Unlike me, you’re probably already game-planning your holiday meals. We’re not going to do much this year since we’re in the Traphouse, so my meal plans aren’t as ambitious as they were in years past. I still have to keep up with my dessert plans, though. My family doesn’t give quarter to me in that area. I decided to flip the switch on the classic sweet potato pie. Instead of a ho-hum pastry, I’m going to make this Sweet Potato Cheesecake with Pecan Praline Topping. I bet that, with this epic dessert, my family won’t even notice the toned down meal.
Why mess with a classic?
Great question. My answer is, “Why not?” Recipes are developed to be tweaked and evolved.
Sweet potato pie is a classic Southern holiday dessert. The Black side of my family is from New Jersey by way of South Carolina and my father said it was always on the holiday dessert table. Since I don’t even like sweet potatoes, a pie made from them was never going to grace my holiday sweets display. But, a cheesecake? For that, I may make an exception.
Once I perfected the recipe, I knew a holiday wouldn’t pass without my serving it. So, that’s my rationale behind messing with the classic. Because I can. And, because it’s as good as all get out.
What will I need to make a Sweet Potato Cheesecake?
Well, it depends on if you’re a purist, or not. Because if you are, you’ll need a pound of sweet potatoes. If you’re more a fan of convenience you’ll need a 15 oz can of sweet potato in light syrup.
I’ve never seen canned sweet potatoes in anything other than a syrup, but if you happen upon sweet potatoes in water, grab those instead. The syrup is sugary, which may or may not throw off the sweetness of your cheesecake. All of that rigamarole is why I opt to use raw sweet potatoes. It cuts down on all the variables.
*A word about sweet potatoes*
Sweet potatoes and yams are not the same.
A yam is a white-fleshed tuber that many people in the States have never even eaten. It’s commonly grown in Africa and parts of the Caribbean with limited cultivation here in the U.S. Sweet potatoes, on the other hand, are a root vegetable that is grown in many parts of the States and around the world. Its flesh can have a wide-range of hues, but it is what most of us have grown up eating.
At some point in its history, the sweet potato has become synonymous with a yam, but the two are different breeds altogether.
All of this is to say, if you live in an area where yams and sweet potatoes are sold, be sure you’re using the latter for this recipe.
Back to the ingredients…
…you’ll also need: room temperature cream cheese, graham cracker crumbs, unsalted butter, large eggs, granulated sugar, ground cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves, salt, vanilla, cornstarch, and lemon zest.
We’ll cover the pecan praline topping’s ingredients later.
Prep the sweet potatoes (or don’t)
If you’re using canned sweet potatoes, all you need to do is drain the syrup, rinse the potatoes, then mashed them. Rinsing the potatoes gets rid of some of that sugary syrup they’ve been stored in. It decreases the sugar content in the final product.
If you’re opting to make this recipe entirely from scratch, you’ll first need to pierce your clean, dry sweet potatoes with a fork. Just prick holes in the skin to vent the potatoes while they bake.
Pop them onto a sheet pan and into an oven preheated to 400°F and bake them for 1 hour.
You can also peel, quarter, then boil the potatoes, but I find the sweet potato flavor is weakened through boiling.
Once the potatoes are soft (a knife should slip in and out with no resistance), remove them from the oven and cover them with a clean kitchen towel. Leave the potatoes to steam under this towel for 20 minutes.
The steaming loosens the skin considerably, which makes peeling the spuds easier. After you’ve allowed the sweet potatoes to steam, peel them.
Now, mash the sweet potatoes well, either with a potato masher or in a food processor. While the potato masher works perfectly fine, I find that- for this sweet potato cheesecake- pureeing them in a blender or food processor is the best way to get them perfectly smooth.
Set the mashed (or pureed) sweet potatoes aside. This mashing process can be done days, or even months, in advance. You can store the mashed sweet potato sealed in freezer storage bags in the freezer anywhere from 6 months to a year.
Make the graham cracker crust
A cheesecake is only as good as the crust that it’s baked in. Irrational though it may seem, I get annoyed when a cheesecake’s crust crumbles all to hell while I’m trying to eat it. The key to getting a suitable crust for your sweet potato cheesecake is making sure you are using the right ratio of melted butter to graham cracker crumbs.
Combine the melted butter, sugar, and graham crumbs in a bowl and mix them together. Grab a fistful of the crumbs and squeeze them. If the crust holds together in a firm clump, you’re good to go. On the contrary, if your crumbs stay crumby, you will need to a couple more teaspoons of melted butter. If, on the other hand, your mixture clumps and oozes butter, you need to add more graham crumbs to soak up the excess fat.
