Garnet sweet potatoes), brought to about 70°F (21°C), see note
- 11 ounces (about 1 cup; 310g) maple syrup
- 5 1/3 ounces (about 3/4 cups; 150g) plain granulated or toasted sugar
- 1/2 ounce (about 1 tablespoon; 15g) vanilla extract
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 1/4 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use about half as much by volume
- For the Maple-Walnut Caramel:
- 11 ounces (about 1 cup; 310g) maple syrup
- 4 1/4 ounces (1/2 cup; 120g) heavy cream
- 2 tablespoons (30g) light corn syrup or golden syrup, such as Lyle's
- 1/2 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use about half as much by volume
- 3 ounces (about 3/4 cup; 85g) toasted walnut halves, coarsely chopped
For the Cookie Crust: If using a two-piece pan, wrap the bottom piece in foil before assembly, then tear away the excess so the pan sits flat. If using a traditional cake pan, line the bottom with a parchment round (explanation and tutorial here). In either case, lightly grease the pan.
Add the cookie crumbs, melted butter, and salt to the pan, and stir with a fork until well combined. If needed, season to taste with additional salt. With your fingers, compress into an even layer along the bottom of the pan. The mixture may seem drier than you might expect, but it will absorb moisture from the cheesecake as it bakes.
For the Cheesecake: Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat to 225°F (110°C). In a medium bowl, whisk eggs and cream until smooth, then set aside.
Combine cream cheese, sweet potatoes, maple syrup, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt in the bowl of a 14-cup food processor (see note) and process until relatively smooth, pausing to scrape the bowl as needed to dislodge any pieces of cream cheese that do not initially incorporate. Continue to process until mixture is soft and ultra-smooth, about 4 minutes longer.
With processor running, slowly pour in egg mixture and process until well combined, about 30 seconds.
Pour batter into prepared pan and place on a rimmed baking sheet. Bounce the back of a spoon across the surface to dislodge any air bubbles in the batter. If you don't see any, no need to continue. If you do notice a few rising up, keep bouncing the spoon until they're gone.
Bake until the cheesecake feels firm around the edges, though the innermost ring of cheesecake will wobble when you shake the pan. This softer zone should be no more than 3 inches across. The cheesecake will be done when an instant-read thermometer inserted into the very center of the cheesecake registers 155°F (68°C). (Testing with a thermometer will not cause the cheesecake to crack; cracking is the result of over-baking and nothing more.) In an accurate oven, with an 8- by 4-inch aluminum pan, the cheesecake will bake in about 2 1/2 hours. Please be aware the bake time will vary, perhaps substantially, according to the accuracy of the oven's temperature, pan style, batter temperature, and other factors. Cool the cheesecake at least 1 hour (or up to 4) before covering it to refrigerate until cold to the core, at least 12 hours.
For the Maple-Walnut Caramel Sauce: In a 3-quart stainless steel saucier, combine maple syrup, corn or golden syrup, and salt over medium high heat. Bring mixture to a boil, then simmer, shaking and swirling as needed to ensure even caramelization, until syrup is medium amber and registers 238°F (114°C), 5 minutes to 7 minutes. Immediately add cream and reduce heat to medium-low.
Stirring constantly with a heat-resistant spatula to knock back the foam, simmer until caramel registers 225°F (107°C) on an instant-read thermometer, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a heat-resistant container, stir in walnuts, and cool to room temperature. Caramel will be runny while warm, but thicken as it cools, turning just a little chewy when cold. Refrigerate up to 1 month in an airtight container.
To Unmold the Cheesecake From a Two-Piece Cake Pan: Loosen the sides of the cheesecake from the pan with a thin knife or offset spatula. Place the pan on a large can of tomatoes or a similarly sized object (something tall enough to lift the cheesecake 4 inches from the counter, and wide enough to form a stable base). With both hands on the sides of the pan, pull downward to drop the outer ring away from the bottom. Place the cake onto a flat work surface, loosen it from the bottom of the pan with an offset spatula, and transfer to a large, flat serving plate. Cover with plastic and refrigerate until needed, up to 10 days.
To Unmold the Cheesecake From a Traditional Cake Pan: Loosen the sides of the cheesecake from the pan with a thin knife or offset spatula. Stand the cake in a few inches of scalding hot water until the pan feels warm (a roasting pan works well for this). Drape the cake in plastic wrap to protect its surface and then invert onto a large, flat plate. Lift the pan to pull it away. It should slide free without any resistance; if not, continue standing in hot water a few minutes more. After removing the pan, peel the parchment from the crust, and re-invert the cheesecake onto a serving plate. Cover with plastic and refrigerate until needed, up to 10 days.
To Serve: Pour chilled maple walnut caramel sauce over cheesecake (if too thick, let sauce stand at room temperature until it reaches a more pourable consistency). Cut the cheesecake with a large chef's knife dipped in hot water; for clean and tidy portions of cheesecake, pause to clean the blade under hot running water between each slice. Serve with extra sauce.
This recipe requires an 8- by 4-inch nonreactive aluminum pan, preferably of a non-latching, two-piece style, such as this one. Otherwise, a traditional cake pan of those dimensions will work, with a touch more effort to unmold. Of course, cheesecake can be baked in any size or style of pan, but the volume of batter, target temperatures, and times will require individual adjustments, which have not been tested here.
Food processor (see notes).
This recipe works best with moist sweet potato varieties such as Garnet, Jewel, or Beauregard. If you use dry sweet potato varieties, the texture will be more grainy and cake-like. While you can use our preferred frozen-roasting method linked to in the ingredient list to cook the sweet potatoes, you can also simply roast them following these instructions: Adjust oven rack to center position. Place 1 large sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil on a work surface. Place potatoes in center, fold up foil and crimp edges to seal tightly. Transfer pouches to a rimmed baking sheet and place in oven. Set oven to 300°F (150°C). Roast until a thin skewer inserted into potatoes meets no resistance, about 2 hours. Remove potatoes from oven and set aside until cool enough to handle.
The volume of batter in this recipe will overwhelm mini-choppers as well as food processors with a "thick liquid" max-fill line of less than 10-cups.
Make-Ahead and Storage
In an airtight container, the cheesecake batter can be refrigerated up to one week and used straight from the fridge.
Wrapped in plastic, the finished cheesecake will keep well for about 10 days in the fridge.