Dulce de Leche Cheesecake Squares

Way back, when I was just a young Cub Scout, our troop had one of those Saturday trips to some exotic out of the way wilderness area that as an adult I realized was no more than a public park in an area of town I was not familiar with. In this particular instance that public park just happened to be less than a half-mile from my house. I guess I didn’t get out much as a kid. In any case, there we were, gathered together playing games or trying to tie knots or something. Meanwhile the scout leaders and parents sat in cushioned lounge chairs tending to the barbecue pit probably wishing they were somewhere fun as opposed to being stuck tending to us. On this particular outing we were told we needed to bring a can of soup with us for lunch, which we were informed would be made into a "Hobo Stew". Now before you start emailing me, this was a long time ago before politically correct terms were employed; also I did not name the stew nor at the time did I have any understanding of what the term “Hobo” even meant. Nowadays this would be commonly referred to as “community stew” or even “mulligan stew”, so you may know it by that name.

Now it should be said that even though we were told that our soup cans would be made into hobo stew, I don’t think any of us had any idea what that actually meant. As lunchtime neared we were called over to sit near the barbecue pit and when we were all gathered and quiet (that took some time) the scoutmaster started by telling us the story of “stone soup”. You know the one where a group of hungry travelers with nothing to their name except a large pot take a stone from the ground and some water from the community well and put it over a makeshift fire (don’t ask me how they lit the fire or where they got the firewood). As the villagers, who are unwilling to help the travelers, pass by the pot and ask what is cooking they are told that a delicious stone soup is being made. The villagers, in an effort to show they know more then ignorant travelers insist on “improving” the soup and one by one add something to the pot, (one adds potatoes, one adds carrots, one adds seasonings) until finally the stone is removed and the hungry travelers share the finished “hearty” soup with the villagers. It’s a classic story that is told in a few different ways but the gist is the same.

After that we were told the origins of "Hobo Stew" where during the depression in the homeless camps a large pot would be put over a fire and each person in the camp would be tasked with acquiring an ingredient. One person would have to find meat, another person potatoes, another person onions, etc… etc.… Then they would add whatever they acquired to the pot. Sometimes it was just scraps of food, or bones the butcher would otherwise toss out, but whatever it was would be cooked into a stew that they could all share. In hindsight I am pretty sure these stories were lessons on working together, helping those that are less fortunate, and the always popular, “it takes a village”. At the time though, I just sat and wondered why our lunch was being delayed. So there we were, all gathered around the pot, clutching our cans of soup, waiting to be able to heat it up and eat. The scoutmaster called up one of the kids and had him stand by the pot. He then told the kid to hold up the can he brought and call out the name of the soup. Then he handed it to the scoutmaster who opened the can and put it in the pot. The scoutmaster looked into the pot and said, “Ok that’s a good start”. Then he called up another kid, had him call out what soup he brought, opened his can and dumped it in to the pot as well! Holy Cow! I thought, how is this going to work? How will he separate out the first kid’s soup from the second kid’s soup? It was Chaos! Clearly, the stories that I had just heard were already lost in the recesses of my mind.

Kid after kid, one by one, he asked us to come up with our cans, which were opened and added to the pot. As we called out what flavor our soup was the scoutmaster would make a funny comment about how it would affect the outcome of the soup. The scoutmaster would say something like "oh this will make our stew taste like the seashore" after a kid who called out clam chowder. If the next kid called out beef barley as his can was dumped it into the pot the scoutmaster might add, "Uh oh, beef and clams, I don't know??? Could be interesting". On and on, kid after kid, comment after comment we went until every can of soup had been added. Then we waited for it to get hot before we were served our portion. It's probably cheesy to admit that in the end that this actually had a bit of an impact on me. I clearly remember watching people put their soup in the pot and how the level would rise. I remember the scout master thinning it a bit with water when it got too thick and how he continued to narrate the entire process, weaving a story out of each soup flavor and stressing the importance of each can in the overall scheme of things, "without this can, our stew wouldn't have as many vegetables" he would say after a kid dumped in a can of vegetable soup.

I can also remember how even before the last can of soup was added we had enough soup to feed us more than twice over. And you know what, the end product wasn't all that bad either. Then again we were kids so what did we know about fine cuisine? I might have been kind of a dumb kid, but I was genuinely taken aback that this pot of soup was actually edible. I just assumed that after adding all the different flavors it would taste like mud or something. I sat with my bowl of soup, surrounded by my fellow scouts, and as I ate apparently I soaked in these little life lessons. They had been presented to us in such a low-key way that we really didn't know we were being taught something. I might not have realized I was being taught something at the time but I did have a feeling of accomplishment. I had the feeling that I had contributed and as a result we were all able to eat as a group, together, and that we were able to feed the parents and the troop leaders as well, (whom I might add did not bring soup of their own!). As I think about this today I wonder if this might have been the moment that I unknowingly learned that food brings people together and that sharing a meal with your friends and loved ones is maybe the.best thing about food.