Once you have a good balance and a clumpy mixture, press it into a 9″ springform pan. I just use the same measuring cup I used for measuring my ingredients to press the crust into place. Don’t forget to give your sweet potato cheesecake a bit of a side crust, too.
Bake the crust for 10 minutes in an oven that’s been preheated to 350°F. The rule of thumb is: when you can smell it, it’s ready to come out.
After the crust has baked, leave the pan to cool down before wrapping it in two layers of heavy duty aluminum foil. This will make sense later.
Prepare the cheesecake batter
The most labor-intensive aspect of this recipe is definitely the prepping all of the individual parts. Oh! Fighting your guests for the last piece is also pretty gangster, but making it is the toughest.
Start the preparation of the sweet potato cheesecake by mixing together the spice blend that flavors it. Combine ground cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves; along with kosher salt and cornstarch in a small bowl. The cornstarch gives the sweet potato cheesecake that fluffy texture you’re just gonna swoon over.
In a large mixing bowl, blend together the cream cheese, sugar, lemon zest, and vanilla bean paste on low speed.
Once the mixture is creamy and smooth, begin adding the eggs- one at a time- to the bowl. Be sure to continue blending on low speed- we don’t need a mess on our hands. Also, scrape down the bowl after each egg is incorporated. You’ll mix a well-blended filling this way.
After you’ve added all of the eggs, slowly mix in the mashed sweet potatoes and the heavy cream.
Finally, add the spice blend you mixed earlier. Blend just until the spices are incorporated. Overmixing after you’ve added the cornstarch will lead to a gummy texture later.
Set a pot of water on the stove to boil for the next step.
Bake the Sweet Potato Cheesecake
Once the sweet potato cheesecake batter is blended, place the prepared cheesecake pan into a large pan. There needs to be at least two inches of clearance on the sides of the cheesecake pan. Pour the cheesecake batter into the prepared cheesecake pan.
This here’s the reason we wrapped our pan twice in heavy duty foil. The water bath, or bain marie.
After the water on the stovetop comes to a boil, carefully pour it into the larger pan which the cheesecake pan is sitting in. You can see, above, that I take the added precaution of using my bench scraper as a shield. The bench scraper prevents any water from splashing onto the cheesecake batter. This is just one of my tricks because I’m a savage when it comes to anything requiring finesse. That double-layer of foil will keep the water we’ve just poured into the outer pan from seeping through the cracks in the springform pan. I’ve made the mistake of not wrapping my springform pan properly and ended up with a water-logged cheesecake. To say it was disheartening is an understatement.
Carefully place the pan setup into your preheated oven and bake the cheesecake for 1 hour. Once the baking time has elapsed, turn the oven off and prop open the oven door with a wooden spoon. Allow the cheesecake to cool slowly in the oven for another hour. After the final hour, remove the cheesecake from the oven and the water bath. Remove the protective foil and allow the sweet potato cheesecake to cool to the touch on the countertop. Transfer the pan to the fridge and allow it to chill for 8-24 hours.
Why all the steps?
A lot of my friends ask me if all the steps I take when baking my cheesecakes are necessary. Yes, they are. The water bath creates an accurately consistent temperature for the cheesecake to bake in. Cheesecakes are nothing but custards, which means they need a consistent temperature in order to bake evenly.
The added step of allowing the cheesecake to cool gradually in the vented oven protects the surface of the cheesecake from developing a crack. A sudden change in temperature- like being removed from a 350°F oven to a 72°F countertop- will, more often than not, result in a fault that rivals the San Andreas. Overbaking can also cause this to happen. Finally, letting the cheesecake chill for a few hours in the fridge gives the interior a chance to firm up properly.
So, like I said- it’s all necessary. And highly worth it.
Toast the pecans, then arrange them
Now is when this cheesecake goes from good to gooder. <I wrote that to piss off my nerdy kids>
Toast your pecan halves (we’re not fiddle-farting with pieces in this recipe, my Friend) in your preheated oven for 10 minutes. Again, if ya’ smell ’em, they’re ready to come out.
Once the pecans are toasted, let them cool down. When you can handle them, arrange them on the surface of the cheesecake in whichever design floats your boat. As you can see, I became a wee-bit obsessive. Throw them on there in a single layer, or go crazy like I did.
Return the sweet potato cheesecake to the fridge while you prepare the praline goo.
What you’ll need to make the praline topping
Pecan pralines are a huge thing in places like New Orleans. I don’t know when I decided to mesh the sweet potato cheesecake with this pecan praline topping, but HOOOOO!! Sweet Lord, I’m so glad I did! You’re going to be glad I did, too.
