Cooking for Thanksgiving–Pecan Praline Cheesecake

Last Friday I made a copious amount of food to help introduce my friends and classmates to the really spiffy holiday that is Thanksgiving. (Which, for the record, most of the non-Americans don’t understand in the slightest). My cooking menu was

  • pecan praline cheesecake
  • stuffing/dressing
  • a roasted vegetable and rice salad for the gluten free/dairy free folks
  • mashed potatoes
  • a pear and cranberry dessert for the gluten free/dairy free folks

Before we kick off what will likely be a pretty long post, here is the page from my field notebook that I scribbled the notes from my recipes.
page from my cookbook

The cheesecake went something like this:

shortbread crust 1 shortbread crust 2 shortbread crust 3 pecans pecan praline candy mixture praline in pan pralines everywhere cream cheese adding in the eggs eggs to add in

The cheesecake is not my recipe. It’s actually just an aggregation of three recipes–the Joy of Baking’s recipe for shortbread, Emeril Legasse’s recipe for creamy pecan pralines, and adapted from Epicurious’s recipe for New York Cheesecake. Some general notes–pecan pralines are intensely sweet, so you can almost assuredly get away with less sugar in the other components. I already reduced the sugar in the cheesecake by 1/4 cup–I think it could probably go as low as 1 cup and still be fine. I’m not 100% sure on the quantities for the praline part. I quadrupled the recipe to make extra to give as gifts… However, I had so much praline that I wouldn’t be surprised if that quantity is just perfect. If you’re feeling unsure, double that part. Extra can be spooned on to parchment paper and eaten out of hand. I used dark brown sugar, which in the UK is MUCH more molassesy than dark brown sugar in the US. I would probably go with light brown sugar the next time. But the molassessy flavor kind of works–it almost makes it a little bacony. It’s up to you. I will measure the vessels that I used to give you an idea of the volume needed for this recipe. Also, if you’re going to spoon them out into pralines candies, wait until it’s cooled down significantly and the candy is pretty viscous and gloopy. You don’t want to do it while they’re still runny, or you’ll have very flat, very fragile pralines. The candy will get more opaque as it cools. Try a couple and you’ll get a feel for spooning them out.

Shortbread crust:

2 cups (260 grams) all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon (2 grams) salt
1 cup (2 sticks) (226 grams) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup (60 grams) sugar [Joy Of Baking calls for powdered–I used granulated with excellent results]
1 teaspoon (4 grams) pure vanilla extract

Praline layer

1 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons water
1 cup pecan halves

Cheesecake

5 (8-oz) packages cream cheese, softened
1 1/2 cups sugar
5 large eggs
2 large egg yolks

The Crust:

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F/ 177 C.

2. Line one really large or two smaller cheesecake-shaped vessels with parchment paper. (You can do this properly, like Alton Brown does, but cutting out a circle for the bottom and a strip to make a collar around the edges, but just squishing the parchment paper in there works just as well if beauty is not important to you. And cheesecake, my friends, is form independent.)

3. Combine the ingredients for the shortbread crust. (You can do this properly, by creaming the butter until smooth, and then creaming the sugar and butter until smooth, and then blending in the vanilla or whiskey, and then cutting in the flour…. but I just mixed it all together all at once and it was still delicious.)

4. Fill the bottom of the parchment lined cheesecake vessels with shortbready goodness and press it down until all nooks and crannies are appropriately filled and it’s more or less even. I used my hands–the butter in the dough was sticking to the glass I tried to use.

6. Pop the crusts into the preheated oven and bake them until they’re lightly golden brown. Take them out to cool.

The Praline:

7. Chop up your pralines into sizes you wouldn’t mind appearing in your mouth. Toast them if you like.

8. Combine the brown sugar, white sugar, butter, water, and cream in a LARGE pot on the stove. I cannnot stress enough that it should be MUCH larger than you think it needs to be–when the sugar starts boiling, it’s going to expand a lot. There is nothing more annoying than having to switch praline pots mid-boil. I should know–the first three times I made these things I had to change pots. It’s a
great way to get boiling sugar all over yourself. So, if I were you, I would use your largest stockpot. Just to be on the safe side.

9. CONSTANT VIGILANCE! STIR FOR ALL YOU’RE WORTH. You want to put the pot over medium-high heat and stir until the mixture hits 238 F to 240 F degrees on a candy thermometer. That’s the soft ball stage, and you can totally do it by dropping a drizzle of praline in cold water… but I MUCH prefer the thermometer method. Less guesswork and worry that the pralines won’t set up. A praline cooked to 239 F will set up just right every time.

10. Once you’ve reached the soft ball stage, pull the pralines off the heat and add the pecans. Keep stirring! I found it useful to place the hot pot on the cold floor (laminate or concrete–would’t try that on carpet or tile.) The cold, cold floor here pulls the heat right out of the pot. Once a spot on the floor has warmed up too much to pull the heat out of the pot, you move the pot to a new cold spot and warm your feet on the warm spot left where the pot previously was!

11. Stir until the pecans are suspended in the praline, then pour into the cooled crusts.

The Cheesecake:

12. Preheat the oven to 550 F/288 C. Cream the cream cheese until it’s smooth. Do not kip this step if you’re working by hand, or the batter will never come out smoothly.

13. Cream the cream cheese and the sugar.

14. Mix in the eggs and yolks one at a time, waiting until each is completely incorporated before adding the next.

15. Pour the batter over the cooled praline in the parchment lined cheesecake vessels.

16. Put the cheesecake in the middle of the very hot oven. Place another oven safe vessel at the bottom of the oven and fill it with boiling water.

17. Bake the cheesecake at 550 F/288 C for 12 minutes, until the centers are pleasantly puffed. Then reduce the heat to 200 F/93 C and bake for another hour or so until set. The center will be slightly wobbly.

Now, really, you should put these in the fridge for eight hours to set up properly. I am never that patient; 3 hours in the freezer will do the same job.

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Cooking for Thanksgiving–Pecan Praline Cheesecake

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