Category Archives: brownies and bars

cranberry shortbread

cranberry orange shortbread, overhead I know, I know. We’re in the doldrums of January (nearly February), not the festive holiday season. And this is the second consecutive not just cranberry but cranberry orange recipe I’m sharing. I am done with your cranberries and citrus, you say.
cranberry orange shortbread about to slice I disagree. Look, I know I seem like I’m on a crusade for the sake of this combo, and maybe I am a bit, because it’s one of my favorites. Plus, the fact that we’re in the midst of winter makes it even more necessary for a bright, cherry-tasting treat.
crumbly and jammyAs shortbread bars with a jammy fruit topping, this cranberry orange rendition is the wintry cousin of this strawberry shortbread. Here, buttery, crumbly, lightly sweetened shortbread is baked to a deep golden brown, topped with a quick cranberry jam, and then adorned with lacy strands of orange zest. Yes, we’re making the cranberry jam (if it can even be called that, more like a jammy topping), but don’t run: it’s low-maintence and can be cooked up while the shortbread is baking. The topping is only lightly sweetened, and the short cook time means that the cranberries retain their tartness and bite, which I love. The buttery shortbread juxtaposes nicely in texture and flavor with the jammy, tart topping. Christmas it may not be, but vibrant cranberries and curls of orange zest sure do brighten up a polar vortex.
festively arranged

Cranberry Shortbread
adapted from Bon Appetit, November 2012

The cranberry topping may seem like it’s not enough, but just keep spreading it out, working it over the shortbread to make it as even as possible. If you want, you can use 12 oz cranberries and then adjust the other ingredients (increasing sugar by 1 tablespoon and orange juice by 1/2 tablespoon should do it nicely).

1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar, divided
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 10-ounce bag fresh (or frozen, thawed) cranberries
1/4 cup fresh orange or grapefruit juice
1 teaspoon grated orange or grapefruit zest, using a five-hole zester to create the pretty ribbons rather than a microplane

For the shortbread: Preheat oven to 350°F. Line an 8 x 8-inch pan with parchment paper, leaving a 2 inch overhang on 2 opposite sides. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, 1/4 cup sugar, and salt. Using your fingertips, rub butter into dry ingredients until mixture resembles coarse meal with some larger bits scattered throughout.

Using your fingertips, press the shortbread dough evenly onto the bottom of the prepared pan (using the bottom of a flat measuring cup also works well). Poke the dough all over with a fork.

Bake shortbread until cooked through and pale golden, 25-30 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack, and let it cool completely in the pan.

The shortbread can be made 3 days ahead. Cover pan tightly with plastic wrap and store at room temperature.

For the cranberry topping: Bring remaining 1/2 cup sugar, 1 1/2 cups cranberries, and orange juice to a simmer in a small saucepan and cook, stirring occasionally, until cranberries burst and mixture is syrupy, about 8-10 minutes. Stir in remaining cranberries and cook until skins begin to split, about 3 minutes. Let cool.

The cranberry topping can be made 3 days ahead. Cover and refrigerate.

Spread cooled cranberry topping over cooled shortbread. Scatter orange zest over. Using paper overhang, lift shortbread from pan and transfer to a cutting board to slice the shortbread. I cut mine into 15 rectangles with 3 extra little slivers (“to make sure they’re edible”).

Storing: These bars do best the day they’re made so the textures are preserved. If you need to make them ahead of time, make and store the shortbread and topping separately. Any leftovers should be refrigerated.

strawberry shortbread

strawberry shortbreadI have put off sharing this until strawberries were more widely available, as Louisiana is no standard for seasonality of produce. Lucky us, local strawberries are ready as early as late February, which is decidedly not the norm. I picked up a half-flat of ruby-red strawberries from the farmers’ market in mid-March, and they found their way into shortbread, among other goodies.
strawberriesbrown butter, solidifiedcrumblystrawberries + crumbsI was a little apprehensive about baking the strawberries, as they have a penchant for becoming watery in the oven. It’s also so tempting just to leave the berries whole and fresh and eat them as is, but I wanted to do something different. I reworked  this peach shortbread to feature strawberries and added some complementary flavors: almond, in the form of flour, and bright lemon zest. The browned butter in the original recipe is an ingenious touch–browned, frozen to re-solidify, and rubbed into the shortbread crumbs, which double as a base and topping. I then somehow managed to forget half an egg (since I halved this large recipe), so the bars were more crumbly than they should have been. But due to the small quantity, all was well.
about to be bakedoverhead slicedThe result? The strawberries became jammy, sweet, and deeply concentrated in the oven, melding with a nutty, buttery crust (hello brown butter and almond flour!) with the hint of bright lemon zest to balance it all out in a thin, crumbly slice of spring that left me excited for the rest of the season.
jammy, crumbly strawberry shortbread

Strawberry Shortbread
generously adapted from Smitten Kitchen’s peach shortbread

Makes about 12 2 x 2 1/2-inch squares

A long list of adaptions: I halved the recipe to bake in an 8 x 8-inch pan, swapped strawberries for peaches, substituted some of the all-purpose flour for almond flour, added lemon zest, omitted the spices (cinnamon and nutmeg), and forgot to add (half) an egg.

1/2 cup (1 stick or 4 ounces or 113 grams) unsalted butter
1/2 cup (3.5 ounces or 100 grams) sugar
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup (4.25 ounces or 120 grams) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (1.75 ounces or 50 grams) almond flour*
1/8 teaspoon  salt
1/2 egg (beat egg in a measuring cup and use half), or omit, but bars will be very crumbly
about 1 pint strawberries, hulled and thinly sliced (between 1/8 and 1/4-inch thick)

In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. It will melt, bubble and foam, turn clear golden and finally start to turn brown and smell nutty. Stir frequently, scraping up any bits from the bottom to prevent them from burning. Watch the butter closely– it goes from brown to burned very quickly. Transfer to a small bowl and freeze until solid (about 30 minutes).

Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Butter (or nonstick spray) a 8 x 8-inch pan and line with parchment paper. In a medium bowl, rub together the sugar and lemon zest until the sugar is moist and fragrant. Add the baking powder, flours, and salt and whisk to combine. Using a pastry blender, fork or your fingertips (my preferred method, but work quickly), rub the solidified brown butter and egg into the flour mixture. It will be very crumbly. Pat about 3/4 of the crumbs into the bottom of the prepared pan, pressing firmly to make a solid base. Layer strawberry slices over crumb base in a single layer, overlapping slightly. Scatter remaining crumbs evenly over strawberries. Bake for about 30-35 minutes, until top and edges are gently golden brown. Cool completely in pan before cutting into squares or diamonds.

Storing and Keeping: These are best kept in the fridge, where they are good up to  a week. Deb supposes freezing between layers of waxed paper, with the container sealed in plastic wrap, would work well.

*Although the texture from store-bought almond flour is best, you can make your own by processing blanched almonds (skins removed) in a food processor until fine.

soft, chewy granola bars

soft, chewy granola barsYou want January? Fine, I’ll give it to you, granola bar form.
oats, almonds, and coconut, pre-toastingtoasted oats, almonds, and coconutpour in the honey mixturestir and let coolThis is my favorite recipe (I say “recipe” lightly; it’s more like a basic, customizable formula) for  a soft, chewy granola bar. It veers on the brink of being a candy bar but I delude myself into believing it is pure health food, delicious health food. It’s chock-full of the tasty ingredients that make granola sing.
dump into panpress into pancoolingcutyumI like it as a snack, but it works well as a quick grab and go breakfast too. Or, you know, any time of day whenever the craving hits. 
granola bars, overheadgranola bars, close-upSoft, Chewy Granola Bars
adapted from The Pastry Queen

This recipe is wildly adaptable. Feel free to swap, omit, and/or add mix-ins. You could use different sweeteners (like golden syrup or molasses), nuts, seeds, dried fruit, etc. Play around with it.

I reduced the sweeteners (brown sugar and honey were originally 3/4 cup each) by 1/2 cup and the bars are still quite sweet.

Makes about 16 large bars

4 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1 cup almonds, sliced, slivered, or whole almonds, chopped (or substitute another nut, such as pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts, etc.)
1 cup sweetened shredded coconut
1/2 cup sunflower seeds*
2 tablespoons sesame seeds*
1 cup dried cranberries, cherries, raisins (I like golden), apricots, or a mix of dried fruit
1/4 cup golden flax seeds*
1/2 cup firmly packed golden brown sugar
1/2 cup honey
1/3 cup maple syrup
1/3 cup water
1/4 cup (1/2 stick, 4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the pan
1/3 cup peanut butter (or another nut butter, such as almond butter)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a 9 x 13-inch baking pan with butter or cooking spray.

Spread the oatmeal, almonds, coconut, and, if using, sunflower and sesame seeds evenly on 2 baking sheets. (Or you can be lazy like me and use one baking sheet. Bake for a longer time until it’s nice and toasted.) Bake for about 10 minutes, stirring once, until golden brown. Combine the oats, almonds, coconut, cranberries, and, if using, sunflower, sesame, and flax seeds in a large bowl. Set aside.

In a medium saucepan with a candy thermometer attached, combine the brown sugar, honey, maple syrup, and water and set over medium-high heat. When the mixture comes to a boil, reduce heat to medium and simmer for about 8 to 10 minutes until it reaches the soft ball stage, registering 234° to 240°F. Stir in the butter, peanut butter, salt, and vanilla.

