Raising the bar on bar cookies

October 12, 2015

Chocolate-Coconut Bar.

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

Itís a one-pan operation, easy to make, straight-forward and involves minimal prep time. And unlike cookies, they donít 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 donít require special or expensive containers. They also travel well.

"It requires no fussing when it comes to serving because the topping is thick and wonít drip, and it is easily sliceable," says Julia Collin Davison, executive food editor of the PBS show "Americaís Test Kitchen." A bar can be handheld, and so does not require a fork or spoon. Nor does it require a plate ó a single napkin will suffice ó 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 thereís 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 donít necessarily have to be baked.

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

In cookbooks and food blogs, bars often share the chapter with brownies, which are considered the ultimate bar. But since brownies often overshadow other bars, we have left them for another conversation at another time.

Dessert bars could be chewy, fruity, nutty or chocolate-y, and come in lots of varieties ó cookie dough bars; blondies, aka white brownies, which are thick and iconic with their crusty edges and chewy insides; cheesecake bars; fruit bars such as Apple Crumb Bars or Cranberry Pear Bars; fudge bars such as Oatmeal Fudge Bars or Toffee Bars; layered bars such as Chocolate-Coconut Bars or a Three Layer Raspberry Bars; and no-bake bars such as Peanut Butter Pretzel Bars or variations of Rice Krispies Treats.

The combinations are endless. Marry a crunchy sugar cookie with raisins and dried cherries, apricots and dates to get a fruit bar, or pair semi-sweet chocolate batter with a pecan and brown sugar topping for Chocolate Pecan Praline Bars.

And the creations seemingly have no boundaries. McHenry says she has eaten a bar made with a rosemary shortbread crust and apricot filling, flavored with honey and brandy. The final touch was a nutty crumb topping.

Transform a linzer cookie into a linzer bar by spreading raspberry or blackberry preserves over the dough, and by placing lattice strips as the final layer. Upgrade blondies with a dusting of cinnamon or clove powder for a spiced version, or spike them with some rum for a boozy flavor.

Layered bars can handle all sorts of mix-ins from caramel nuggets to peanut butter-filled pretzels to crunchy toffee bits. They also are the platform for some heavenly combinations such as raspberry and chocolate in Davidsonís Bleak House Bars, which is built with chocolate chips, condensed milk, raspberry jam and cream cheese on a pecan shortbread crust. For a winning layered bar photo-op, she recommends pairing a dark-colored bar with powdered sugar or cheesecake frosting, and a light-colored one with chocolate frosting.

Then thereís the crust, which is typically made with a shortbread dough or with crushed cookies. Oats and eggs are sometimes added, but most recipes almost always have plenty of butter.

Sally Swift, co-creator and managing producer of the public radio food show, "The Splendid Table," says "the malleable and forgiving crust make bars an entry-level baking project."

So even though the desserts might have a rookie quality to them, they reflect our skilled, creative baking sensibilities without losing their friendly and comforting appeal. They have indeed set a high bar.



PG tested

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

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 1/2 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.

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


PG tested

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

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.

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


PG tested

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.

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.

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


PG tested

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

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.

ó Everyday Food magazine, June 2005.


PG tested

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

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 itís 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.

ó "Jamie Deenís Good Food" by Jamie Deen.


PG tested

Itís the best way to eat an apple pie that has been combined with an apple crumble without a spoon. But not any old apple would do; use Honey Crisp, Pink Lady or Jonagold here.

For crust and crumb topping:

2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 1/2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats

1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup unsalted butter, cold, cut into small cubes

For the filling:

4 medium apples, cored and chopped or sliced

1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-by-13-by-2-inch baking pan.

Combine flour, oats, brown sugar, cinnamon and salt in a bowl. Add butter, and mix with a pastry blender until mixture is combined and crumbly. The mixture should hold together when pinched.

Reserve about a cup of the crust mixture for the topping. Press the remaining crust mixture firmly and evenly into the prepared pan. Bake for 20 minutes. Set aside .

To make filling, place the apples, brown sugar, butter and cinnamon in a skillet and stir to combine. Cook over medium heat stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes, or until the mixture is soft and bubbly.

Spread the filling evenly over the partially baked crust. Sprinkle the reserved crust mixture over the top of the filling.

Bake for 45 to 50 minutes or until the edges and topping are golden brown. Allow to cool in the pan for 15 minutes before cutting into bars.

Makes 24 bars.

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


PG tested

They are similar to a linzer cookie minus the lattice strips, and perfect for an afternoon snack. Raspberry, cherry or strawberry preserves are ideal for these bars.

For the crust:

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup unsalted butter, cold, cut into small cubes

1/2 cup hazelnuts, chopped

For the filling:

3/4 cup preserves or jam

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-by-13-by-2-inch baking pan.

Combine flour, brown sugar and salt in a mixing bowl. Add butter, and mix with a pastry blender or fork until combined. The dough will be crumbly but it should hold together when pinched.

Set aside a quarter of the crust mixture in a small bowl. Mix in chopped hazelnuts.

Press remaining dough firmly and evenly into the prepared pan.

Then gently spread the preserves over the crust. Sprinkle the reserved crust mixture on top of the preserves.

Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until bars are golden brown. Allow to cool completely in the pan before cutting into bars.

Makes 24 bars.

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


Bars donít get more fudgey than this. The toffee bits and chocolate chips, along with the condensed milk, make the bars gooey and chewy.

