Salted Caramel Cream Cheese Swirl Brownies

Over the top brownies swirled with salted butter caramel cream cheese. A new, classic chocolate brownie recipe - wow your friends and family!

Chocolate brownie recipe with salted butter cream cheese swirl

A few years ago, a favorite bakery in Paris near where I lived was offering brownies. The baker gave me one to taste and although I was happy they were expanding their repertoire outside of their borders (actually, many French pastries are influenced from other cultures), the plain, somewhat dry brownies weren’t doing it for me. They didn’t understand that a brownie is best when it’s a moist, compact square with an intense chocolate flavor, like these are.

Being a diverse country, some Americans like their brownies cake-like and others prefer chewy. Some prefer nuts, some don’t. But one thing we do share – even with the French, is a love of salted butter caramel, and – yes, cream cheese, too.


Chocolate brownie recipe with salted butter cream cheese swirl

Salted butter caramel is credited to the fine folks in Brittany, who traditionally add salt to their butter to preserve it, since they use so much of it. Although it’s not an expression you hear in French, adding it to caramel is a “no-brainer.” Adding it to pâte à tartiner (cream cheese, which is usually just called le Philadelphia), could be called très américain, since we like to take things over-the-top.

Chocolate brownie recipe with salted butter cream cheese swirl

One could say that Irvin Lin falls into that category. He has a blog, Eat the Love, and a baking book, Marbled, Swirled, and Layered, which offers up a collection of traditional recipes that are marbled with peanut butter, swirled with browned butter, and layered with apple-cinnamon, as well as a kaleidoscope of other flavors. It’s clear he likes playing around in the kitchen, and with lots of fun notes and sidebars throughout the book, he demystifies, and challenges, bakers to take some chances. Even old warhorses like me.


Chocolate brownie recipe with salted butter cream cheese swirl

For example, I’ve never made caramel in the microwave. I have a microwave oven, but don’t like using it for certain tasks, like melting chocolate, because you have to stand there and press the button and open the door repeatedly to check on the progress, whereas on the stovetop, the melting chocolate is all right there in front of you. Call me crazy, but I like watching (and helping) solid chunks of dark chocolate gently melt into a puddle of smooth, shiny, darkness. It’s one of life’s greatest pleasures and I don’t want anyone taking that away from me.

Chocolate brownie recipe with salted butter cream cheese swirl

Nevertheless, I’m not a rigid traditionalist and instead of jumping on the anti-microwave bandwagon, I decided to take mine for a ride with this recipe. The technique worked well and although I’m not putting my skillets on the market, I was interested to try something new.

Chocolate brownie recipe with salted butter cream cheese swirl


Even better, once blended with the cream cheese, the caramel…and subsequent flurry of sea salt…took traditional cream cheese brownies to another place. And it was a place that I wanted to be. I don’t like messing too much with what I think is already le top du top, but the salted caramel definitely took it over that.