Pour the honey mixture into the dry ingredients and stir to combine. Cool for about 30 minutes.

Pour the mixture into the prepared pan. Evenly press the granola into the pan using a sheet of wax or parchment paper or plastic wrap. Cool for another 30 minutes before slicing into bars. Cut the bars in half the long way and in eights the short way to make 4 1/2 by 1 1/2-inch bars.

*I omitted these ingredients. Feel free to omit any of the mix-ins (nuts, coconut, dried fruit, or seeds).

graham cracker pecan toffee crunch + peppermint marshmallows

graham cracker pecan toffee crunchclose-upCandy time! During the holidays, I love to play candy maker. Super-easy, super-delicious graham cracker toffee and some festive peppermint marshmallows went into Christmas goodie bags I gave to my friends. (Other contents included these gingerbread cookies and these roll-out sugar cookies.)
stack of graham crackersingredientsgraham crackers, spread outchopped toasted pecanslayered graham crackers, pecans, and toffeelots of butter + sugarpour the butter-sugar mixture overThis graham cracker toffee (or omit the “graham” “er” and “toffee” if you will) is a delight. It is so simple to make. Can you melt butter and arrange graham crackers? If so, you’re good to go. It’s crispy and crunchy, buttery and very sweet.powdered sugar-ed baking pancook for a whilethick and fluffymarshmallows, ready to be cutslicedspringy marshmallowsmarshmallows, close-upNext is the ineffable marshmallow. If you’ve ever wondered how those hot-chocolate soul mates are created, it’s your lucky day. Sugar. Lots of it. Also gelatin, egg whites, water, and flavoring. It sounds like a bizarre combination but it creates the fluffiest little bundles. I flavored mine with peppermint and made them pretty-in-pink.
graham cracker pecan toffee crunch, overheadpeppermint marshmallows, overheadIf you still need a Christmas treat, these goodies certainly fit the bill. The graham cracker toffee is a breeze, while the marshmallows require a bit more love. However, both options are fit for the most wonderful time of the year. Merry Christmas!
close-uppeppermint marshmallows

Graham Cracker Pecan Toffee Crunch
adapted from Pastry Queen Parties

Makes about 4 1/2 dozen 2-inch squares

15 double graham crackers
1 1/2 cups chopped toasted pecans
1 (8-ounce) package toffee bits (or sub 6 (1.4 ounce) chopped chocolate-covered toffee bars)
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter
3/4 cup sugar

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a half-sheet (13 x 18-inch) pan with aluminum foil. Arrange graham crackers side by side to cover the pan in a single, close-fitting layer.

Sprinkle pecans and toffee bits evenly over the graham crackers.

In a heavy saucepan over medium-high heat, melt the butter and sugar and bring to a boil. Continue boiling for 2 1/2 minutes. Immediately (the mixture will begin to harden) evenly pour over the cracker-pecan-toffee layer. If you don’t think you can evenly pour the mixture (too many times I’ve ended up drenching some parts while some aren’t covered, whoops), then use a large metal spoon to disperse the mixture. Whatever method you choose, be sure to work very quickly.

Bake for about 12 minutes, or until it looks set and the graham crackers look lightly browned around the edges. While the bars are still hot, use a pizza cutter to slice the bars into squares, diagonally into diamonds, or whatever other shape you want. Cool the bars in the pan, then lift out using the foil lining, and arrange on a serving platter. Or eat rapidly.

These can be made up to 3 days ahead. Keep in an airtight container at cool room temperature. Humid weather will make them sticky and lose their crunch. If the humidity is a problem, pop them in the fridge. They can also be frozen for up to 3 weeks.

Variations: add chocolate chips, sub almonds for the pecans, use flavored graham crackers like cinnamon or chocolate, add a sprinkle of sea salt/fleur de sel…

Peppermint Marshmallows 
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen, who adapted it from Gourmet, December 1998

These marshmallows are perfect in hot chocolate (they become melty and give the hot chocolate a creamy, foamy accent), but I like them just on their own too. If you want to get fancy, dip them in bittersweet chocolate.

About the peppermint: My initial plan was to do half vanilla and half peppermint. However, I was a little heavy-handed with the peppermint extract, so I had to use some of my reserved vanilla base to salvage the marshmallows from falling into a mouthwash-flavored fate. (In the photos, the vanilla ones are white, and the peppermint are clothed in a  light pink.) So, add about a teaspoon peppermint extract if you want to flavor the whole batch. You can always add more to taste. The flavor also mellows out as they set and age.

