Browsing articles in "Bars & Brownies"
Jan 15, 2010

Cakey Sour Cream Brownies


So are you a fudgy brownie person or a cakey brownie person? Because I fall into the former category, and these brownies fall into the latter. And to be honest, I am so on Team Fudgy that I considered not even mentioning them to you. But upon further mulling of the whole thing, I decided you really do need to know about this recipe. Because even though they are not my ultimate brownies, they are still very good and if you are on Team Cakey, well, they may end up being yours. And I can’t in good conscience deny any cakey brownie-loving POC readers that pleasure. I’m here for you, people.


For the rest of us, I will not call these brownies, rather I will dub this recipe Rich Chocolate Snack Cake and share its many virtues. Not the least of which is a deep, satisfying chocolate flavor that isn’t shrouded by a cloying sweetness. The chocolate flavor really does shine here.


Another bonus of this recipe is that it’s easy, easy, easy. Which, really, all brownie recipes should be, but who doesn’t love easy? Communists, that’s who. All it takes is a little bit of flour, some melted some butter and chocolate, dark brown sugar, eggs and sour cream.


Back it up now, sister–what?
Oh, yes, I said sour cream. That’s what drew me to this recipe in the first place. And it’s the magical ingredient that keeps these cakey brownies from being dry and boring. The sour cream adds moisture and an edgy flavor element that keeps the chocolate from tasting flat. If ever there was a cakey brownie that might seduce the die-hard Fudgies, this would be it.


I should also mention something about this recipe that has become an obsession of sorts for me lately: the texture and flavor of these brownies actually improves the day after baking them. Even more moist, maybe even a little denser, more chocolatey. I flippin’ love that. In fact, on the second day, I got to thinking about other things that could be done with this recipe because of their transformation after a rest on the counter.


Vanilla ice cream and hot fudge on top, well, yes, yes, of course, but I’m feeling like pouring this batter into two round cake pans and frosting it with a thin layer of Vanilla Bean Buttercream or more generous swirls of Seven-Minute Frosting might just make for the most orgasmic, do-ahead layer cake in the history of the universe. If anyone tries this and you can still speak or type, could you report back with your findings? Awesome, thanks.



Sour Cream Brownies (aka Rich Chocolate Snack Cake)
Adapted from Nick Malgieri’s The Modern Baker

I’ve made several changes to this recipe–most notably, I left out the generous amount of walnuts that the original recipe calls for because I don’t like my brownies walnutted (2 cups toasted and chopped; if you love nutty brownies, add them). I also added a bit of cocoa powder, which gives a much-needed punch of chocolate flavor, but really only works if you use a premium, rich, dark cocoa powder like Valrhona. Make these brownies a day before you want to serve them and wrap them well–the flavor and texture improve the next day.

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons premium cocoa powder (I love Valrhona)
6 ounces (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
7 ounces bittersweet chocolate, cut into pieces (chocolate chips work fine, I like Ghiradelli)
1 3/4 cup dark brown sugar
4 large eggs
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Set an oven rack to the center position and preheat the to 350 degrees. Line a 9×13 pan with foil, and spray with cooking spray.

In a small bowl, sift together the flour and cocoa powder and set aside.

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. Allow it to bubble for about 10 seconds, then remove the pan from the heat and add the chocolate. Let it sit for a minute or two, and then whisk until smooth. Let cool for a minute while you prepare the rest of the recipe.

In a large bowl, whisk together the brown sugar and eggs until smooth. Whisk in the sour cream, salt and vanilla until well-blended. Stir in the chocolate and butter mixture, then fold in the flour and cocoa mixture just until it dissappears into the batter.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake the until the brownies just begin to pull away from the sides of the pan and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with a few moist crumbs, about 30 minutes.

Cool the brownies completely in the pan on a rack before cutting into squares.

Dec 30, 2009

Chocolate Peanut Butter Crumble Bars


The Piece of Cake Kitchen Presents: Moments in Life During Which You Might Think to Yourself, “Oh, man, I am IN FOR IT.”

