At Honeysuckle Provisions, their cafe and grocery store in Philadelphia, Omar Tate and Cybille St.Aude-Tate are adept at putting Black culture and heritage on the plate. Their sweet potato cheesecake bars with benne seed crust are no exception: When they were developing them, the couple came to their pastry chef, Aya Iwatani, with an idea for a cookie that encompassed flavors and ingredients that represented their histories. The benne seeds “we pull from childhood, and Omar’s deep lineage in the South,” says St.Aude-Tate. “The sweet potatoes, we pull from our admiration of Dr. George Washington Carver. His autobiography basically laid out a hundred different ways to utilize a sweet potato.” They wanted cheesecake, but for it to not be “boring.” Iwatani’s creation was anything but: It came out as, amazingly, a twist on the Twix bar.
“Throughout the diaspora, Black folks have been in a position of defense of their culture,” says Tate. “We’re not really afforded the opportunity or the luxury of time to just think creatively about our own foodways, to even change tradition.” When they opened Honeysuckle, the goal was to blend the flavors of the past with visions of the future, all while meeting the needs of their present community. “There’s this whole past, present, future arc that our store follows,” says Tate. The cookie is basically a perfect representation of that mission: familiar but playful, respecting tradition without relying on it.
Making a candy bar at home might seem daunting, but Tate stresses it’s just a matter of patience and getting each component right. You want to keep it cold, since unlike a mass-produced candy bar, there are no preservatives in it. You’ll also want to source real benne seeds — while they’re related to sesame seeds, the flavor is much different. And when you bite into the finished product, you can think of all the flavors and people and ideas that had to meet in order for a bar like that to exist.
Sweet Potato Cheesecake Bars With Benne Seed Crust and Caramelized White Chocolate
Makes 24 to 26 bars
For the benne seed shortbread crust:
50 grams (¼ cup) ground benne seeds (if unavailable, you can use sesame seeds)
150 grams (1 stick plus 3 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
100 grams (¾ cup) powdered sugar
2 tablespoons miso
150 grams (1 cup plus 1 tablespoon) all-purpose flour
50 grams (4 tablespoons, or ½ stick) butter, softened
For the sweet potato cheesecake:
225 grams (1 8-ounce package) cream cheese
200 grams (1 cup) granulated sugar
55 grams (¼ cup) brown sugar
270 grams (1 cup) sweet potato puree
2 eggs, whisked
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
15 grams (2 tablespoons) cornstarch
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
165 grams (⅔ cup) buttermilk
For the caramelized white chocolate candy bar coating:
250 grams white chocolate (chips or a chopped-up bar will work; just look at the ingredients to ensure it’s made of cocoa butter, not palm oil)
1 tablespoon neutral oil
25 grams cocoa butter
Benne or sesame seeds, lightly toasted
Flaky salt, optional
First, make the shortbread crust:
Step 1: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Step 2: Place the benne seeds in a food processor and pulse until they begin to break down. Add the butter and the powdered sugar and pulse, scraping down, to combine. Add the miso, then the flour, and pulse until a dough forms. It will be sticky.
Step 3: Line a cookie sheet with parchment, place the dough on top, then top with a second sheet of parchment, and roll out to an 8-by-12-inch rectangle. Peel the top sheet of parchment off, and bake until evenly golden brown, about 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool fully.
Step 4: Once the crust has cooled, pulse in a food processor to create fine crumbs. Mix the crumbs with the reserved softened butter.
Step 5: Line a 9-by-13-inch cake pan with parchment, and press the crumbs firmly and evenly into the bottom. Place in the freezer while you assemble the cheesecake.
Next, make the cheesecake:
Step 1: Keep the oven set to 350 degrees.
Step 2: In the bowl of a stand mixer or using electric beaters, cream together the cream cheese and sugars using the whisk attachment until the mixture is light and fluffy and the sugars have dissolved. Add the sweet potato puree, eggs, salt, vanilla, cornstarch, and spices and mix. Finish by adding the buttermilk in a thin stream, the mix until fully incorporated.
Step 3: Pour the mixture on top of the prepared crust and bake until set (it should be puffed and no longer jiggly), about 45 minutes. Cool completely, and then place in the freezer for an hour until partially frozen.
Then make the candy bar coating:
Note: It is important to make sure any equipment you use is completely dry, since water will make the mixture seize up.
Step 1: Decrease the oven temperature to 250 degrees.
Step 2: Place the white chocolate and oil in a shallow pan. Cook for about an hour, stirring with a spatula every 10 minutes, until it darkens to an even tan color. Remove and stir in the cocoa butter. Let cool until warm but not too hot.
Step 3: While the topping mixture is cooling, remove the bars from the freezer and trim off the edges. Cut the tray in half width-wise, and then slice into inch-wide bars (this should be easy if the bars are firm, but if the knife sticks just dip it in hot water in between cuts). Place the bars on a cooling rack over a sheet tray. Gently pour the caramelized white chocolate mixture through a strainer (to remove any lumps) into a bowl or liquid cup measure, then gently pour over the bars, covering them as completely as you can. Sprinkle with toasted benne seeds, and flaky salt if desired; the coating will harden almost instantly. You can store the bars in an airtight container in the refrigerator for a few days; make sure to let them come to room temperature before serving.
Dina Ávila is a photographer in Portland, Oregon.
Recipe tested by Deena Prichep