I don’t know how many of you out there are all woo-woo when it’s comes to astrology, but for me, I’m a–let’s see, what would be the opposite of “fair weather fan”? Sucky weather fan?–let’s just say that I can get into astrology and like to take a peek/read way too much into cosmic forecasts when it feels like life is throwing hard things at me, machine-gun-style. Apparently Mercury was retrograde up until this past weekend, and sweet baby Jesus, I was feeling alllll of that retrogradeness, from stupid mistakes to flat tires to blah health and the list goes on. Don’t even get me started on the multiple cake failures I had going. Tragic all the way around.
I had really wanted to tell you about said cake today, but it’s still not quite ready for you yet, and since three misses is my self-imposed limit for the early stages of recipe testing lest I hurl myself off the roof, I decided to shelve that dang cake for now until some other groovy planetary shift can perfect it for me. In the meantime, I say we go with some chocolate and salted caramel because even in the face of otherworldly forces, those two items, even just eaten off a spoon, will never let us down.
Another thing that’s not been letting me down is flipping through the pages of the completely lovely cookbook from The Model Bakery in St. Helena, California (I must admit that my copy was checked out from the library and is, like a long, wine-soaked evening away from my children, heinously overdue). I’ve actually experienced the joy of this bakery in person, and savored their phenomenal pastries and house-made English muffins. So I was especially excited to pore over their recipe collection, and totally recommend it as a terrific, all-around tome of baking basics. I’m also pretty pumped about the book’s recipe for Carmelitas, a kitschy classic that The Model Bakery jazzes up with a homemade caramel sauce instead of a jarred variety.
Just as an aside, can we talk about how “Carmelita” totally sounds like a girl who would be super fun to party with? The type that makes you stay out a little too late, doing some organized dance moves and unfamiliar day-glo shots, and has you feeling like maybe wearing a crop top might a good idea? Anyway, in honor of my imaginary friend Carmelita, I opted to pump up these super sweet, chewy, textural powerhouses even further by swapping out the refined white and brown sugars with some hugely flavorful, more natural alternatives–turbinado and dark muscovado sugars (this is also the exact spirit of my third upcoming book, Real Sweet–no white sugar, no hippie food, just better, bigger flavors, hooray!).
Adapted from The Model Bakery Cookbook
Like I said, these gems are on the sweet side, so in addition to changing up some ingredients to boost flavor, I halved the recipe from the original, and cut the slab into small pieces, each about 1 1/2 inches square. To be totally honest, the small size of the bars will likely cause you to take two pieces at a time, but hey, you only live once. So do it up right, like Carmelita would want you to. Unlike the morning after a night out with Carmelita, however, these are even better (more natural sugar ka-pow flavor!) the next day.
Makes 25 1 1/2-inch squares
For the caramel:
1 cup (7 ounces/200 grams) turbinado sugar (or white cane sugar, or a combo of white and turbinado sugars)
1/4 cup (2 ounces/ 57 grams) water
1 teaspoon agave nectar or brown rice syrup (corn syrup works, too)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (4 1/4 ounces/120 grams) heavy cream
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
For the crust and topping:
1 1/2 cups (135 grams) old-fashioned rolled oats
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (4 1/8 ounces/118 grams) all-purpose flour
6 tablespoons (3 ounces/85 grams) firmly packed light or dark muscovado sugar, or dark brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons (3 ounces/85 grams) unsalted butter, melted
1 tablespoon water
1/2 cup (3 ounces/85 grams) bittersweet chocolate chips, 60 to 70% cacao
1/2 cup (1 7/8 ounces/53 grams) chopped pecans
Start by making the caramel: Combine the sugar, water, liquid sweetener, and salt in a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Stir gently over medium heat until the sugar has dissolved. Crank the heat to high, stop stirring, and cook the caramel until it’s slightly smoky and deep amber in color, about 5 minutes. Immediately pull the pan from the heat and carefully add the cream, whisking to blend–the caramel may seize a bit at first, but with additional whisking, it will smooth out beautifully. Whisk in the vanilla extract. Set the caramel aside to cool and thicken for about 1 hour.
Position a rack to the center of the oven and preheat it to 350 degrees F. Grease an 8×8-inch baking pan with nonstick cooking spray and line with with an 8-inch-wise strip of parchment paper or foil, leaving a few inches of overhang on two opposite sides. Light grease the liner, too.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the oats, flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt. Massage out any lumps of sugar with your fingertips. Stir in the melted butter and water until evenly moistened. Transfer about a quarter of the mixture to a small bowl for the topping. Press the remaining mixture evenly across the bottom of the prepared pan. Bake until firm and golden, about 25 minutes. Leave the oven on.
While the crust is still warm, spread the caramel over the top. Sprinkle over the chocolate chips, then the pecans. Finish by evenly sprinkling the reserved crumble mixture over the top. Bake until the barely golden, the chocolate chips are not completely melted, and the caramel is bubbling slightly at the edges of the pan, about 15 minutes more.
Let cool completely in the pan set over a wire rack before cutting into squares. Store in an airtight container at cool room temperature for up to 5 days.
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