During another one of these types of outings the scoutmaster brought out a bag of apples after lunch and taught us how to core the apple while leaving the bottom intact, then he had us fill the hollow area with "Red Hots" cinnamon candies. Each apple was wrapped up tightly in aluminum foil and placed down into the coals of the fire pit and left to cook for a while. This was the first time I had seen anything actually added directly to the coals. Certainly it would just catch fire or turn to charcoal. The end result, much to my surprise, was a pretty good, cinnamon flavored, “baked” apple. Magic, I tell you, magic! But by far the best ever outing was the one where we took an ordinary can of sweetened condensed milk and put it in a pot of boiling water. After a very long wait the can was removed and upon opening it up we discovered the contents had turned into the most delicious caramel. Again, to me this was just plain magic. Back then I had no idea what the Maillard reaction was, nor how or why it happened, and in fact I didn't care. All I cared about was the thing that used to be milk was now basically candy, what more did I need to know? Many years would pass before I would hear the term Dulce de Leche and make the connection that what I had those many, many years ago was exactly the same thing. Yes, for the longest time I just figured that this little magic caramel trick was known only to the select few that were in scout troop 52 and of course there could never be any commercial use for a can of caramel.

Now we come to the part of this blog where I tell you that I am so happy that little cans of caramel are not only known to a few scouts, and that there actually is a considerable market for them! This is the part of the blog where I tell you if you only make one thing from Dulce de Leche, then make these squares of salted caramel goodness. This is the part of the blog where I tell you that if you do make them, invite me over. This is the part where I say, I pulled this recipe from Bon Appetit magazine in June of 2010 and that you can see the original recipe here. Of course, by now you should know that cheesecake is one of my very favorite things and caramel is also way up there on the list too, so how could these not be fantastic? In the ingredient list the only thing that I consider “special” is the Dulche de Leche. I get mine from a Hispanic market in my neighborhood, but a lot of the bigger supermarkets will carry it. The recipe also calls for fleur de sel and if you have some use it, if not and you don’t use fleur de sel often enough to warrant purchasing a jar, then you can do with out… no one will be the wiser. Equipment wise you’re going to need a food processor to grind your graham crackers into crumbs and to make the cheesecake filling. You will also need a 13x9x2-inch metal pan and some aluminum foil or parchment paper, which will help us remove the bars from the pan when they are done.

So here is how I made these…

Ingredients:

For the Crust:

  • Nonstick vegetable oil spray

  • 2¼ cups finely ground graham crackers – made from processing about 18 graham crackers in a food processor until finely ground

  • 2 tablespoons sugar

  • ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon

  • 10 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

For the Filling:

  • 1½ pounds (3 8-ounce packages) cream cheese, room temperature

  • 1 cup sugar

  • 3 large eggs

  • ½ cup purchased dulce de leche

  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

For the Glaze:

  • ⅔ cup purchased dulce de leche

  • 3 to 5 tablespoons heavy whipping cream

  • Fleur de sel (optional)

Directions:

For the Crust:

Begin as we usually do by preheating the oven to 350°F with the rack in the center position.

Take a piece of aluminum foil (or parchment paper) that measures 13-inches by 16-inches and place it into the pan so that the bottom is covered and the excess hangs evenly over the long sides of the pan. Basically we are making a sling so that we can easily lift the completed bars out of the pan.

Lightly spray the foil and the short sides of the pan with non-stick spray. 

In a medium sized bowl whisk together the graham cracker crumbs, the sugar, and the cinnamon until well blended. 

Add in the melted butter and stir the crumbs until they are well coated, then pour the crumb mixture into your prepared pan.

Press the crumbs evenly onto the bottom of pan. Use a flat measuring cup or a glass to help get them even and firmly packed in.

Bake the crust for 10 minutes or until it gets light golden in color.

Remove from the oven and set on a wire rack until completely cool.

When the crust is completely cool we make the filling

Using your food processor blend the cream cheese and the sugar until it is smooth and creamy, which will take about 1 minute. Stop the processor about half way through to scrape down sides of the bowl. 

Add the eggs 1 at a time and process them 3 to 5 seconds before adding the next egg. 

Add the ½ cup of dulce de leche and the vanilla to the cream cheese mixture and process until it is blended in, just about 10 seconds or so.

Pour the batter onto the cooled crust and spread it evenly, smoothing the top. 

Pop the pan into the oven and bake until the cheesecake is just set in the center and the edges are puffed up and just a little cracked, about 38 minutes. 

When done, place on a wire rack to cool completely.

When the cheesecake has completely cooled…

Heat the ⅔ cup dulce de leche and 3 tablespoons of the cream in a small pan over low heat until it starts to soften and get spreadable, stirring constantly to blend. 

Add more cream by teaspoonfuls if the dulce de leche is too thick to pour. The amount of cream you will need will depend on the brand of dulce de leche you buy as some are thicker than others. 

Pour the glaze over the cooled cheesecake and spread it evenly.

Refrigerate the completed cheesecake until it is well chilled before serving (at least 1 hour). The glaze will not be firm so don’t use that as an indicator, just leave it in there for at least an hour and up to 2 days, covered.

When ready to serve

Gently lift the cheesecake out of the pan by using the foil “handles” and place it on a cutting board. Carefully slide the aluminum foil out from under the cheesecake.

Cut the cheesecake lengthwise into 4 strips then cut each strip into 6 squares, for a total of 24 delicious, caramel-y, cheesecake-y squares.

Sprinkle the squares with a little fleur de sel just before serving (if using) and enjoy!

If you have leftovers, there are only two explanations… 1, you didn’t invite me over, or 2, I couldn’t make it for some reason. But if this is the case stash them in the fridge in a covered container until you feel like you can eat more… for me that’s about 20 minutes. 

Sometimes Riley just knows he's not getting any "people" food.