Chocolate brownie recipe with salted butter cream cheese swirl

Salted Caramel Cream Cheese Swirl Brownies
Print Recipe
One 9-inch (23cm) panAdapted from Marbled, Swirled, and Layered by Irvin LinThe recipe calls for a few steps. One that can be done in advance is making the caramel through step 2. You can store it overnight at room temperature, or for a few days in the refrigerator.According to Irvin, making caramel in the microwave requires the use of corn syrup. I haven't tried it without it (golden syrup is a good substitute) but do make sure your bowl is ovenproof. Check with the manufacturer's website if you're unsure. If you don't have a microwave oven, he notes this can be made by caramelizing the sugar in a skillet (see my instructions, How the Make the Perfect Caramel), without the corn syrup and water, adding the butter and cream when the sugar is caramelized.All microwave ovens are different so be sure to check the caramel frequently as it's cooking in it, opening the door. Mine took about 4 minutes, but the recipe noted that it could take anywhere from 2 to 6 minutes.People outside the U.S. may need to track down unsweetened chocolate. In France it's called 100% pâte de cacao, which they sell at G. Detou in Paris. Lindt 99% chocolate is a good substitute.If baking with kosher salt, use 1/4 teaspoon in the brownie batter. For the finishing salt, a good, flaky sea salt such as Maldon or fleur de sel is best. Kosher salt isn't quite the the same, but if you use that, use it very sparingly as a finishing salt. It's much stronger than the sea salts that are suggested.
For the caramel
1/2 cup (100g) sugar
1 tablespoon light corn syrup or golden syrup
1 tablespoon water
4 tablespoons (2 ounces, 55g) unsalted butter, cubed, at room temperature
3 tablespoons heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
For the brownie batter
1/2 cup (70g) flour
1/4 cup (25g) Dutch-process cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking powder, preferably aluminum-free
1/8 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (4 ounces, 115g) unsalted butter, cubed
4 ounces (115g) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
2 ounces (55g) unsweetened chocolate, chopped
1 cup (200g) sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 egg white (reserve the yolk for the cream cheese swirl)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
For the cream cheese swirl
8 ounces (225g) cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 cup (100g) sugar
1 large egg yolk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
flaky sea salt for finishing (see headnote)
For the caramel
1. Stir together the 1/2 cup sugar, water, and corn syrup in a microwave safe glass bowl or large glass measuring cup. Place the bowl or measuring cup in a microwave oven and set the timer for 6 minutes. Watch the mixture, checking it as it hits the 2 minute mark. (Or before, depending on the power of your microwave oven). When it starts to turn a light amber color, remove the bowl or glass from the microwave and let it continue to bubble and cook in the bowl until the caramel becomes a deep amber color.
2. When it's the right color, stir in the 4 tablespoons of butter using a heatproof utensil, then mix in the heavy cream, one tablespoon at a time, and the salt, until smooth. If it's not smooth, very gently warm the caramel in the microwave, in 5 to 10 second intervals, until you can smooth it out. (A few lumps of caramel are fine and will melt later during baking.) Set caramel aside until completely cool.
For the brownie batter
3. Preheat the oven to 325ºF (160ºC). Line a 9-inch (23cm) square pan with aluminum foil. The best way to do this is to overturn the pan, press the foil around the outside, then lift off the foil, which has taken on the shape of the pan. Turn the pan right side up, then press the foil inside the pan, smoothing out any wrinkles. Spray the foil with nonstick spray or brush with melted butter.
4. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt, until well-combined and lump free.
5. In a medium saucepan, melt the butter and bittersweet and unsweetened chocolates over very low heat, stirring until smooth. Remove from heat and stir in the 1 cup of sugar. Mix in the eggs one at a time, as well as the egg white and vanilla, until smooth. Stir in the dry ingredients just until combined, but do not overmix.
For the caramel cream cheese swirl
6. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or by hand in a large bowl with a sturdy utensil, beat the cream cheese and 1/2 cup of sugar until smooth. Blend in the egg yolk and the vanilla, then mix in the caramel, stirring until it's smooth and light.
7. Spread half of the brownie batter into the prepared baking pan. Spoon three-quarters of the caramel cream cheese mixture in dollops over the brownie batter and use a butter knife to gently swirl the cream cheese. Don't overswirl or you'll muddy the results; you want good-sized pockets of caramel in the finished brownies. (Or at least I do.)
8. Add the remaining brownie batter to the pan and smooth the top, then spoon the rest of the caramel cream cheese batter in large dollops over the top and swirl them gently in with a knife. Sprinkle with sea salt and rap the pan on the counter a few times to level the batters. Bake until the center feels just about set but still jiggles freely, about 50 minutes. A toothpick inserted into the center should come out almost clean, but with wet crumbs attached.
9. Remove from oven and let the brownies cool completely, then refrigerate overnight.

To serve: Lift the foil to remove the brownies from the pan and use a sharp knife dipped in hot water, wiped clean between cuts with a paper towel, to cut the brownies into neat squares.

Storage: The brownies can be kept at room temperature for up to 4 days. They can be frozen for at least two months.

Related Posts and Recipes

Cocoa Powder FAQs

Chocolate FAQs

American Baking Ingredients in Paris

Cheesecake Brownies

When to Use, and Not Use, Corn Syrup in a Recipe

Salted Butter Caramel Ice Cream

Dulce de Leche Brownies


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53 comments

  • December 16, 2016 6:02pm

    I’d rather eat chocolate cake than a cake brownie, chewy is the only way. Salted swirled caramel and chocolate, tum…cut with cream cheese…can’t imagine how good it tastes. I get the microwave thing, but not a corn syrup fan…though, one tablespoon won’t kill me. Will make this!

    • jilly girl
      December 17, 2016 9:28pm

      just order golden syrup from amazon! It is sooo delicious and healthier, relatively speaking…

  • Joe E.
    December 16, 2016 6:11pm

    These sound delicious. I generally make caramels with honey. Would you consider that reasonable to use in the microwave, or is the moisture content too variable?

  • December 16, 2016 6:22pm

    I will try these…they look & sound amazing! We generally only eat added sugar when I bake, & I always reduce the sugar in my baking. How much would you say I can reduce the sugar in this recipe? Mahalo!

  • Judy W
    December 16, 2016 6:27pm

    Hi David, I read your column avidly and love both your recipes and your chatter – thanks for both! I am wondering about making this recipe, which sounds delicious, but subbing in tahini at some point, and wondering if you think that’s possible? If so, where would you “insert” it and what, if anything, should come out? Many thanks

  • Rachel
    December 16, 2016 7:13pm

    Hi, you forgot to mention when we add the 1/2 tsp salt to the caramel. In the microwave with the sugar? Or stirred in after with the cream/butter?

    Dying to make this, sounds heavenly, but want to make sure I don’t mess up. Thank you David.

  • Natalie
    December 16, 2016 7:32pm

    Hi David! Love the idea of this combination- I want to make it this weekend but I don’t own a microwave! What steps would you suggest to adapt the caramel to the stove top? Thank you, thank you!

  • rebecca
    December 16, 2016 7:39pm

    Trader Joes carries a good jarred salted caramel sauce. If I were to substitute it (versus making it from scratch), how much would I use to get the equivalent? 1/2 cup? Does that sound about right?

    Thanks!

    • Simone
      December 17, 2016 2:50pm

      thanks for asking this question Rebecca, I make a caramel sauce in bulk so will also try a half cup and see how it turns out. If not enough I suppose we can always top the brownies with more caramel ;-)

  • December 16, 2016 7:46pm
    David Lebovitz

    italian girl cooks: Yes, eating one-twelfth of a tablespoon of corn syrup isn’t worth getting all worked up about. (I don’t use corn syrup that contains high-fructose corn syrup. And interestingly, French health food stores carry corn syrup, presumably as an alternative to conventional sugar!)

    rebecca: I didn’t measure the amount of caramel but if you figure out the conversion for using jarred sauce, and your measurement is right, let us know.

    Natalie: In the second paragraph of the headnote, before the recipe, I give advisement on making the caramel on the stovetop.

    Judy W: You could likely add some in place of some of the caramel in the cream cheese topping.

    Joe E: Honey isn’t an invert sugar and can cause crystallization so I don’t use it with caramel, although since this is going to be used right away, it’s likely fine to use. If you do, let us know how it turns out.

    Rachel: Oops! When I added the print option, I have to put all the ingredients and the steps in separate modules, so sorry that I missed that. I added it to the steps (it gets added after the heavy cream) – thanks! : )

    • Rachel
      December 17, 2016 12:49am

      Thank you for the correction David. Will be making this on Saturday! Excited.

  • Heidi Aronson
    December 16, 2016 8:33pm

    Hi David, I’ve had complete success caramelizing sugar in the microwave without corn syrup, using the recipe I found here: http://www.elboricua.com/flan.html

  • December 16, 2016 8:36pm

    You’re killing me! I usually make cream cheese zebra brownies, which are a HUGE hit (but my recipe takes a lot more eggs. I wonder why?)
    The salted caramel is just an amazing idea. I can’t wait to make it. And I’m with you–brownies should be gooey, not dry and cake-like. You would think that with such a range of chocolate desserts from moelleux to fondant, the French would be great at brownies.

  • Linda Souder
    December 16, 2016 8:41pm

    Hi David! I have some Brittany Fleur de sel, it’s not been cleaned so it is rather gray…How should I use this salt?

    • December 16, 2016 8:44pm
      David Lebovitz

      Fleur de sel is white, but other sea salts (from Brittany, and elsewhere) are gray, due to their contact with the minerals in the marshes. If you have coarse gray salt, you can grind it up and sprinkle it lightly over the top. If it’s already fine, just sprinkle a little bit over the top. Fleur de sel is very delicate tasting, so if using another kind of salt, a sparing hand is usually a good strategy.

      • Linda Souder
        December 18, 2016 9:38pm

        Thank you for the clarification! Can’t wait to make these decadent brownies!

    • carol w.
      December 17, 2016 6:42pm

      Lucky you. I’m in Italy and wish I could get fleur de sel. We can get Brittany sea salt here — but not fleur de sel.

      • December 17, 2016 8:14pm
        David Lebovitz

        There’s lovely salt from Trapani (Sicily) in Italy, and their version of fleur de sel is fiore di sale, which I’ve seen in food shop in other Italian cities and regions. You might want to check that out.

      • Linda
        January 1, 2017 11:22pm

        Trader Joe’s has fleur de sel

        • Linda
          January 1, 2017 11:24pm

          It’s in a little tin can with their spices

  • December 16, 2016 9:39pm

    Like you I prefer to melt my chocolate using a Bain Marie. There is something soothing about watching and stirring melting chocolate and butter. Definitely going to give these a try tomorrow as I am in full baking mode for all my neighbours and friends.

  • rebecca
    December 16, 2016 9:42pm

    Thanks for the reply, David! I did some research and calculated that the from scratch caramel nets approximately 1/2 cup as I had guessed. So off to Trader Joes I go to buy Trader Jacques salted caramel sauce!

  • Jonathan
    December 17, 2016 4:12am

    Hi David, I just finished making these with the method without the microwave. The caramel solidified after cooling and it was difficult to incorporate into the cream cheese. But that’s ok, it’s like tiny chewy pieces of caramel swirled throughout! I had about 1/2 cup of the cream cheese mixture left over, otherwise it seemed like too much. I’m anxiously awaiting them to finish baking and to try. Thank you for sharing!

    • December 17, 2016 8:22pm
      David Lebovitz

      Thanks for the feedback. I didn’t try them with a “regular” caramel but when I’ve made caramel like that in a skillet, and added butter and cream, it’s usually soft, like it was when I made it in the microwave this time. Enjoy the brownies!

    • Jonathan
      December 18, 2016 9:00pm

      The brownies slayed the crowd! People loved them, and they turned out amazing. The crunchy bits of caramel added a nice touch.

  • Deborah
    December 17, 2016 7:50am

    In the US, is Steen’s Cane Syrup the same as golden syrup?

  • Pat
    December 17, 2016 2:40pm

    Just when I thought I was winding down on my holiday baking….you just had to come up with these didn’t you? Now, of course, Christmas isn’t Christmas without some dark rich chocolate caramel creamed cheese something or other…….:)

  • Becky
    December 17, 2016 3:12pm

    Would anyone have suggestions for swapping out the corn syrup? These look so delicious!

    • Deborah
      December 17, 2016 4:39pm

      I found that golden syrup is sugar cane based, and asked above if Steen’s Cane Syrup (in the US) is the same. I’ll call Steen’s Monday if I don’t have a reply from the comments. I’m in the Seattle area, and haven’t seen Lyle’s from Britain anywhere.

      • rebecca
        December 17, 2016 7:47pm

        Deborah, Cost Plus World Market carries Lyles, fyi.

      • saf
        December 19, 2016 4:10am

        It’s not the same – Steen’s is MUCH more strongly flavored.

  • Liz
    December 18, 2016 2:28am

    Very excited to try this! I love that the brownie recipe uses both unsweetened and bittersweet chocolate. For a long time, I’ve been combining your bittersweet chocolate brownie recipes with Smittenkitchen’s unsweetened chocolate one, usually because I don’t have enough of the latter kind of chocolate and I’m indecisive, and now this will save me the math (which I complicate further by reducing the sugar)! I will stove-top the caramel, since I don’t have a microwave. Just add the butter and sugar in the same gradual order once sugar caramelizes? Thanks!

    • Liz
      December 18, 2016 2:29am

      Oops, I meant just add the butter and cream, in the same order.

      • December 18, 2016 1:55pm
        David Lebovitz

        That’s what I usually do when I make a caramel with butter (added first) and cream.

  • Bebe
    December 18, 2016 3:39pm

    Any idea what power microwave Lin was using when he came up with that technique?

    I used to make excellent microwave peanut brittle in my old 900 power microwave. Trying it in my new 1300 power (didn’t even think about the power differential) created a huge boiled over mess. The whole thing had to be tossed and the microwave cleaned.

    Microwaves DO vary – often, widely. Thank you!

  • Patricia
    December 18, 2016 4:28pm

    I just baked these brownies, they are soooo good !
    Also, I love the quick microwave recipe for caramel. Will use for other things- not scared of couple Tbs corn syrup.

  • December 18, 2016 5:54pm
    David Lebovitz

    bebe: I didn’t find any recipes online that noted an exact temperature/setting. The technique, I believe, was originally derived from Cook’s Illustrated. They just say “High Power.” I found that mine took ~4 minutes, but recommended that people check it constantly – even before the two minute mark, since as you noted, microwaves do vary.

    Patricia: Glad you like them. Thanks for reporting back! There’s been a lot of information, and misinformation, about corn syrup but high-fructose corn syrup that manufacturers use is different than the kind of corn syrup sold at the supermarket. (The most prominent brand doesn’t contain HFCS.) Interestingly, natural food stores in Europe sell organic corn syrup – sirop de maïs – as an alternative sweetener.