1/2 cup butter, melted

1 1/2 cups graham wafer crumbs (about 22 wafers)

1 can sweetened condensed milk

1 cup toffee bits

1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

1 cup chopped nuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease 13-by-9-inch cake pan.

In a bowl, mix together butter and graham wafer crumbs. Press evenly into prepared pan.

Pour condensed milk evenly over base. Sprinkle an even layer of toffee bits over it, then a layer of chocolate chips, and finally a layer of nuts.

Use a spatula and firmly the press top onto the base.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until lightly browned. Place pan on a rack to cool completely, then cut into bars.

Makes 36 bars.

ó "The 250 Best Brownies, Bars & Squares" by Esther Brody


1 package (17 1/2 ounces) peanut butter cookie mix

1/4 cup butter, melted

1 cup salted peanuts, chopped

2 packages (8 ounces each) cream cheese, softened

1 cup sugar

2 eggs, beaten

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For ganache:

4 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped

1/2 cup heavy whipping cream

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a large bowl, combine the cookie mix and butter; then stir in peanuts. Press onto the bottom of a greased 13-by-9-inch baking pan. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes or until edges are lightly browned.

In another large bowl, beat cream cheese and sugar until smooth. Add eggs and vanilla; beat on low speed just until combined. Pour over crust.

Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until center is almost set. Cool on a wire rack for 1 hour. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

For ganache, place chocolate in a small bowl. In a small saucepan, bring whipping cream just to a boil. Pour over chocolate; whisk until smooth.

Cool, stirring occasionally, to room temperature or until ganache reaches a spreading consistency, about 40 minutes. Spread over the top of the cookie crust.

Refrigerate until firm, and then cut into bars.

Makes 24 bars.

ó Adapted from Taste of Home magazine, special collectors edition.


For these bars, Diane Mott Davidson was inspired by the winner of a dessert-recipe contest that took place in a bookstore in San Diego for which she was the sole judge.

3/4 cup pecan halves

2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature

1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar

2 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 teaspoon salt, divided

1 can sweetened condensed milk

3 cups (3 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips

8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature

1/3 cup granulated sugar

1 large egg

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup seedless raspberry jam

Toast nuts for about 10 minutes, until they are slightly browned. Let them cool, then coarsely chop.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking pan.

In a large bowl, beat butter soft and creamy. Add brown sugar and continue beating with electric mixer. Stir in flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt and nuts until well combined.

Press 2 1/4 cups of the mixture into bottom of the pan. Bake for about 10 minutes or until the edges are golden brown.

Meanwhile, in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine condensed milk and 2 cups of chocolate chips. Cook, stirring, over low heat until chocolate is melted.

Remove crust from oven and pour chocolate over the hot crust. Set on a rack to cool slightly.

In a large bowl, beat cream cheese until smooth. Add sugar and beat until it dissolves. Finally add egg, vanilla and remaining 1/4 teaspoon of salt and beat until smooth.

Sprinkle remaining flour mixture over chocolate. Using a spoon, ladle the jam evenly over the flour layer. Using another spoon, ladle the cream cheese over the jam.

Finally sprinkle the remaining 1 cup chocolate chips over the cream cheese.

Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until the cream-cheese layer is set. Cool on rack before cutting into bars.

ó "Goldyís Kitchen Cookbook" by Diane Mott Davidson (William Morrow; September 2015; $24.99)



Julia Collin Davison, executive food editor of "Americaís Test Kitchen":

DO use a pan with straight corners rather than curved ones as the bars will come out more even looking.

DO make sure the foil fling extends over the edges of the pan before you pat down the crust. It will help to easily remove the baked bars and place them on a cutting board without damaging the pan.

DO pack the crust tightly in the pan with a measuring cup or glass bottom, then it wonít crumble when itís lifted out. A sturdy crust will also support the topping well.

DO par bake the crust before layering it with curd, jam or fudge. This way the crust will bake through and maintain its texture and crispiness.

DO keep an eye on how much filling you add. If it looks like itís too much, it is. The crust will not be able to support too much filling.

DO rotate the pan halfway through when baking as oven temperatures vary between the center and back by about 50 degrees. The back of the oven is hotter than the front.

DONíT overbake. The cooking time carries over as the bars cool in the baking pan, and so pull them out when they are slightly under-done.

DONíT cut the bars when they are warm. They have to cool completely or they will crumble, especially with fruit bars.

Jennifer McHenry, author and blogger:

DO measure the ingredients accurately for the best results.

DO spread the batter or dough evenly. An offset spatula is a great tool to make this process quick and easy.

DO use a thin, sharp knife to cut the bars. Slice with a smooth motion for clean edges. If necessary, wipe the knife off with a damp cloth, or rinse under warm water between cuts.

DO store the bars properly. Nonperishable bars such as pecan blondies need to be stored in an airtight container at room temperature. Perishable bars such as cheesecake bars should be kept refrigerated.

DONíT rush the cooling time.

DONíT change the pan size specified in the recipe. Changing the size will alter the thickness and consistency, which will affect how the bars bake.

Shauna Server, author and blogger:

DO line the pan with parchment paper or aluminium foil as you wonít attack the pan when cutting the bars.

DO make sure to use cold butter when making a shortbread crust.

DO place the pan in the freezer for about 10 minutes before cutting the bars for a clean and professional look. But make sure to serve them at room temperature.

DONíT use a dark-colored metal pan, or glass pan because they tend to absorb more heat. Use a lighter colored-metal pan to make bars with a chewy crust that are tender all way around.

ó Arthi Subramaniam



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