Sidenote: if you have leftover praline goo and pecans (which you may, because I did), you would be remiss if you didn’t make a couple of traditional pecan pralines with them. Just sayin’.
For the praline topping, gather together white and brown sugar, unsalted butter, evaporated milk, baking soda, and vanilla bean paste.
In a large pot with sloping sides*, stir together the two sugars, baking soda, vanilla bean paste, and the evaporated milk. Stir until the sugar is dissolved- this should take about 5 minutes. While you’re stirring, heat the mixture over medium heat to bring it to a boil.
*Using a large pot is very important because, later on in the recipe, the mixture is going to bubble and expand. If you’ve ever been burnt with molten-hot sugar, you will understand why we need to be careful.
Brush the side of the pot
While you’re waiting for the sugar to come to a boil, use a pastry brush- dipped in water- to brush down the sides of the pot. The goal is to remove the sugar crystals that were left clinging to the sides of the pot after you stirred the mixture. If left on the sides of the pot, the sugar crystals will drop back into the liquid, which will cause it to seize up (or crystallize). Remember to keep dipping the brush into the clean water as you wipe down the sides. The sides of the pot should look clean as whistle when you’ve finished.
After the sides are clean, leave the sugar- without stirring- to boil and caramelize. Boil the mixture until it reaches 230°F, then remove it from the stove.
If you don’t have a thermometer- order one– you can test it by lifting a spoonful of the mixture from the pot. Allow it to drizzle back into the pot, it should begin to look stringy or drip reallllllly slowly- almost clinging to the spoon.
Add the unsalted butter to the toffee and stir rapidly- this is when the mixture will bubble up, so be careful!
As you stir, the mixture will go from foamy- to dark- to opaque. What’s happening is that rapid stirring is cooling the sugar and beating the butter into the sugar to form a paste that’s similar to fudge. Once it appears opaque, you can stop stirring.
This topping can also be made in advance- up to a week. Keep it stored in an air-tight container in the fridge and warm until it runs prior to using it.
Drizzle, drizzle, drizzle
Pull the sweet potato cheesecake from the fridge and drizzle the praline topping over all of the pecans. Save the rest for drizzling on individual slices after serving.
This praline topping develops a crust as it cools, which only makes it even more like the pecan pralines we love. Use a knife that’s been warmed in hot water to get through that crisp coating without messing up the aesthetics.
Seriously. Why wouldn’t you want to switch things up this year if this is what it’ll get you?
How will a plain ol’ sweet potato pie ever compete with the likes of this? It won’t, that’s how.
Keep the sweet potato cheesecake refrigerated until you’re ready to serve it. Be sure to enjoy it within 72 hours after baking.
A tip on storing: after cutting slices from a whole cheesecake, I press a piece of plastic film or wax paper against the exposed cheesecake to keep it from getting dried out and gross in the fridge.
There’s no doubt that you’ll be the dessert hero for making this bad boy. Be sure to share this with your friends and family and pin for easy finding later.
**THIS POST CONTAINS AFFILIATE LINKS. TO FIND OUT WHAT THAT MEANS TO YOU, PLEASE READ MY DISCLOSURE PAGE**
Sweet Potato Cheesecake with Pecan Praline Topping
Begin the cheesecake a day ahead. The different components may also be prepared up to a week in advance.
- 2 cups graham cracker crumbs
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup melted unsalted butter
Sweet Potato Cheesecake Batter
- 1 pound sweet potatoes, or 15 ounce can of sweet potatoes, rinsed and drained
- 4 8 ounce packages cream cheese, room temperature
- 1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste (or vanilla extract)
- 1 tablespoon lemon zest (from 1 medium lemon)
- 1/4 cup heavy cream
- 1/3 cup cornstarch
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
Pecan Praline Topping
- 2 cups pecan halves
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 cup, packed light brown sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 3/4 cup evaporated milk
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla bean paste (or vanilla extract)
- pinch kosher salt
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, sliced
Prepare the mashed Sweet Potatoes*
Preheat your oven to 350°F.
Pierce holes in the skin of the sweet potatoes to vent them while they bake. Put the potatoes onto a sheet pan and bake them for 1 hour.
An alternative, albeit inferior, method is to peel, quarter and boil the potatoes until tender. This is inferior because it weakens the taste of sweet potato.
Once the potatoes are fork-tender, remove them from the oven and cover them with a clean kitchen towel. Leave the potatoes to steam under this towel for 20 minutes.
Peel, then mash or puree the sweet potatoes until smooth.
Set the mashed (or pureed) sweet potatoes aside**.
Make the graham cracker crust
In a bowl, mix together the melted butter, sugar, and graham crumbs.