1. You suddenly realize you are drunk in front of your future in-laws.

2. The doctor says, “I think we need to try forceps.”

3. You are mid-recipe for these completely insane Chocolate-Peanut Butter Crumble Bars.


If the name alone doesn’t get you into all sorts of trouble, then maybe a rundown of what we’re dealing with here will: a chewy, nutty, oatmeal cookie-like base, a salty-sweet streusel topping studded with chocolate bits, and to hold it all together, a layer of what basically translates to peanut butter caramel hovering in between. Oh, I said it. Like a young lady who drinks her face off in front of her future in-laws, I said it.


Now, I know you may be thinking to yourself, “Sweet Lord, Shauna, you’re throwing something with chocolate and and peanut butter and sweetened condensed milk at us four days after Christmas?!” Just hear me out, okay? Yes, these bars are crazy, I know that. But! They came out of a need to clear out the few last bits of goodies that were acquired from weeks of holiday baking and entertaining–some half-consumed bags and bars of chocolate, leftover nuts from cocktail noshing, that sort of thing. So these bars are resourceful! These bars are green, people! They are also chockful of health! Heart-healthy nuts and oats, guys!

Also, there’s only a couple days left to ride that cushy denial train until we arrive at the New Year and skinny jean-fitting reality comes crashing down on us. Won’t you join me? All aboard!


Chocolate-Peanut Butter Crumble Bars

You truly can make this recipe all your own. I’ve listed some suggestions, but go with whatever varieties of chocolate and nuts you happen to have on hand–milk, dark, semi-sweet chips, bits of stocking-stuffer candy bar, salted or unsalted nuts, whatever you’ve got. If the nuts are raw instead of roasted, a quick toasting while the oven’s preheating adds a nice touch of flavor.

Makes 16

5 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, chips or chopped
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch cubes, soft but still cool
3/4 cup dark brown sugar, lightly packed
1 cup old-fashioned oats (not instant or quick-cooking)
1/2 cup chopped mixed nuts (I used half pecans, half roasted, salted almonds)
1 egg, at room temperature
7 ounces (about half a can) sweetened condensed milk
1/4 cup creamy peanut butter (crunchy is ok, don’t use natural peanut butter)

Position an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line an 8×8-inch baking pan with a strip of parchment paper or aluminum foil that will fit along the bottom and up two opposite sides of the pan with a bit of overhang to create “handles” to easily remove the bars later.

Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together into a large bowl. Using your fingertips, rub the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles large breadcrumbs. Stir in the brown sugar, oats and nuts. Put about a quarter of this mixture (roughtly 1 1/2 cups) into a small and stir in the chocolate bits. Set aside.

Into the remaining three-quarters of the crumb mixture, stir in the egg until it comes together into an evenly moistened mass, sort of like a loose cookie dough. Pat the dough into the bottom of the prepared pan and pre-bake for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, stir together the sweetened condensed milk and peanut butter until well-blended. When the bottom layer of the bars is finished pre-baking, spread the peanut butter mixture evenly over the warm layer. Sprinkle the reserved chocolate-crumble mixture evenly over everything and press down lightly.

Return the pan to the oven and bake for 20 more minutes, until golden brown. The bars will feel very soft and not done in the center, but they will set as they cool. Let the bars cool in the pan for 10 minutes before running a thin knife along the edges and removing the slab to a cooling rack to cool completely. Cut into 16 squares. Store any leftover in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 4 days.

Nov 4, 2009

Toblerone Brownies


My friend Sara has all these wacky-but-completely-lovable traits that you’d really never see coming. She is sunshine personified, this girl–all blonde and loud laughs and positive energy. You’d never think she’s the type to get too hung up on details, based on first impressions. But you would be very, very wrong about that.