Makes about 96 1-inch cubed marshmallows

About 1 cup confectioners’ sugar
3 1/2 envelopes (2 tablespoons plus 2 1/2 teaspoons) unflavored gelatin
1 cup cold water, divided
2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 large egg whites (or reconstituted powdered egg whites)
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoons pure peppermint extract (or more to taste)
red food coloring, optional

Grease bottom and sides of a 13 x 9 x 2-inch rectangular metal baking pan with oil or cooking spray and sprinkle bottom and sides with sifted confectioners’  sugar. Tap out any excess.

In bowl of a stand mixer or in a large bowl, evenly sprinkle gelatin over 1/2 cup  cold water, and let stand to soften.

In a 3-quart heavy saucepan, cook granulated sugar, corn syrup, the remaining 1/2 cup of cold water, and salt over low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon or silicone spatula, until sugar is dissolved. Increase heat to medium and boil mixture, without stirring, until a candy or digital thermometer registers 240°F, about 12 minutes. Remove pan from heat and pour sugar mixture over gelatin mixture, stirring until all the gelatin is dissolved.

With standing or a hand-held electric mixer beat mixture on high speed until white, thick, and nearly tripled in volume, about six minutes if using stand mixer or about 10 minutes if using hand-held mixer.

In separate medium bowl with cleaned beaters, beat egg whites (or reconstituted powdered whites) until they just hold stiff peaks. Mix egg whites, vanilla, peppermint extract, and red food coloring, if using, into sugar mixture until just combined. Add more food coloring if necessary, and mix throughly. Pour mixture into baking pan. Don’t be too concerned if you can’t scrape every last sticky bit from the bowl. Sift 1/4 cup confectioners sugar evenly over top of the marshmallows. Chill marshmallow, uncovered, until firm, at least three hours, and up to one day.

Run a thin knife around edges of pan and invert pan onto a large cutting board. Lifting up one corner of inverted pan, with your fingers, loosen marshmallow and ease onto cutting board. With a large knife trim edges of marshmallow (snacking bits! yum) and cut marshmallow into roughly one-inch cubes with a sharp knife or pizza cutter, oiled if necessary.  Sift remaining confectioners’ sugar back into your now-empty baking pan, and roll the marshmallows through it, on all six sides, before shaking off the excess and packing them away.

Marshmallows keep in an airtight container at cool room temperature 1 week.

cranberry lemon mascarpone blondies

cranberry lemon mascarpone blondiesSo, it’s prime baking season, the time of year when everyone wants to bake. And for good reason– with all the flavors at this time of year, it’s hard not to be like a kid in a candy store. Chocolate and peppermint and marshmallows and toffee and winter spices and caramel and gingerbread and winter fruits, cranberries and pears and citrus (lemon and orange and grapefruit and kumquats). I love this time of year.
melted butter + dark brown sugarlemon zestadd lemon juice and zest, mascarponeadd dry to wetThe fresh cranberry is all too often neglected after its shining moment in sauce form at Thanksgiving. But I love tangy-sweet fruit, and cranberries are the perfect festive little red orbs for Christmas time. They pair excellently with citrus, the tart flavors bouncing off each other yet complimenting the other’s sweetness.  Here, I used the lovely Meyer lemon–a mild, fragrant, floral lemon– with cranberries in a blondie.
fresh cranberrieschoppedspread in panbakedcranberry lemon mascarpone blondiesIt’s more than just a blondie, though. Just baked, these bars are quite pudding-y and soft, but after a chill in the fridge, they are chewy, dense, rich, and very much like fudge. They have a bright lemon flavor accented by tart, soft bits of cranberries, with a warmth from the dark brown sugar, and mascarpone keeps them moist and tender. Let the Christmas baking begin.
overhead close-up

Cranberry Lemon Mascarpone Blondies
adapted from Simply Recipes

Makes an 8 x 8 inch pan

1/2 cup (1 stick/4 ounces) unsalted butter, melted
1 cup tightly packed dark brown sugar
1 egg, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
8 ounces mascarpone
2 tablespoons lemon juice, preferably from a Meyer lemon
2 1/2 teaspoons lemon zest, preferably from a Meyer lemon
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
pinch of salt
1 cup fresh cranberries, rinsed and chopped roughly
powdered sugar, for decorating (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter and flour an 8 x 8 pan.

In a large bowl, whisk together the melted butter and sugar until it’s completely mixed.  Add the egg and vanilla and whisk well.  Add the lemon juice, zest, and mascarpone and mix thoroughly.  Evenly sprinkle the dry ingredients–flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt–over the batter and gently fold them in with a rubber spatula.

Pour batter into the pan and spread evenly. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool on a baking rack. Cut into squares, dust with powdered sugar, if desired, and serve.