Squeeze a fistful of the crumbs together to check that the mixture is the proper consistency: If the crust holds together in a firm clump, it's ready. On the contrary, if your crumbs stay crumby- add a couple more teaspoons of melted butter; if it oozes butter add more graham crumbs to soak up the excess fat.
Use the bottom of a measuring cup to press the graham cracker mixture into a 9" springform pan.
Bake the crust for 10 minutes in a 350°F oven.
Remove the baked crust from the oven to cool. Once it's cool, wrap the pan in two layers of heavy duty aluminum foil, then set aside.
Prepare the cheesecake batter
Bring a pot of water (approx 4 cups) to boil while you prepare the cheesecake batter.
Combine the ground cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves, the salt, and cornstarch in a small bowl. Set this aside.
In a large mixing bowl, blend together the cream cheese, sugar, lemon zest, and vanilla bean paste on low speed, until smooth.
Add the eggs- one at a time- to the bowl, making sure to scrape down the bowl after each egg is incorporated.
After you've added all of the eggs, slowly mix in the mashed sweet potatoes and the heavy cream until blended.
Finally, add the spice blend you mixed earlier. Blend just until the spices are incorporated. Be sure not to mix the batter too long after adding the cornstarch.
Bake the Sweet Potato Cheesecake
After the sweet potato cheesecake batter has been mixed, place the foil-wrapped cheesecake pan into a larger pan that has at least two inches of clearance on the sides of the cheesecake pan.
Pour the cheesecake batter into the prepared cheesecake pan.
Carefully pour the boiling water into the larger (exterior) pan which the cheesecake pan is sitting in. Be careful to avoid splashing water into the cheesecake batter.
Place the pans into your preheated oven and bake the cheesecake for 1 hour.
Once the baking time has elapsed, turn the oven off and prop open the oven door with a wooden spoon. Allow the cheesecake to cool slowly in the oven for another hour.
After the final hour, remove the cheesecake from the oven and the water bath. Remove the protective foil and allow the sweet potato cheesecake to cool to the touch on the countertop.
Transfer the pan to the fridge and allow it to chill for 8-24 hours.
Prepare the Pecan Praline Topping****
Toast the pecan halves for 10 minutes in a 350°F oven. Allow them to cool after they've toasted.
Remove the springform collar from the cheesecake, then decorate the top of the chilled cheesecake with a single layer of the toasted pecans.
Return the sweet potato cheesecake to the fridge while you prepare the praline toffee.
In a large pot with sloping sides***, stir together the white and brown sugars, baking soda, the evaporated milk, and the vanilla bean paste until the sugar is dissolved- this should take about 5 minutes.
While you're stirring, heat the mixture over medium heat to bring it to a boil.
Brush the sides of the pot with a pastry brush- dipped in water- to remove any sugar crystals from the sides. (If left on the sides of the pot, the sugar crystals will drop back into the liquid, which will cause it to seize up- or crystallize).
Clean the brush in the water each time you brush down a part of the pot. There should be no remaining sugar crystals when you're done.
After the sides are clean, leave the sugar to come to a boil- without stirring- until the mixture reaches 230°F, or until the mixture, when drizzle back into the pot from the lifted spoon, looks stringy or drips reallllllly slowly- almost clinging to the spoon.
Once it reaches the proper temperature, remove it from the stove.
Add the unsalted butter to the toffee and stir rapidly- the mixture will bubble up, so be careful.
As you stir, the mixture will go from foamy- to dark- to opaque. Once it appears opaque, stop stirring.
Drizzle the praline topping over the pecan-topped cheesecake. Save the rest for drizzling on individual slices after serving.
Store the sweet potato cheesecake in the refrigerator until ready to serve. Enjoy it within 72 hours after baking.
A tip on storing: after cutting slices from a whole cheesecake, press a piece of plastic film or wax paper against the exposed cheesecake to keep it from developing a crust.
*If you're using canned sweet potatoes: Rinse and drain the sweet potatoes thoroughly prior to mashing them to rid the potatoes of their sugary syrup.
**The raw sweet potatoes may be baked, peeled, and mashed up to 6 months in advance. Keep mashed sweet potatoes stored in freezer-safe bags and frozen until ready to use.
***Using a large pot is very important because, later on in the recipe, the mixture is going to bubble and expand. If you've ever been burnt with molten-hot sugar, you will understand why we need to be careful.
****The praline toffee may be made up to a week in advance. Don't add the pecans to the topping. Keep the topping stored in an air-tight container in the refrigerator. Warm it in a hot water bath, or in the microwave until it's pourable.
Here are more cheesecake recipes to try: