Food & Drink

Raising the bar on bar cookies

MICHAEL HENNINGER PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE/TNSThis is a chocolate-butterscotch crispy bar.
MICHAEL HENNINGER PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE/TNSThis is a chocolate-butterscotch crispy bar. TNS

The sweet treat that is in the shape of a bar is omnipresent, omnificent and omnicompetent for a bunch of reasons.

It's a one-pan operation, easy to make, straight-forward and involves minimal prep time. And unlike cookies, they don't need to be portioned, scooped out onto a pan and then baked in batches. "Everything goes into the oven at once, and you are done," says food blogger ("The Next Door Baker") and cookbook author ("Real Sweet") Shauna Server.

It is easy to pack and don't require special or expensive containers. They also travel well.

"It requires no fussing when it comes to serving because the topping is thick and won't drip, and it is easily sliceable," says Julia Collin Davison, executive food editor of the PBS show "America's Test Kitchen." A bar can be handheld, and so does not require a fork or spoon. Nor does it require a plate -- a single napkin will suffice -- and they can be eaten on the run.

It can be sliced larger or smaller to accommodate any crowd size, Davison says, and they would be acceptable.

But although the dessert bar has simplicity written all over it, things get long-winded when it comes to a definition.

The obvious classic shape is what defines a bar for Jennifer McHenry, author of "Quick-Shop-&-Prep 5 Ingredient Baking" (Page Street Publishing Co.; $19.99). Besides that, "a bar needs to have a soft texture, even if there's a bit of crunch on the top," says McHenry, who also writes the blog "Bake or Break."

Davison says she would define bars by their rectangular shape, and that they are baked in rectangle or square pans. But she then adds that they could be cut in the shape of squares or diamonds, and don't necessarily have to be baked.

The definition is straightforward for mystery novelist Diane Mott Davidson, who recently came out with a cookbook -- "Goldy's Kitchen." "Bars are simply cookies made in baking pan," she says.

The sweet and tart tastes of fall are brought alive here with the cranberries and pear nectar. Do not substitute old-fashioned oats for steel-cut oats or quick cooking oats.

CRANBERRY PEAR BARS

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup packed brown sugar, plus another 2/3 cup, divided

3/4 cup cold butter

1 cup regular rolled oats

2/3 cup pear nectar

2/3 cup packed light brown sugar

2 cups fresh cranberries

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Line 13-by-9-by-2-inch baking pan with foil, leaving about 1 inch of foil extending over the ends of the pan. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, stir together flour and ½ cup brown sugar. Cut in butter until mixture resembles fine crumbs. Stir in the oats.

Reserve 1 cup oats mixture. Press remaining mixture evenly into the bottom of the prepared pan. Bake for about 15 minutes or until light brown.

Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan stir together pear nectar and 2/3 cup brown sugar. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar. Add cranberries. Let simmer, uncovered, for about 10 minutes or until slightly thickened.

Remove from heat, stir in nutmeg.

Spread cranberry mixture evenly over baked crust. Sprinkle reserved oat mixture over cranberry mixture. Bake for about 25 minutes more, or until the top is light brown.

Cool in pan on a wire rack. Use the overlapping foil to remove from pan and place on a cutting board. Cut into bars.

Makes 32 bars.

-- "Baking Step by Step" by Better Homes and Gardens.

Rice Krispies Treats get a peanutty twist here. The chewy, gooey bars are treated to a chocolate and butterscotch topping that make them ethereal.

CHOCOLATE-BUTTERSCOTCH CRISPY BARS

1 cup honey

1/4 cup sugar

1-1/4 cups crunchy peanut butter

6 cups crisp rice cereal, such as Rice Krispies

1 12-ounce package semisweet chocolate morsels

1 12-ounce package butterscotch morsels

1/2 cup chopped honey-roasted peanuts

Spray a 13-by-9-inch baking pan with nonstick cooking spray. Set aside.

In a large saucepan, stir together honey and sugar over medium-high heat. Bring just to a boil; remove from heat. Add peanut butter stirring well until combined. Add cereal, stirring until evenly coated. (Mixture will be thick.)

Press cereal mixture into prepared pan.

In a medium bowl, place chocolate and butterscotch. Microwave in 30-second intervals until they melt, stirring after each interval.

Spread chocolate mixture in an even layer over cereal mixture. Top with peanuts. Let cool until chocolate hardens; cut into squares.

Yields 10 to 12 servings.

-- Taste of the South magazine, Fall Baking 2015 issue.

The soft blondies are filled with pucker power from the lemon and lime juices and zests. The texture of the bars is slightly crumbly, and it is better a day after they are baked.

LEMON-LIME BLONDIES

1-1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

Zest of 1 medium lime

Zest of 1 medium lemon

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened

1 cup granulated sugar

1 large egg

Juice of 1 medium lime

Juice of 1 medium lemon

1/2 cup almonds, sliced

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8-by-8-inch baking pan.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, lime zest, lemon zest and salt. Set aside.

Using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat butter and granulated sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg and mix well. Mix in the lime juice and lemon juice.

Reduce the mixer speed to low, gradually add the flour mixture, mixing just until combined.

Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and spread evenly. Sprinkle almonds over the top of the batter.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until a pick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Allow to cool in the pan for 15 minutes, before cutting into bars.

Makes 16 blondies.

-- Adapted from "Quick-Shop-&-Prep 5 Ingredient Baking" by Jennifer McHenry (Page Street Publishing Co.; October 2015; $19.99).

These decadent bars are inspired by Hello Dollies, a popular Southern dessert.

CHOCOLATE-COCONUT BARS

3 cups finely ground cookies, such as graham crackers or chocolate wafers, or a combination

1/4 cup sugar

3/4 cup unsalted butter, melted

1 cup pecan pieces

1 cup semisweet chocolate chips or chunks

1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk

1- 1/2 cups sweetened, shredded coconut

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly splash a 15-by-10-inch rimmed baking sheet evenly with water; then line with parchment paper.

In a large baking bowl, stir together cookie crumbs, sugar and butter until combined. Evenly press onto bottom and up sides of prepared baking sheet. Bake, rotating halfway through, until firm, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack; cool about 20 minutes.

Sprinkle cooled crust evenly with pecans and chocolate. Pour condensed milk over the top, spreading to cover completely (do not let it drip over the edges). Sprinkle with coconut.

Bake until coconut is toasted, 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer to rack; cool completely. Trim edges, if desired, and cut into equal-size bars.

Makes 20 bars.

-- Everyday Food magazine, June 2005.

You can score blondie points with kids of all ages with these thick, really thick, nutty bars.

JACK'S FAVORITE BLONDIES

3/4 cup (1- 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter

2-1/4 cups firmly packed light brown sugar

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt

2 large eggs

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1 cup toffee pieces

3/4 cup toasted pecans, chopped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Adjust the racks to the center of the oven.

Line a 13-by-9-inch baking pan with foil, leaving a 2-inch overhang for easy removal after baking. Spray the foil lining with a nonstick baking spray.

Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Once it's melted, stir in brown sugar and cook, stirring until it is all combined. Remove from heat and allow mixture to cool for 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl.

Stir eggs into cooled sugar and butter mixture one at a time, until they are well incorporated. Stir in vanilla; then add flour mixture, mixing to combine. With a rubber spatula, fold in toffee pieces and chopped pecans.

Spread batter in the prepared pan. Bake until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Let cool for 30 minutes. Remove from the pan, and slice into 24 squares.

Makes 24 (2-inch) blondies.

-- "Jamie Deen's Good Food" by Jamie Deen.

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