    In this case, it’s one-twelfth (or one-sixteenth, depending on how big one cuts them) of a tablespoon per brownie. As a reader noted a while back – during a similar discussion, the stress of trying to avoid certain things may be worse for you than actually eating them ; )

  • Susan in
    December 18, 2016 6:17pm

    I just made this yesterday and it’s quite addictive with a cup of coffee or tea! I couldn’t wait until the next day and had some after it cooled. I’m eating it for breakfast right now and it tastes even better after the 24 hour in the fridge!
    I was able to find corn syrup without any high fructose corn syrup at Target (Karo brand had it).
    Thank you David! Who knew we could make caramel in the microwave?!?

  • Jharna
    December 19, 2016 1:20pm

    These combine all of my favourites in one perfect bowl! I think they’ll be on the menu for tomorrow. How do you think they would go mixed into home made vanilla bean ice cream?

  • Anna
    December 19, 2016 3:01pm

    David, as a complete caramel addict, I’ve made caramel in the microwave without corn syrup for years. The instructions I found and follow say to wrap the microwave-proof container (I use a 2-qt. Pyrex measuring cup) securely in plastic wrap, including the handle. I wrap it all the way around – bottom, top, handle, everything. The plastic wrap will balloon way up in the microwave, and you should be careful of steam when you open it. Otherwise, no worries, and it’s easy to control the color of the caramel because you can see it and make it darker in microwave increments. I do use commercial grade plastic wrap, easily available at Costco and other places. Thank you for your wonderful missives!

  • Lindsey
    December 19, 2016 6:13pm

    Took three attempts and a smelly kitchen to make the caramel; I nearly gave up but I am glad I persevered. The brownies were an over-the-top success. I can’t wait to make these again for the next dinner party. Much thanks!

  • Natasja
    December 20, 2016 10:17am

    I’ll definitely put this on my to-bake list.
    I recently made something similar. I baked a normal dulce de leche brownie (dark chocolate brownie with dollops of dulche de leche in it). It came out looking a bit boring so I added cream chees – dulce de leche frosting. A sprinkling of salt might have added a nice touch, but it went down a treat anyway!

  • December 20, 2016 7:59pm

    For those wondering about the salted caramel amount — I recently made some salted caramel using just about double the amounts here, and it yielded about 1 1/3 c. So I would guess that you could substitute 2/3 c of caramel. I’m planning to try this recipe this week and I’ll report back with any additional findings!

  • December 21, 2016 6:29am

    I made these the other night and they are sensational–truly the perfect brownies. I happened to have some caramel in the fridge, so it wasn’t much work at all. Btw, caramel keeps for months if it’s refrigerated in glass–this batch was six months old and tasted great.

  • December 21, 2016 7:47pm

    Hi David!
    Just made these and they are wonderful. My husband loved them with a little bourbon as a bedtime snack. (He is also a big fan of your malted milk ice cream.) And as a side note, I made the chicken pot pie from your book for the dinner party at my 50th birthday. We love your recipes and blog! Thank you so much!
    Tiffany from Bainbridge Island, WA

  • Janice
    December 21, 2016 8:11pm

    David: Can you recommend a particular technique/video for doing the swirl? I’m pretty sure I haven’t made anything swirled since around 1975 or so, and I’m not sure how to achieve the beautiful look you got. Thank you! Janice

  • December 21, 2016 8:42pm

    I made these, exactly as suggested. Oh yeah baby! They were so tasty, I made them again the next day. I did look on YouTube to find a video for doing the swirl. Have made these types of marbled things before and my technique needed some improvement. One suggested using a toothpick and not doing too much swirling. It turned out well. Thanks for the recipe David.

  • Rosemary Leicht
    December 22, 2016 4:41pm

    With a slight variation, Alice Medrich tells how to make caramel in the microwave in her book Chocolate & the Art of Low Fat Desserts from 1994. I have used her method since I first read it.

  • December 22, 2016 7:44pm

    Oh my goodness…these look incredible! Beautiful swirl too.

  • Noavard
    December 24, 2016 8:57am

    What a great recipe, this is delicious, everyone loves it.

  • Cathy
    December 27, 2016 4:09am

    These are currently cooling in the fridge and they look amazing! Loved the cream cheese brownie recipe in Ready for Dessert and didn’t think an improvement was possible but here we are! Thanks, David!

  • Linda
    January 1, 2017 11:29pm

    I just popped these into the fridge, but I’m not sure we’ll be able to hold out until tomorrow…
    Will report back…

  • Katie
    January 7, 2017 6:04pm

    I also made these with a traditional stove top caramel. With just 1/2 cup sugar, 4TBL butter and 3TBL cream the caramel set up much too solid to incorporate into the cream cheese mixture. I would suggest adding at least an additional 1-2TBL cream if using a traditional caramel. Otherwise the brownies look and smell great. Cooling now.

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