For instance, she goes positively bananas for laundry day. Like a micro-sorting-into-categories-of-whites-that-I-didn’t-know-existed-and-serious-opinions-about-detergents-level of interest in laundry. It used to be that I would know not to call her before a certain hour on Thursdays, because I knew it was Sara’s Laundry Day, but if I just had to call her about something and she did happen to pick up, she’d have this very Sara-esque cheery-but-absentminded tone because she’d really rather be ironing and folding her many, many sets of sheets than talking on the phone. But I will say that her meticulous nature with housekeeping duties makes being a house guest at her place one of the loveliest experiences ever.


You’ve also never met someone with so much restraint. Don’t get me wrong–girlfriend knows how to have a good time. A wonderful appetite for life and good food and wine, but when she decides to reel it in, sister goes hard core. I’ve always admired that about her. She doesn’t have a raging sweet tooth like me, so she can be especially good about sweets in strict moderation. I will never forget the time I went to her apartment and saw a huge Toblerone bar sitting on the kitchen table, only a chunk or two gone out of the whole thing, purchased at the movie theater two days before (an obsession with going to the movies alone is another Sara Quirk). I could not wrap my head around how one could have a partially eaten chocolate bar sitting in the same spot for more than a couple of hours, and on top of that, how could she have only eaten a smidgen of it to begin with?! Oh, Sara.

After that, Toblerone bars always remind me of Sara. And although I can say with great certainty that chances are good that she is on some sort of dairy-free-gluten-free-sugar-free dietary experiment as I write this, I’m sure even she would have a hard time resisting one of these fudgy brownies, chunky throughout with hunks of Toblerone pieces and toasty hazelnuts, with an unexpected hit of cinnamon.


This recipe is the first I’ve tried from a cookbook I recently bought on a whim. I had gone to the bookstore only to buy a birthday gift for a friend, nothing more, and reminded myself of that the whole way there. But because I was at the bookstore in rare form–sans toddler and showered, for starters–I lingered for a longer than I should have. I really don’t need another cookbook, I told myself as I traced my fingertips over the spines of so many culinary volumes that I’ve been eyeing as of late. But with latte in hand and no tiny person yanking at my jeans, the spine-tracing turned to back-cover-glancing and then flipping and then skimming and then “Ooh. Well, THAT looks good”, and so forth. And so it would be: The Best Bake Sale Ever Cookbook is the newest addition to my cookbook collection.


Cheesetastic subject matter aside, the recipes in this book are the sort that you just know have been tested hundreds of times over, in home kitchens by real people all over the place. Cookies and pies and bars and cakes of family and church gathering lore, the kind of baked goods that are named after people known by a certain dishes in their personal circles. Which is all to say that these recipes are uncomplicated, very transportable and not at all precious, sometimes unusual, and totally delightful. I haven’t been so charmed by a cookbook in a really, really long time. And any book that touts a brownie recipe with hunks of Toblerone bar is all right by me.


A word about Toblerone: the wrapper is not child-proof. If you fail to remove it from your child’s pudgy-knuckled grip to avoid a meltdown in the car on the way home, you may arrive home to find that in your back seat sits a little chocolate-smeared face with shining eyes and leech-like suction on one end of the package, which now looks like this:

Toblerone Brownies
Adapted from The Best Bake Sale Ever Cookbook

I love Ghiradelli chocolates for baking–they’re good quality and easily found in most supermarkets. For the Toblerone, use either the milk chocolate or dark chocolate variety–whatever you like. I like hazelnuts in this recipe, but pecans would also work well, as would almonds to echo the almond nougat bits in the candy bar, but remember to toast them before adding them to the batter for the best flavor. Toast them while you’re putting the rest of the recipe together at the same temperature as the brownies–350 degrees for about 10 minutes. Like most brownies, these keep beautifully in the freezer.

Makes 16

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
2 eggs, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup hazelnuts, toasted, peeled and chopped
1 Toblerone bar (3.52 ounces), milk or dark chocolate variety, chopped (I cut each triangular hunk into quarters)

Position an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line an 8×8 inch square pan with aluminum foil to make removing the brownies easier. Spray the foil with nonstick cooking spray.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon and salt in a medium bowl. Set aside.

Place the butter pieces and unsweetened chocolate in a small, microwave-safe bowl. Melt the butter and chocolate together on high power in 30 second intervals, stirring well after each, until the mixture is smooth. Set aside to cool slightly while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle or in a large bowl with an electric mixer, beat the eggs on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Beat in the sugar and vanilla. Beat in the cooled chocolate mixture until well-blended. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl and fold in the dry ingredients by hand. Stir in the nuts and candy pieces.

Spread the batter evenly in the prepared pan and bake until a toothpick comes out nearly dry, about 30 minutes. Cool completely in the pan on a wire rack. Remove the brownies using the foil sleeve and cut into 16 bars. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to four days.

Oct 19, 2009

Chewy Apple-Oat Bars with Cream Cheese Frosting


Aside from the occasional whimsical celebration cake or all-or-nothing recipe involving crazy things like corn syrup and sweetened condensed milk, most recipes that come out of the Piece of Cake kitchen are relatively simple, without a whole lot of complicated stuff going on. As much as I like a culinary challenge, my favorite treats are the kind that sit quietly on the counter and softly call to you all day long as you pass through the kitchen. You know–a sliver here, a nibble there, until all that’s left is crumbs and you wonder where the whole thing went. But some things don’t fit so neatly in to either category. Like a humble, chunky, apple-studded bar cookie made fancy with a slick of decadent icing.


When I first saw this recipe, I thought, Sweet Lord! That’s a whole lotta concepts going on. I mean, these bars are basically a chewy apple pie-oatmeal cookie-cheesecake hybrid. And if you can think of any more delicious things to cram into one sentence, please report to me. Because after I wrapped my brain around the recipe, I could not get it out of my head. With a few tweaks to the add-ins and more sophisticated icing than the original recipe called for, these bars emerged as one of the more addictive things to come out of the Piece of Cake kitchen in recent months.

If you’re looking for a great dessert for a tailgate or a pumpkin-carving get-together or just a little something to take over to a friend’s house for coffee and Oprah on a rainy day, look no further. The nubbly bar cookie base is crowd-pleasingly familiar, but the white chocolate and cream cheese frosting dresses it up just a bit and adds an amazing punch of flavor. Dusted with cinnamon and cut into two-bite-sized bars, they’re autumnal party perfection.


And a quick word about cinnamon: have you ever gotten your hands on some good Vietnamese cinnamon? Because it will completely Blow. Your. Mind. In fact, you may question what kind of lie you’ve been living using that drab, dusty brown powder from the supermarket all these years. Vietnamese cinnamon is like cinnamon on steroids. It smells and tastes exactly like Red Hots candy, people–hot and so intensely spiced and sweet that you’d think it couldn’t possibly come from nature. But it does! And if you’re me you trek regularly to a bulk foods emporium with a spectacular spice section to buy it by the cupful while people look at you suspiciously. And then once you get it home, you shove the filled spice tin under every nose that enters the house while being a Vietnamese cinnamon-raving lunatic. It’s really something. With high baking season upon us, there’s no better time to track some down.


Chewy Apple-Oat Bars with White Chocolate Cream Cheese Icing
Loosely adapted from the Land O’ Lakes website, of all places

Refrigerating the bars after icing them will set the icing as well as make for easy, clean cutting of the bars. Their taste and texture actually improve a day after baking, so make them a day ahead whenever possible. For a less decadent variation, skip the icing, and swap out the white chocolate chips for toasted walnuts.

Makes about 20 two-bize-sized bars

For the apple-oat bars:

1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 plus 1/8 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 cup old-fashioned oats (not quick cooking)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
6 tablespoons firmly packed dark brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup diced apple (about one small apple, I like Fuji or Honeycrisp)
4 ounces white chocolate chips

For the white chocolate cream cheese icing:

2 ounces white chocolate chips
2 ounces cream cheese, softened but still cool
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/3 cup confectioners’ sugar (more or less, depending on your sweet tooth and how stiff you want the icing to be)
Ground cinnamon, for dusting

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line an 8×8 inch square baking pan with aluminum foil (with a few inches of overhang on all sides) and spray the foil lightly with cooking spray.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, baking soda, cinnamon and oats and set aside. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium speed until creamy. Add the sugars and beat until smooth and lightened in color. Scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl, and beat in the egg and vanilla until well-blended. On low speed, blend in the dry ingredients. On the lowest speed or by hand, stir in the apple chunks and white chocolate chips.

Spread the batter into the prepared pan and bake just until a toothpick comes out clean, about 35-38 minutes. Do not overbake. Let the bars cool in the pan on a wire rack for about 10 minutes, then use the foil “handles” to remove the slab from the pan. Let cool completely on the rack in the foil sleeve, at least 1 hour.

Meanwhile, make the icing. In the microwave, melt 2 ounces of white chocolate chips in a small microwave-safe bowl in 30 second bursts at 50% power, stirring after each interval until smooth. In a small bowl, beat together the cream cheese, butter and vanilla until smooth. Add the melted white chocolate and beat until smooth. Beat in the confectioners’ sugar until the icing is slightly thickened and sweetened to your liking.

When the bars are completely cool, spread the icing in an even layer over the bars, using the foil to create a dam of sorts that will keep the icing from dripping down the edges of the bars. Refrigerate the bars with the foil sleeve until the icing is firm, at least 1 hour.

Remove the slab from the foil to a cutting board and dust with cinnamon. With a large, sharp knife, cut into about 20 bars. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

Sep 4, 2009

Brewers’ Blondies


Anyone remember Chad Allen? He was one of those late 80’s TV teen heartthrobs on the relatively short-lived Our House. Ring a bell? Well, not that many people remember it. But I do because I was sure that I would marry Chad Allen one day. Back in, oh, say, fourth or fifth grade, I remember writing a letter to him. I’m not sure exactly what I wrote, but I know it was on my best Hello Kitty notebook paper and that right there says a lot about how important this correspondence was to me. I put that letter in my Esprit bag the night before school and stuck it in the mailbox on my way to the bus the next day.

And then I waited. And waited. And finally, after many months and a weeklong stint at summer camp, I arrived home to find that he had indeed written back! Well, not really him, more like his manager or whoever was responsible for assembling his form letters. But there was a really nice 8×10 photo with a fake autograph on it that I thought was rad. Even if it had taken so long to get that response that I’d sort of gotten over him. But that anticipation was delicious, waiting for a response and finally having that envelope show up.

I experienced that feeling all over again a few weeks ago, waiting waiting waiting for my copy of Baked: New Frontiers in Baking (from the charming boys at NYC’s Baked bakery, quite crushworthy themselves, incidentally) to show up on my doorstep. I’d been lovingly stroking this book at different shops for quite some time and finally found an online deal too great to pass up. Too bad that the online retailer I ordered it from took nearly two weeks to deliver the flippin’ thing. I almost passed out from the excitement while waiting. Who do you think you are, pokey online retailer?! Chad Allen? I don’t think so!

Anyway, flipping through the pages, my head was spinning from all the inspiration. I want to eventually get around to baking everything in the whole dang book, but settled on starting with the Brewers’ Blondies. Oh, man. Okay. So…I bake a lot, right? Well, I love the smell of baked goods wafting through the house, but sometimes it seems so much like the norm around here that it’s just sort of a nice backdrop to our lives and nothing too extraordinary. We-he-helllll….with this recipe, the deep, rich scent of pure butterscotch floating through the rooms in our house nearly made me pull my hair out. It was really something.


The finished bars are dense and chewy, all dark brown sugar and brown butter and so stunningly complex in flavor, with bits of chocolate and nuts and malt…malt, people! Ohmahgah.


A few notes: Does it have to be dark brown sugar? Yes, yes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t matter, but in this case it really matters–it’s what gives these bars their incredible depth of flavor and phenomenal chew. Also, the original recipe calls for 3/4 cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips–I felt like that would be a lot of chocolate and I was really feeling the blondie thing, so I did about half bittersweet chips and half white chocolate chips because I had them, but do what you like.

I also cut the walnuts down from 3/4 cup to 1/2 cup–just my preference. Turns out the movie-size box of malted milk balls available in supermarkets is just about the right amount for this recipe, plus a couple extra handfuls (cronch, cronch). Rather than chasing malted milk balls around my countertop with a chef’s knife or dirtying an appliance to chop them, I put them in a ziptop bag and gave each one a little pop with the end of my rolling pin and viola–just the right size pieces.

I sent the husband to work with half the batch (good call, otherwise I’d still be in a complete blondie coma) and when Baby C and I went to visit him at the office just a few hours later, I noticed there was already only one bar left in the container. So there ya go. I don’t see how you could go wrong, giving this recipe a try. They are a keeper, to say the least.

Oh, and P.S: Funnily enough, a few years back I actually got to interview Chad Allen on the red carpet for Brokeback Mountain. He was completely adorable. And of course I had to tell him that I got that letter and it totally made my whole summer, even it it wasn’t really from him. He thought it was hilarious. In other news, turns out boyfriend is totally all Brokeback Mountain himself now. I really know how to pick ’em.


Brewer’s Blondies
Adapted from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking

Makes 24 bars

Malted milk powder can usually be found near in the tea/coffee/cocoa section of your larger supermarket. Toasted walnuts give these bars a great flavor–it’s easy to toast them if you preheat your oven good and early; toss the nuts into a small baking pan and put them in a 350 degree oven for about 10 minutes or until they are golden and fragrant (let them cool before adding them to the batter). I like to line the pan with a sleeve of parchment paper across the bottom and draped over the sides of the pan like parchment “handles” to make for easy removal of the blondie slab, which also makes for nice, evenly cut bars.

2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons malted milk powder
14 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 3/4 cups dark brown sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup malted milk balls (like Whoppers or Maltesers), coarsely chopped
1/3 cup bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/3 cup white chocolate chips
1/2 cup toasted walnuts, chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9×13 inch baking pan. If you like, line the pan with a parchment sleeve to make the removal and cutting of the bars easier.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt and malted milk powder.

In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and dark brown sugar on medium speed. Scrape down the bowl, and beat in the eggs and vanilla until well-blended. Add the dry ingredients in two additions on low speed and beat until just combined. Mix in the malted milk balls, chocolate chips and walnuts. Give the batter a final folding by hand with a spatula to make sure there are no dry pockets and the batter is evenly mixed. It will be very thick. Turn the batter into the prepared pan and smooth it evenly.

Bake in the center of the oven for about 30 minutes, or until the bars are deeply golden and a toothpick comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack in the pan for 20 minutes before removing the bars to a cutting board and cutting them into 24 squares. Once they cool completely, they can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to three days.

Aug 4, 2009

Caramel Crumb Bars

I have had quite enough of the fresh ‘n fruity summer desserts around here. Let’s get down to brass tacks, shall we?


Mmm-hmm. Those there are Caramel Crumb Bars, and they have easily moved into a position on the Piece of Cake Top 10 List. Buttery and sweet-salty with a creamy caramel filling, they are the stuff of bar cookie dreams. I will be honest with you–this recipe is not about doing anything in moderation. But if you are feeling particularly ridiculous and want to experience the very best that the pairing of sweet cream butter and pure cane sugar has to offer, then please enthusiastically proceed.

It all starts with a simple, simple shortbread crust–just butter, sugar and flour mixed together and pressed into an even layer in a 9×13-inch pan. And don’t even think you can save yourself by halving this recipe–because you’ll just end up making the other half the next day. So just go for it. Trust.


Most of the shortbread dough gets pressed into the pan (a sheet of plastic wrap makes quick work of getting the sticky dough to cooperate) and then popped into the fridge to chill, but some of the dough gets reserved and mixed with a little extra flour to make a crumb topping. Again, just use your hands–nature’s best baking tools.


Now comes the huminuh, huminuh part of this equation. There is no other way to say this, people, so I will just come out with it. More butter, more sugar, corn syrup and sweetened condensed milk. I told you this recipe was ridiculous. Cook them together quickly so they morph into a smooth, dreamy caramel so beautiful that it will make you forget all about the insane amount of calories in this recipe. Almost.


When the dough has chilled and the caramel has had a chance to cool a bit, take a deep breath and prepare to enter a hypnotic state. Oh, man.


All that’s left to do is sprinkle on the crumb topping and bake the bars until they become bubbly and golden on the edges (a see-through glass pan will make it easier to check the bottom of the crust for doneness).


After the baking time is up, hang tight for about 20 more minutes to let things set up a bit, then remove the bars from the pan and cut them while they’re still warm–warm and chewy with a buttery, sandy shortbread crust. And although it will be difficult, if you can let them cool completely, the texture and flavor will get even better.

With the exception of Communists, everyone is a sucker for sweet and buttery with a hint of salty. It’s the magical mild salty finish that keeps you heading back for another, and another…don’t say I didn’t warn you in the first place.

Caramel Crumb Bars
Adapted from Nick Malgieri’s The Modern Baker

Makes 2 dozen bars

Save the wrappers from the softened butter sticks–it’s the perfect amount with which to grease the parchment. Note that the flour measurement calls for it to be spooned into the cup and leveled off–this will give you a different amount of flour in the cup than the dip and sweep method and noticeably effect the texture of the crust.

For the crust:

16 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups flour (spooned and leveled)

For the filling:

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
Generous 1/8 teaspoon salt

Position an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9×13-inch pan with parchment paper or foil and lightly grease it.

In the bowl of a standing mixer, beat the butter, sugar and salt together on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 1 to 2 minutes. Add the vanilla and beat to incorporate. Turn the mixer down to low and gradually mix in 2 1/4 cups of the flour until the dough is smooth, scraping the bottom and sides of the bowl as necessary to ensure there are no dry pockets.

Place 1/4 of the dough into a small bowl and set aside. Lightly press the rest of the dough evenly across the bottom of the pan with your palms (a sheet of plastic wrap over the dough will prevent it from sticking to your hands). Chill the pan in the refrigerator while you prepare the topping and filling.

Make the crumb topping by working the remaining 1/4 cup of flour into the reserved dough with your fingertips until large crumbs form. Set aside at room temperature.

To make the filling, place the 4 tablespoons of butter, corn syrup, brown sugar and sweetened condensed milk in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium heat, allowing the mixture to bubble gently for about 10 minutes–it will thicken and darken in color slightly. Scrape the caramel into an aluminum bowl and allow it to cool for about five minutes.

Pour the filling over the chilled dough and spread evenly with a spatula. Sprinkle the crumb topping evenly over the filling. Bake until the crust browns and the filling darkens in color and bubbles, about 30 minutes. Allow the bars to cool in the pan on a wire rack for 20 minutes before removing the slab from the pan to a cutting board. Cut into 24 bars and cool completely before serving. The bars can be kept in an airtight container at room temperature if serving within a day, and wrapped tightly and frozen for up to two months after that (thaw the bars at room temperature).

Jun 25, 2009

Espresso Brownies

It’s been crazy days around here, people. Crazy. First we moved from our tiny apartment to a nice, roomy house (Three times the counter space! Gas cooking! Laundry without quarters!). Then within days Baby C started to really crawl (madness, I tell you). And because we hadn’t done enough packing and unpacking, we took a week long trip to the very lovely (and oppressively HOT) Gulf Coast. Now that we are back home and somewhat settled, I had to take a minute and catch you up on what’s been going on in the Piece of Cake kitchen. Because even though I’ve been up to my eyeballs in boxes and laundry and lists, I was still insane enough to try a bunch of new cake and icing recipes while in the fray.

That old, teeny kitchen we left behind, well, she was good to me. With about six square feet of counter space all told and yet a full-size oven and brilliant natural light, we laughed, we cried, and managed to churn out a few last recipes the weekend before moving day, like some pretty little lemon curd-filled cupcakes for a Mothers’ Day fete.


