Back in the day I was the kid who sat in back of the bus, nose deep into a book. Shy, quiet, I wasn’t a team player, I didn’t roll with the pack (as it were), and the idea of being affiliated with any sort of group gave me vertigo. Instead I busied myself with Faulkner, Hemingway, Cheever and Salinger — all lonely, desperate people. Pretty emo for a teenager, but that’s to expected at that age. Especially if you’re an only child.
As I grew older I became something of a joiner, but it was always a half-hearted attempt to blend in. To not color outside the lines. Always I prefer to be on the outside, skirting the edges of things, and people who don’t really know me are shocked by this because I’m overly-verbose, gregarious, and intense. No one could really picture that my happiest moments are sometimes best spent alone.
So I guess it’s odd or serendipitous that I opted to join the Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap. Essentially, a group of food bloggers surprise one another with a tin of homemade cookies around the holidays. I fell in love with the idea because it was the very heart of why I bake — to share delicious food with others. And the swap made it easy for me to enjoy my solitude while sending sweet treats via post. If this were a convention of some sort I’d flee screaming, but I enjoyed thinking of recipes, packaging up my treats in silver tins and then receiving my bounty in the mail. My cookie recipients were Mary of Newtonienne Noshes, Sarah of My Little Red Mixer and Tara of Saucy Mouth. I was tickled to bake my very delicious berry granola bars and English toffee bars. Recipes after the jump!
MIXED-BERRY GRANOLA BARS: INGREDIENTS: Adapted from The Craft of Baking: Back-to-School Raspberry Granola Bars
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, plus more for the pan
1 cup pecans, roughly chopped
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1/3 cup cane sugar
1/3 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 cup mixed berry preserves
(Makes 16 bars)
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter an 8-inch square baking pan and line the bottom with parchment.
In a small saucepan, melt the butter. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature. Spread the pecans on a baking sheet. Bake until lightly golden and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Cool the sheet completely on a wire rack.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, oats, granulated sugar, brown sugar, salt, baking soda, and pecans. Pour in the melted butter, and using a wooden spoon, mix together until well combined.
Transfer about two thirds of the dough to the prepared baking pan. Press the dough evenly into the pan, forming a firmly packed layer. Using an offset or rubber spatula, spread the preserves over the dough. Evenly sprinkle the remaining dough over the preserves. I love seeing a pop of blistering red poke through the topping, so don’t overdo it, as you’ll be shoveling bricks rather than bars.
Bake, rotating the pan halfway through, until the top is golden brown and fragrant, about 40 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let it cool completely. Then cut into 2-inch squares. The bars can be kept in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 week.
Recipe Notes: If you’re not keen on pecans, opt for almonds or pistachios. Certainly, any substantial, meaty nut will do – walnuts are equally fabulous. To note rolled oats aren’t the same as oatmeal – do not make this mistake as I have many, many moons ago. Rolled oats do not equal Quaker instant oatmeal, nor do they equal crap in a packet. As always, I use cane sugar.
VANILLA ENGLISH TOFFEE BARS: INGREDIENTS
8oz (1/2 cup or 2 sticks) unsalted butter
1/2 cup light brown cane sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 tsp light corn syrup
1/4 tsp Kosher salt
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup mix of pistachio + walnuts (or you can go the full pistachio route), toasted and blitzed in a food processor to a chunky, sandy grain
Equipment: Candy thermometer
In a large pot outfitted with a candy thermometer (I can’t stress how much you need a candy thermometer for this recipe. Don’t even bother making toffee without one, as a few degrees over and you’ve got supreme candy annihilation), melt the butter, sugars, corn syrup, salt. Place a sheet of parchment paper over a baking sheet and have this close by. Also, have your chips prepared and nuts toasted, blitzed and ready to roll because once your toffee is ready it’s a race to the finish line. Using a whisk, stir occasionally until all of the ingredients have melded together. Much like making risotto, candy making requires hoovering, you have to linger, keep your eye on the pot because one misstep and you’ve got chunky, cracked toffee.
Once your mixture reaches 250F, whisk constantly. Do not stop stirring. Seriously, I mean it. I experienced a toffee disaster a month ago because I walked away, started chatting and completely FORGOT that my candy was on the stove. Until, you know, it BURNED. If, by chance, your candy starts to clump, add in a teaspoon of water and stir vigorously.
When your mixture reaches 300F, take the pot off the heat and whisk in the vanilla. Pour the mixture onto your baking sheet (it’s perfectly OK that the mixture doesn’t cover the whole of your sheet. We’re not looking for perfection as you’re going to break apart the bark anyway) and immediately tumble in your chips. Wait a minute until the chips have melted and softened into the toffee, and using an offset spatula spread the chocolate across the toffee, ensuring that the mixture covers the toffee. Sprinkle over your nuts evenly, and then allow the mixture to cool. Because I have zero patience, I bung my sheet into the freezer and within 15 minutes I’m noshing on toffee bark.