Meyer Lemon Raspberry cupcakes (with sweet little sugar flowers in lieu of raspberries) inspired by Vanilla Bake Shop (one of my very favorite places in the world–Santa Monica, I really miss you sometimes, sniff) was the perfect kind of thing to make for my favorite comrades in motherhood as we all celebrated our first mama’s holiday together. It was a great day full of abundant sunshine, amazing pulled pork and some pretty little cupcakes fit for exhausted, yet radiant, new mothers.


The cupcakes received raves, and they were indeed beautiful and delicious, but I am making a few tweaks next time to reach cupcakery nirvana with this one. I’ve made the complete cupcake with filling and frosting a couple of times now, and though it the cake part always has very good flavor, I personally find the texture a bit dry against the lush vanilla bean buttercream, even when the cake is fresh and served the day it’s baked. And truthfully, I feel like it’s difficult to not toughen up the cake at least a little because whipped egg whites are folded in after the flour has been incorporated into an already really stiff batter and I’m all folding and folding and getting all nervous at the thought of the heaps of gluten that must be developing before it gets smooth. Shudder. I just don’t need that kind of stress.

Anyway, I still like my version of this cupcake better. But if you’re up for a challenge, or are looking for a nice, sturdy, flavorful vanilla bean cake for a special project, by all means give this one a shot. When making the entire cupcake recipe, I adjust the amounts for the frosting and filling because the original recipe makes way too much curd for two dozen cupcakes. And I find it to be way too skimpy on the frosting, which should be illegal. So I halve the curd recipe and make about 1 1/4 batches of buttercream to make enough to create pretty piped pillowy tops that beg to be sprinkled with something pretty.

For the aforementioned Mother’s Day celebration, I also made a recipe from Giada DeLaurentiis (do you even need to indicate this woman’s last name anymore? She is like Madonna or Cher now, if they had a limitless arsenal of adorable measuring cups and spoons). Her espresso brownies are a brilliant thing to have in your repertoire for those times when you make a somewhat involved dessert that’s on the light/fruity side, but want to have one more little thing on the dessert table for the chocolate people.


Normally I don’t do mixes, especially for brownies, which are so simple to make from scratch it’s almost criminal. But the additions to the mix in the form of good-quality chocolate chips and espresso powder and the gorgeous coffee-colored glaze add enough personality to give it a from-scratch feeling. My name is Shauna and I approve this boxed mix recipe. And come to think of it, I’m also a huge hypocrite, because if Sandra Lee had come up with this recipe and not Giada, I would have deemed it a trashy abomination of a brownie. But these are really fabulous.

Espresso Brownies
Adapted from Giada De Laurentiis

Makes about 20 smallish brownies

1 (19.5 ounces or 9×13 inch “family size”) box fudge brownie mix
2 eggs
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons water
1/3 cup vegetable oil
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons instant espresso powder (available in better grocery stores, instant coffee is not nearly as good here)
3/4 cup mini semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, very soft

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9×9 inch baking pan with nonstick cooking spray. Line the pan with two perpendicular strips of parchment paper with enough overhang on two opposite sides to create parchment “handles” to make for easy removal of the brownies later. Spray the parchment with cooking spray, too.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the brownie mix, eggs,1/3 cup of water, oil, and 2 tablespoons of the espresso powder until well-blended. Fold in the chocolate chips. Pour into the prepared baking pan. Bake for about 40-45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with moist crumbs. Cool completely on a wire rack.

For the glaze, dissolve the remaining 2 teaspoons of espresso powder in 2 tablespoons of water. Whisk in the confectioners’ sugar until smooth, then whisk in the vanilla, then the butter until smooth. Pour the glaze over the cooled brownies, coaxing it across the entire surface into a smooth, even layer. Refrigerate until the glaze is firm. Remove the brownies from the pan, remove the parchment paper, and cut the brownies into about 20 small bars.

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